Friday, June 7, 2013

Gary Mokotoff's remarks from the Spring Brunch

Gary Mokotoff's remarks from the Spring Brunch
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A friend of mine once said to me, “Gary, you are a doer. You are always doing things.” She was right. I always am looking in a forward direction trying to determine what is the next thing I should be doing, usually for the benefit of Jewish genealogy or genealogy in general.

But recently I have stopped and looked over my shoulder to see what I have accomplished in the 33 years I have been involved in genealogy, and have come to the conclusion—“pretty impressive.” I created the JewishGen Family Finder, the Family Tree of the Jewish People, written or edited books to assist people in their Jewish family research, co-founded Avotaynu, was the first president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, co-ran three annual conferences on Jewish genealogy, and co-developed the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System, to name a few. I even formed a Jewish genealogical society. The story behind that is that there is an IAJGS Presidents Discussion Group on the Internet and I was included as a past president of IAJGS. One of the presidents of a society objected to me being included because I was not a president of a society. My solution was simple—I formed a society in the area I lived.

But sometimes I wonder if some of things I have done behind the scenes have had as much impact as those things I have done that are known to many of you.

I would like to tell you two stories about incidents that happened in my genealogy career that will never be in history books but nevertheless had a significant impact on Jewish family history research—one involved JewishGen, the other involved a database very important to Jewish genealogy.

First the JewishGen story. In the early days of JewishGen, I befriended Susan King. At one of the conferences Susan approached me and said there was a problem she wanted to discuss. The problem was, she said, was her two partners. No, it was not Carol Skydell and Joyce Fields. This story predates their involvement with JewishGen. She told me the names of the two men and I immediately recognized they were people with destructive personalities; they were more interested in telling you what you were doing wrong than telling you what you should do. I asked Susan who owned JewishGen. She replied she did. “There are no other owners?”, I asked. She said there were no other owners. I told her the solution as simple: fire your two “partners.” Susan did get rid of them and instead surrounded herself with people like Carol Skydell and Joyce Fields who shared her vision on how to make JewishGen a success.

The second story involves a very important database to Jewish-American genealogy: the Ellis Island Database. In the late 1980s, when I heard that the Mormon Church planned to extract information from the Ellis Island passenger lists and create an online database, I recognized its importance to Jewish genealogy. The next time I was in Salt Lake City, I went to the office of a genealogy friend of mine who was in charge of the project. I asked him which data fields they were planning to capture. “I assume you are not picking up the field ‘Are you an anarchist?’” He then recited the data they did plan to capture and I immediately recognized they were not going to include Nationality and Race. Nationality is normally the country from which you came and Race is ethnicity, Jews being shown as “Hebrew.” This would mean it would not be possible to identify the Jews in the Mormon database.

I thought quickly for a justification for including these fields that did not sound self-serving and blurted out to him, “You have to pick up nationality and race. Suppose ten years from now someone wants to do a study of Italian immigration to the U.S. How would they tell who were the Italians?” My friend pondered for a minute and then made a tongue-in-cheek comment “Well they could pick up all the names that end in ‘i’!”

About two weeks later I got a telephone call from him. Their group had a meeting and they decided they would include nationality and race in the database. Some years later, I determined I may have hit a nerve when mentioning Italian immigration, because my friend’s mother was of Italian heritage.

So as I noted earlier, I sometime wonder if the behind-the-scenes effort have had as much significance as the work I have done that is well known to the public.

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