The Blog

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: The Power of Writing

I am not afraid of much. I can take snakes, spiders, rollercoasters, speaking in front of large audiences, and even doing my own taxes.  But one thing that really gives me the shakes and makes me break out into a sweat is writing!

Why I write

Writing, however, is a crucial part of our research into family history.  Here are three reasons why I encourage researchers to spend time writing:

1)     Write to understand.  Often we sort out the why, when, and who of a particular research problem in our own head.  When we try to write it out, it gets difficult to explain.  This may be because we are missing parts of our research that we didn’t even realize.  Start with writing out the problem, such as “Who are Evaline’s parents?”  Then write what you know, and how this problem is being addressed.  You will find that you either are missing key points in your research, or sometimes that pieces fit together that you hadn’t realized.

2)     Write to analyze.   Often, our research problem is not solved with one document that says, “Uriah Smith was the father of Evaline.”  In most research problems, we have to build a case to show why we believe that Uriah was the father rather than another candidate.  You may end up using three censuses, a tax record, the brother’s death certificate, and a probate record to “prove” your point, for example.  Writing out the points of your case and how they fit together is called a “proof argument” by professional genealogists.  It is easier for you to analyze the points of your argument in writing, rather than trying to piece it together later.

3)     Write to communicate.  You probably found other researchers who believe that your ancestor’s parents were someone other than you have determined them to be. Online family trees could list Evaline’s parents as Josiah, not Uriah, and have either no proof or other documentation to prove it. If you believe your research is sound, it is a great idea to attach an explanation of your findings (with footnoted source citations) to your own online family tree or to give to family.  Not only does it lend credibility to your findings, but it can start some great conversations with other interested researchers.

Writing also helps you communicate with those who are less involved in the research process. Think about your children, siblings, cousins, and friends who may be thrilled to learn about your findings. If you keep the information in your head, or scattered in notes all over your office, how will they ever learn from all the hard work you put in?

Writing tips

There is no one way or style to use when writing your proof argument.  The style will depend on the needs of the research. However, there are formats that you may choose from that are recognizable to the genealogical community.  Check out articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) or other scholarly genealogical journals. They can easily be found at many local libraries or Family History Centers, and will familiarize yourself with how others have presented a problem and shown their work. The book Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has a great chapter on writing proof arguments.  Even if you are not ready for scholarly-style writing, reading the case studies of other genealogists is a great way to learn.

Get over the mental block

As I said earlier, writing is a scary thing for me.  But even scarier is the idea that all the work I have done could be gone if something happened to me.  It is worth so much to me to respect my ancestors by sharing their stories and connecting them correctly to the people they loved.  No matter the way you write, just write!  Write what was found, not how you found it, and let your ancestor be the star.

And nothing is set in stone. Just because you write it one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  I find I change the style of writing a little with each project, because each ancestor and research project are so different.  The more you write, the easier it becomes.

Let us know at Reel Tributes how these ideas have helped your work.  What else would you like to hear about?  Send comments or emails, we’d love to hear from you.

What the Holocaust Tried to Take from Me (Guest Post)

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) – April 19, 2012

Which parts of the story are true and which parts of the story are false?

This much I know: My grandfather, Zaidie, was a spry happy man with a wondrous smile that lit up the room. His brilliant blue eyes dazzled with every smile.

My mother told me that my grandfather never smiled until we, his grandchildren, were born. Grandchildren transformed Zadie from the stern, serious man my mother knew, into the fun loving, energetic grandfather I knew and loved. Zaidie played catch with me and watched me dance and sing – all with encouraging smiles and joyous laughter. He took me, and his four grandsons (I was the only granddaughter) to parks, beaches, on car trips and for ice cream. He couldn’t get enough of us and, likewise, we couldn’t get enough of him.

I thought I knew Zaide, but I realize I know very little about Zaidie. I know nothing about his childhood, nothing about where he lived, nor how he grew up. I know nothing about his parents, his siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I don’t even know how he met my grandmother.

I know that Zaidie was born in Poland, in a small town (shtetl) called Boger. From there, the story gets fuzzy.

Was it that…

In 1920 (give or take a year) my grandfather confiscated his dead brother’s visa and escaped to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Since his brother was killed in the coalmines of Poland, either due to a job-related accident or at the hands of malicious mine workers, my grandfather grabbed that visa and turned his brother’s death into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Or was it the following…

Zaidie went to Canada, using his (older or younger) brother Myer’s visa. Myer,  somehow, was already living in America. From Canada, my grandfather smuggled across the border and entered the U.S.

Or maybe it happened this way…

In or about 1920, my grandfather joined the Polish (or Russian) Army, but instead of serving, he ran away (AWOL). Zaidie said he could not fight for a country that was killing Jews in the Pogroms, and escaped to the United States.

Which is true? I don’t know. I’m sure some variation is true. I have bits and pieces of stories handed down to me, but none of them are documented.

I do know that Zaidie eventually stowed away on a ship sailing to Canada. From there, he walked across the border into the U.S. telling the border guards: “Of course I’ll return to Canada, I’m just going to visit my brother, Myer.  My grandfather never returned to Canada. Instead, he sent money back to Poland, to my grandmother (Bubby), so she could join him and start a new life together in Chicago. But that’s all I have; it’s all I know about how my grandfather came to the United States. There is no one left to ask. My grandparents and the few relatives who survived the Holocaust are no longer alive.

I have tried to do the research and to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, because of the Holocaust, all documentation, even the name of the town (Boger) in which my grandfather was born and grew-up, have all been expunged, purged from history. My family is left only to speculate about what actually happened.

I would dearly love to see a video of my grandfather and to hear him talk about his life and to hear his stories. But sadly, I cannot.

I have made it my job to tell my children what I do know about our ancestors.   I can tell them that their great-grandfather grew up in Poland, made his way to America around 1920, when he was about 18 years old, and because of Zaidie’s efforts; I was born in Chicago sixty-three years ago. My children will know that their grandfather had a large family, but sadly, they were all killed during Pogroms and in the Holocaust. My children and grandchildren will know of all the wonderful memories I have of my grandfather. They will hear about all the holidays we spent together, of the joy, love and a sense of family I received from Zaidie and Bubby. My children and my grandchildren will know because I am telling them and will continue to tell them.

Will your children and grandchildren know about your family? What are you doing to ensure that future generations don’t have to puzzle over mysteries they may never be able to solve?

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah today, let’s remember our ancestors and their struggles. But let’s not forget what we can do for the future. We owe it to Zaidie and Bubby to make sure our family’s stories are never forgotten.


Susan Harrison is an author who resides in San Diego, CA, where she works as an educator and a facilitator for GAB (Guided Autobiographer) and The Braille Institute. She has been published in various e-zines.  Susan is a modern grandmother and her favorite ‘job’ is reading books to her granddaughter via Skype.

The Delicious Journey of a Lifetime (Guest Post)

My name is Beyhan Cagri Trock and I recently published a 350 page cookbook/memoir called The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking. Being an architect by trade, I never intended to write a book at all.  But in 2008, with the downturn in the US economy and very little work for architects, I found myself taking stock of my life, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. It occurred to me that I come from a fascinating family with a story that needed to be told. Instead of twiddling my thumbs waiting for the phone to ring, I set out to preserve the memories, culture, and cuisine of my complicated family. I ended up with a 350 page treasure that has been written up in several magazines and recommended by leading cookbook authors.

A Story Worth Telling

I am the third daughter of Hayri (Zeki) Çağrı and Berta (Beti) Revah.  He was a Turk, she a Sephardic Jew. In 1940, while working down the street from one another in Istanbul, their paths crossed and my parents fell in love. Because there were enormous cultural taboos surrounding interfaith relationships, theirs was a forbidden love which forced them to turn their backs on their communities, friends, and most painful of all, their families.  When Zeki met Beti, two worlds collided. Their ancient and distinct traditions, cuisines, and religions became embroiled in a dance both passionate and heartbreaking. They defied the odds by remaining lovers until the end of their lives.

Their life dramatically took a new course in 1957, when my father retired from his job as chauffeur for the American Embassy in Ankara. He was given the choice to receive either a pension or a Green Card. He chose the latter. Soon after, the family immigrated to the United States, hoping to grasp every opportunity and chase every dream.

I was three and a half years old when we settled in Washington, DC as pioneers. Not long after, our whole extended family followed; siblings, spouses and children. In the early 1960s, the Turkish population in D.C. was tiny.  My parents, always thrilled to meet other Turks, invited practically every newcomer to dinner. Many of these Turkish immigrants became life-long friends and our “aunts and uncles.” We eventually became the nexus of an “extended family” of 30 to 40 people, with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and nephews living a traditional Turkish life nestled in the shadow of the nation’s capital.

Throughout those early years, we gathered for all-day American Turkish Association (ATA) picnics, leisurely family breakfasts where sometimes twenty of us would sit for hours around the table, and scrumptious dinners at each others homes or at the fabulous Turkish Embassy parties. Every social gathering was centered on foods from home. Fabulous foods. Turkish staples like börek, eggplant, grilled lamb and kebabs, stuffed vegetables, and yogurt; Jewish and Passover dishes with strange Spanish names like agristada and burmuelos. Our food (like our language, music, and customs), had been handed down from one generation to the next. Whatever was “familiar” was comforting, and tied our family to our ancestors and to the world we had left behind.

Why Write this Book?

My parents are both gone now. Their generation is rapidly disappearing. I am now seated near the head of the table on Passover. My siblings and our cousins are gray-haired, and as I look around, I wonder, is it possible that one of us will not be here next year? Though my children have seen Turkey, prayed in mosques, and attended many a Passover Seder, I worry that they are outsiders to “my” culture. They don’t speak Turkish, save a few greetings and choice curse words. And though they grew up with Turkish food, they don’t really know where the dishes came from, or how they are prepared.  I’m the one who is expected to cook the traditional Passover dishes, but I’m not sure I can. I fervently cling to my receding Turkishness, all the while watching my children drift further out into the stew of the proverbial “American Melting Pot.” I worried that “our ways”– our foods, traditions, and memories– will fade away, and that the children of my children will never have the chance to know where they came from.

This is why I wrote this book. I’m one of those people Claudia Roden refers to when she says that the drive is still strong for Ottoman Sephardim to preserve family identity, the memory of parents, and an old life that was happy. I am one of the last of that generation of Turkish Sephardim who immigrated in the 1950’s when Turkey was still “Turkish.”  I’m aware that the traditions, foods, manners, language, religions, history, and values my parents brought with them from the old Turkey still live within me. And in 2008 I finally realized that if I didn’t tell their story, who would?

The Process

I’ve been back to Turkey half a dozen times since we immigrated here in 1958; sometimes as a student of architecture, sometimes as a relative, once as a bride. But it wasn’t until I started writing my cookbook/memoir that I began to seriously research my amazing family. I discovered that my ancestors and relatives not only lived through incredible historical times and events; in some cases they actually played dramatic and important roles in shaping them.

By interviewing family members, and reading journals, letters, diaries, and history books, I found that my father’s accounts of Anatolian battles, which I used to greet with a yawn, suddenly became real and fascinating. Why hadn’t I paid more attention? His stories were not at all like the abstract events and tedious lists of dates we had to memorize in 11th grade World History class. He had tried to open my eyes to tangible events more astonishing and compelling than any video game developer could create.

Dad had talked about Mongol hordes, stolen princesses, battles and conquests, secret alliances, bravery and treachery, Khans and Kings, nomads and slaves. He had always said, for example, that we were descendants of a Greek princess. Here was her name! And Tamerlane’s conquests? They brought our family to Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. Dad had said “We are Turks. We have Turkish blood in our veins.” On the other hand, Tant Ida spoke to me about the Jewish blood in my veins. “We are Sephardic Jews,” she would say proudly. “We left Spain, we left Bulgaria, we even left Turkey, but through all of it we preserved our Jewishness.”

At that point which occurs in everyone’s life when it is important to define oneself, I came to accept myself as a conglomeration of Turk and Sepharad. It then became my mission to tease apart a knotted tapestry of culture, symbolism, language and religion so that I could get a clear picture of their geneses.

Our house was a linguistic melting pot, and I became interested in how the languages spoken in our home served as a highly accurate cultural compass, pointing me down the various roads of my ancestry. Names were important clues. On my mother’s side, they were Latin based: names like Mari, Merih, Ida, Sara, Suzanna, Leon, Jak, Aron, Yehuda, Bulisa, Bella, Silvio. On my dad’s side, they were Muslim and Central Asian; Mehmet, (from the name Muhammad), Ali, Hüseyin, Lütfiye, Fehmi, Haydar, Gökhan. My mom’s fluency in Ladino (15th century Spanish), Greek, and French revealed the existence of robust and interwoven non-Turkish communities in Istanbul. I began to appreciate the cultural soup that was the Ottoman Empire.

Language gave other clues. The fact that mom spoke Turkish without the strong Jewish accent of her siblings indicated the young age at which she left the Sepharad community. The way my grandmother pronounced my name Beyhan with a slavic ‘kh” pointed to her Bulgarian background. My father’s knowledge of Arabic and Farsi pointed to the influx of Muslim and Persian culture in his Turkish ancestry.

Because father’s family has spoken Turkish for many, many generations, it was a safe assumption that at some point in history his people resided in the mountainous Eurasian Steppe of Central Asia, domain of nomadic Turkic peoples since antiquity. This is where I decided the story of the Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl would begin.

Deciding How to Tell the Story

For the past two years, people have been asking me, “Is it a cookbook or a history of your family?” When I said, “Both,” I got confused glances. Realizing that this is not your average cookbook, I decided to divide it into two parts. Part 1 is the story of our family. Part 2 includes 101 of the recipes we brought with us from Turkey.

Part 1, the narrative, describes the dual histories of my parent’s ancestors. First comes “The Turkish Muslim Side” which traces my father’s family from its Central Asian beginnings. I talk about the Turkic people, nomadic horsemen, their lifestyle and how it influenced modern Turkish cuisine. How the Mongol Hordes were responsible for my family’s appearance on the Black Sea, how there were Byzantine princesses in our ancestry, and even how my fez-wearing mustachioed grandfather rescued a kidnapped American actress in Istanbul.

The second section, “The Turkish Jewish Side,” traces my mother’s family from their Jewish origins in Palestine through their fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 to arrive in the Ottoman Empire. I talk about Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire and about how strict social religious doctrine can be a double-edged sword when it comes to preserving families.

The third section, “Coming to America,” describes life after our arrival in the U.S. a half-century ago. My parents built their life here in fits and starts, by trial and error.  I talk about what Washington, DC was like then, and what it feels like to grow up an immigrant. I include anecdotes about trying to fit in, and also about the more difficult task of preserving Middle Eastern culture and traditions as the years go by.

Part 2 of the book is the Recipes. Over the years I had collected recipes from my mother, father, and aunts. These were the delicious family recipes I had grown up with. I cooked every one of the 101 dishes presented in the book, sometimes making several attempts before settling on the formula that tasted most like what I remember eating as a child. I meticulously photographed every step of every recipe, keeping in mind that many readers may have never seen what the dish is supposed to look like. I also kept the novice cook in mind, providing instruction on basic things like how to cut an onion or clean fresh leeks. And of course I provided a tantalizing “beauty shot” of each dish, enough to make your mouth water! Then I added notes about who taught me the recipe, or who made it best, or other stories about the dish.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when Esin Atil, Ph.D. – Historian of Islamic Art – Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution said this about my book:  “I highly recommend The Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl – Real Turkish Cooking, which not only covers a variety of ethnic Jewish and Turkish recipes, but traces an unusual blend of cultures in mid-20th century Istanbul as well as a unique love story.  It is at once a cultural history, a biographical study, and a valuable source of culinary experience.  I wish more cookbooks included the historical/biographical backgrounds of the people who created the recipes.”

A Rewarding Experience

Researching my family roots and cuisine was an enormously rewarding experience, and I recommend it to everyone. It allowed me to develop close ties with new-found relatives in Turkey, Venezuela, and Israel – strangers who were suddenly willing to share their pictures and memories with me. I uncovered recipes that were first made in Bulgaria, and brought to Turkey by my grandmother. I learned a great deal about world history and how political events impacted my ancestors’ lives.

Best of all, I got to spend quality time with my tants (aunts). In the process of interviewing them, I was blessed to gather not only recipes, but memories and anecdotes about their lives; stories that I would never have heard otherwise. For example, I never knew that in the early days of the Turkish Republic, Tant Mati’s father was forced to do hard labor in a work camp. I learned this tidbit while we discussed tricks for reducing oil in fried eggplant. Tant Ida and I actually belly danced together in her kitchen while she showed me how to make eggplant-filled pastries called börekitas. Cooking with them in their kitchens gave me the opportunity to notice idiosyncratic habits that they would never have mentioned if they had simply related their recipes to me. I learned the most subtle of tricks, like knowing which utensil is best to scoop the pulp out of a zucchini squash, or how to catch the seeds when you squeeze a lemon.

That’s my journey, in a nutshell. I hope this inspired you to launch your own personal journey through time and into the kitchen!

Beyhan Cagri Trock is an architect based in Bethesda, MD. To learn more about her family’s incredible history and delicious recipes, visit www.ottomanturkjewishgirl.com. The Reel Tributes team tried some of her dishes, and we give them a ringing endorsement!   

Reel Tributes Unveils its Mission Statement

Reel Tributes is pleased to announce the release of its first ever Mission Statement. The team put a lot of thought into what makes us tick, and which principles we strive to uphold each and every day and with each and every client.

At the beginning of a project, we will give the client a printed copy of this Mission Statement. That way they know what to expect from us throughout our relationship.

Take a look at the document below, and let us know what you think! We’ll be evaluating it on a regular basis to make sure it still reflects the beliefs and culture of the company.

Telling the Truth – A Revolutionary Act (Guest Post)

“The telling of your stories is a revolutionary act.” –Sam Keen, writer

In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with subtle–and not so subtle–messages about who we ought to be, it is a bold statement to take a stand for personal authenticity. One of the most transformative statements an individual can make is to tell his/her story with honesty and objectivity. At its best, this is what a memoir is–a statement that declares “This is who I am and who I think of myself as being.”

Lest you think that telling the truth is only about revealing scandals and unmasking dirty secrets, let me assure you that it is more often about smaller issues, within the realm of the everyday experience. Perhaps you were never ambitious of worldly success. This has embarrassed you, but you would like to make a statement for another set of values. Or, perhaps you have been attracted to people of your own gender and would like to bear witness to that, but still fear repercussions. Or, perhaps you were a parent but, if the truth be told, you and your children might have been better off if you had not parented. As you can see, “telling the truth” need not be earth shattering, but it is about essential features of ourselves.

The daring part of this “telling the truth” work occurs at the beginning of the memoir process, when the “juices are flowing.” It is then that you ask, “Do I dare say this?” You get nervous and can feel yourself sweat. You get up from the computer many times and can’t believe that you are actually writing what you are writing. Or if you’re being interviewed on camera, you sweat just thinking about the reaction your comments will evoke among the film’s viewers. But, you persevere. Over time, the fear of telling the truth seems to diminish and become less visceral.

Later, however, as you make your written or video memoir public, you tremble at the boldness once again of telling the truth of your life, the truth that may not be consonant with norms of society or family expectations. Others–an audience you both craved and did not know would be so intimidating–will now judge you. You fear this audience will not only judge the morality of your choices but your very essence.

This is the moment when, more than any other time, writers fear insignificance. But, if insignificance there be, I say–and I hope you will too–let it be MY insignificance!

Therein lies the challenge of telling the truth. It can revolutionize your life. And that is why it is so critical. Address the challenge head-on. You won’t regret it.

This post was contributed by Denis Ledoux, founder of the Soleil Lifestory Network. Denis is an accomplished ghostwriter who helps clients write memoirs, one story at a time. Denis was selected as one of the top 10 personal history bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis. For more information on Denis, including how to get a copy of the free Memory List Question Book, visit www.turningmemories.com.