Category Archives: Gifts

Give Thanks, Give Back

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At this holiday season, no matter what celebrations your are enjoying, you’re probably thinking about giving to others.  Our genealogical community is no different, in fact, the future of genealogy runs on the feet of its volunteers and donations.  Whether you can give a little or a lot, there are so many opportunities to serve.  Here are just a few:

Donate your time online.  Many websites need volunteers to work from home.  Consider giving a few minutes a day or hours a week to any of these worthy causes:

  • FamilySearch Indexing.  Help index millions of records which will then become available and word-searchable for free through the FamilySearch website.  You can choose difficulty levels from beginner to advanced.  If you are bilingual, there are records to index in many foreign languages.  The tutorials are helpful, and the simple program is downloadable from the website.
  • USGenWeb.  Volunteers are needed to adopt counties from all states in the U.S.  You might help manage the website or just index records for that county to make them available to others for free online.
  • FindAGrave and BillionGraves.  Help others find their ancestors’ final resting places by photographing their headstones and adding information about the ancestor if you can.  BillionGraves even has a app for your cell phone to allow you to attach GPS coordinates to the monument, which can be helpful when it comes to some of these enormous cemeteries.

Donate your time in person.  There is something truly rewarding about that face-to-face personal contact between family history enthusiasts.  We feed off each other’s energy, and more importantly, learn so much by working together.

  • Local historical and genealogical societies.  It is a sad fact that many of our local historical and genealogical societies are slowly dying for want of volunteers.  One of my favorite genealogical societies in Maryland has recently disbanded because not enough people were willing to help manage its functions.  Offer to help, if even once a month, and make a difference.
  • Local LDS Family History Centers.  You don’t have to be a member of the church to volunteer in these wonderful facilities.  You don’t have to be very experienced in genealogy either.  You just have to be willing to learn and help keep these local centers staffed.  In the process you’ll be interacting with other experienced family historians and have access to free websites that will only increase your knowledge.  Walk into your local center and volunteer today.

Donate financially.  Without private or corporate sponsors, the resources we use for finding our ancestors’ records will slowly dwindle and fade away. Every dollar counts.  Most contributions to genealogical projects are tax-deductible so this is definitely the time of year to take advantage of those benefits.  While not all of the places needing your financial help are listed below, here are some that you may not know about or can give you an idea of places to go.

  • #GivingTuesday.  After the rush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, there is Giving Tuesday.  Choose from thousands of worthy causes, many of them genealogical or historical.  I love the idea of finding a cause you didn’t know you could support.
  • Local State Archives, County Archives, or State Genealogical Societies. Consider giving locally.  No matter how much we volunteer, some projects just cost money.  Your state or county may need help. In my home state, The Maryland Genealogical Society, for example, has many indexing and digitization projects that require volunteers.
  • War of 1812 Preserve the Pensions Project.  This one’s my favorite. Military pensions are one of the few record types where you could find the genealogical mother-load of information, especially for your ancestor’s vital birth, marriage, and death dates and relationships as well.  Supporting our patriots never gets old.  This one has a bonus for financial donations, every dollar you give is matched by Ancestry.com, allowing the project to digitize even more of the valuable records.  Whether you donate or not, the images of the soldiers’ pensions are available to everyone for free online at fold3.

Give a little or give a lot, you will undoubtedly get back what you give.  Who can really put a price on how generosity feels?   Did we miss your favorite place to donate time or money?  Tell us about it and share why you love it.  And from us to you, Happy Thanksgiving.

Your Genealogical Wish List for the Holidays

As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too.  And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.

What is your wish-list?  I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others.  Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.

  1. Subscriptions.  So many business are feeding our need for records.  I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records.  This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join.  Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
  2. Conferences.  I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied.  I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors!  If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013.  On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well.  But let’s face it – its in VEGAS!  I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
  3. Books.  I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it.  Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
  4. Stories.  It is crucial to keep stories alive.  Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality?  Where’s the voice?  My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives.  I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story.  Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice!  Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
  5. Time.  My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons).   This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from.  What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house?  So I think one thing I would really like is my own “vacation” to work on my family history.   I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors.  Now I want to walk where they walked.  This year: New York.  Next year: Scotland!
  6. Answers.  I would like to ask a favor of the universe.  Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents.  I am stuck!  Have you felt this way?  I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it.  In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me.  So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all.  More family.

What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself.  The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family.  Happy Holidays!

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!   

Sixty Years, Sixty Letters, Sixty Memories

Last month I reached a milestone in my life — my sixtieth birthday.  Sixty birthdays have come and gone. My two daughters are now adults and successfully living independent lives. I have three adorable grandchildren and that young handsome guy I married so many years ago has a full head of gray hair and remains the love of my life.

There is not much that I need or want at this point in my life. I am well aware that buying a birthday gift for me is not an easy task for my family.  However, this year my elder daughter gave me a gift that will forever be a priceless treasure to me.

Unbeknownst to me, two months ago Annie sent a letter to my family, as well as to new and old friends.

She wrote:

Would you please jot down a favorite memory you have of my mom so that she knows that her nearest and dearest are thinking of her on her birthday? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you can just write it down on a piece of paper and sign your name — the more nostalgic the better. The goal: to accumulate sixty years of memories filling sixty envelopes.

On my birthday, after I had blown out the candles on my cake, my daughter hugged me and handed me a thick stack of white business-sized envelopes. Wrapped around the stack was the following note:

Happy Sixtieth Birthday Mom!  

You are loved by so many people and you have made so many people’s lives better by simply being you.  I’m honored and blessed to call you my mom!

Love,
Annie

As I held the letters in my hands, my eyes filled with tears.  I was touched by Annie’s thoughtful effort.  As I read the letters, I was amazed by the number of people who responded to my daughter’s simple request. And as I continued to read, I was astounded by how many events I had forgotten.  I had forgotten – but my family and friends had not. Recollections of simple things done together. Simple, but meaningful.

My aunt and uncle sent me a copy of their formal wedding day photograph taken over fifty years ago.  In the black and white photograph I am standing in the front row and I am seven years old.  My aunt enclosed a note saying “A memorable day – so glad you could be part of it.”

My dear 85 year old friend, Betty reminded me of a sad trip we took together to the veterinarian’s office.  She recalled how I put my hand on hers as the vet administered an injection that put Betty’s cat out of pain.

According to my Aunt Lou, I deliberately omitted gardenias from my bridal bouquet, because I knew she was allergic to their fragrance.

And there were many more stories like these. Touching reminders of the great 60 years of my life. Annie’s effort,  and all of the many memories, touched my heart and mind far more powerfully than a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers ever would have.

Think about this simple effort when your loved ones’ birthday is drawing near.  If you choose to follow my daughter’s example, you will be giving the best gift anyone could ever receive —  the gift of sweet memories!

Eisensteins in the Attic: Rediscovering Your Own Film Treasures (Guest Blogger)

Clack…..clack…..clack…clack..clack clack/clack/clack….

We all know the sound of an old 8mm or 16mm projector throwing Kodachrome home movies up on a wall. For all too brief a moment we look into a coruscating window on a lost or fast disappearing past. Images roll in: jump cuts, lens flares, shaky camera work. We squint maybe, trying to improve the focus. Real, but also somehow surreal, those old film images; transporting and magical.

That time machine costs how much?

I think of old home movies as a kind of time machine – but a time machine that really exists. What would we pay for just such a machine if we didn’t have one?

What wouldn’t we spend to peer through a time tunnel at our old grandpa digging in his “victory garden”, or to see mother on her wedding day? Old home movies are exactly that time machine, and yet we don’t always know – or value – what we have.

Dan Streible knows a thing or two about old movies. He is a professor of film at New York University and the founder of the Orphan Film Symposium – the biennial gathering of scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images.

Dan says people underestimate the value and power of home movies – “these millions of feet of rediscovered family films, the millions of feet of film shot by mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles and friends throughout the 20th century (that) now make up the best record we have of daily life as it was lived during the past two or three generations.”

Of course, he is talking about other people’s home movies. And if you are lucky enough to have some of your own? Well, chances are they would be like Eisensteins in the Attic – dusty masterpieces of their kind left unwatched and slowly disintegrating*.

Priceless images in dusty boxes

Priceless images are stowed away in shoe boxes all across America, locked up in now unplayable film formats like Super 8, 16mm and 8mm; or in early cassette formats like Video8, Hi8 and Digital 8.

And if you did take the trouble 10 years back to convert to VHS, S-VHS or VHS-C? Then you did a great thing. But VHS is now obsolete; and sadly, the quality of VHS was poor from the start. You’ll get a much better result today retransferring from the original films or video cassettes.

The good news of course is that every old film and video cassette format can now be converted to digital video. Most people get their old home movies transferred to DVD. But here’s a tip: When you go to the expense of transferring, why not create an uncompressed video master file and get that put on a hard drive. (Uncompressed video is the best quality you can achieve.) Then, use those home movie master files to create your DVD, your YouTube or iPhone video (or whatever else becomes the device de jour).

Turn home movies into a personal documentary

And best of all, you can use that home movie master file to help create your own personal or family history documentary – your “Reel Tribute”. The only thing then remaining is to dim the lights, toss in the DVD, and become transported into “a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas”. You may miss the old “clack clack clack” of the projector, but the experience will be every bit as magical.

*Sergei Eisenstein: Pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist famous for his silent film Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sole copy of his unfinished Bezhin Meadow was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid (“Shoulda had it transferred...”).

Thank you to video biographer and Association of Personal Historians board member Jane Shafron for this article. In recognition of the importance of preserving our home movies, Jane has recently added video transfer services in Orange County CA to her suite of family history services. Jane was recently named one of the Top 10 Personal History Bloggers of 2011 by Dan Curtis.