Uncovering Your Family’s Roots in an Archive.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
February 1, 2019
Who do you think you are? Not only is this a popular television program on TLC about tracing one’s roots, it is also a question many of us ask ourselves at some point in our lives. Genealogy has become a billion-dollar industry, from websites to television to books and DNA tests. It is easier than ever before to trace your ancestry, all from the comfort of your home.
But, oftentimes online resources only give you partial information about the person you are researching. Yes, you can locate census records and ship manifests, marriage licenses and death certificates. However, if you want to delve deeper into your ancestors’ everyday lives, you may need to search beyond cyber space.
An archival repository holds primary source documents on people, organizations, government and beyond. Each archive has a specific mission and collection policy and, if you find one that connects to your family, you may discover a treasure trove, just like Andrew Luckoff.
Andrew’s family has deep roots in the Detroit Jewish community. His great-grandfather, Meyer Fishman, along with Meyer’s brother Nathan, funded Fishman Village at Camp Tamarack and was active in Detroit’s Federation. Luckoff’s grandfather, Alan Luckoff, served as Junior Division president, as well as board director of the Fresh Air Society and United Hebrew Schools. With his own father, Howard, active in the Detroit Jewish community, Andrew is following in his family’s footsteps as a member of the NEXTGen Detroit board.
With such a long legacy in Jewish Detroit, Andrew reached out to the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives (JCA) to see if his family’s history could be found in its collection.
The JCA includes more than 2 million documents, 25,000 photographs and 100 oral history interviews that document the Detroit Jewish community. In addition to holding the records of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, it holds the records of the United Jewish Foundation, Federation agencies, local Jewish organizations, synagogues and the personal papers of Detroit’s Jewry. If a person was active in an organization, particularly in a leadership role, there is a good chance they may appear within that organization’s records.
The use of an archival collection typically starts with a research query; a phone call or an email to the archivist with a question. In Andrew’s case, it was a request for information on his grandfather and great-grandfather.
Finding a name within a collection is not as easy as simply typing into a search engine. Few primary source archival repositories have the resources to digitize a collection and build a searchable database. Research is still done the old-fashion way: by channeling your inner Indiana Jones and embarking on a treasure hunt.
The more information one can start with, the better. Names, spouses (to distinguish between people with the same name), birth and death dates, organizations of activity, synagogue…a secondary source like a newspaper can be a helpful jumping off point to get dates of participation and major positions held.
The next step is identifying archival collections that may hold the information you seek. Let’s use Alan Luckoff as our example. Preliminary research showed that he served as Junior Division president in the late 1950s. The most likely collection to have information is the records of the Federation, which consists of more than 600 boxes. This is where a Finding Aid comes in handy. A Finding Aid is a descriptive tool used to help researchers discover the contents of a collection. By utilizing a Finding Aid, one can find which box (and even which folder) might have information pertaining to their search.
Next comes the fun part: a visit to the archive. Because collections do not circulate, researchers must visit the archive’s reading room to view the boxes. And if you stumble across the desired treasure? Most archives have policies for photographing and/or copying from the collection.
JCA is housed in two different locations: The Max M. Fisher Federation Building and the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs on the campus of Wayne State University. For Andrew, his research included a trip to the Reuther with his father to view the Federation records. Here, he discovered items such as memos his grandfather composed to other board members and minutes from meetings he ran as President, among other documents. Alan Luckoff died in 1979. “Never knowing him and only hearing stories,” Andrew says, “it was amazing to just read the smallest things that he wrote.”
Seeing the extent to which his family’s legacy has been recorded and preserved has made an impression on Andrew. “It re-instilled my passion for our strong, vibrant Jewish community, the next generation,” he says, “And the importance of getting other young adults engaged and aware of the impact of their time and donations.”
Archival repositories are filled with stories just waiting to be discovered. While the path to finding these documents may not be as simple as typing a name into Google, connecting with your past is worth the effort. To explore the holdings of JCA, visit http://jewishdetroit.org/archives.
And if you are interested in learning more about how to start your own genealogy research, check out the FedEd course, “GENEALOGY AT ITS ROOTS,” offered this March through the Jewish Community Centers’ Adult Learning. Download the catalog at https://www.jccdet.org/jfmd/feded.