You need only look at the prime-time television commercials to realize that genealogy is a big business — a $1.6 billion one, in fact, according to a 2012 report on “Good Morning America.” With Ancestry.com’s sepia-toned spots pulling at heartstrings across the country, it seems that more and more people are seeking out their links to the past.
In a first for the JT, we let our own Marc Shapiro — who’s more often covering political campaigns, local development projects and other hot-button issues — explore his family roots on the company dime. What he discovered is amazing, not only in terms of how it deepened his connection to ancestors recently departed and those long gone, but also in terms of what his newfound passion for family history says about the rest of us.
Family pedigree, or what we would call in Yiddish yichus, has through the years meant a considerable deal to many Jewish families. In the late Middle Ages, great houses of sages married off their sons and daughters to each other, preserving an intellectual heritage as much through scholasticism as through genetics.
Traditionally, matchmakers have been just as interested in who a potential suitor’s family was as the young man or woman’s character traits. And, as hilariously parodied in one scene of “The In-Laws,” great has been the concern of parents marrying off their children that their future machatunim: “The son is the acorn,” Alan Arkin’s Dr. Sheldon Kornpett, quoting a patient, worryingly tells wife Barbara. “The father is the oak.”
There is truth in the idea that, as Antonio is William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” reasons, “what’s past is prologue.” All of the traits and experiences of our forebears help mold who we are and how we respond to challenges in the present. Things do not occur in a vacuum, but rather can be traced back generation to generation and can also help determine how our descendants will behave and what they will be.
But as revolutions both political and psychological have shown, at a certain point individuals — and whole societies, really — must take matters into their own hands. They must step up and take control of their own destinies.
This dichotomy plays out every day in the Middle East: Shall Israel and the other political actors be beholden to the mistakes of the past or shall a shared humanity propel the region into a new age of peace? Pessimism would seem logical at the present moment, but optimism should at least occupy some space in the public discourse.
The dichotomy also plays out in the day-to-day wanderings of countless human beings. True, King Solomon writes that “nothing is new under the sun,” but that mustn’t be used to justify a sense of fatalism. As Moses tells the Jewish people in the desert, we have been given the choice between goodness and the opposite of goodness, between life and death. We must choose life.
As you’ll see in this week’s cover story, Marc’s journey through the past isn’t over yet. If there’s one thing his quest through history has given him, it’s a renewed sense of determination.