What Did Your Grandpa Do?
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What Did Your Grandpa Do?

When she was 15, Glen Rock resident Janet Isenberg sat at Thanksgiving dinner with her mother’s parents, taking notes as her grandparents spoke about their family history. Afterwards, her father added information about his own family. Now, 35 years later, Isenberg has a data base containing the names of thousands of family members.

During the first 10 years of her quest for her roots, Isenberg — who helped found the Bergen County Jewish Genealogical Society about five years ago — worked on her own, using the resources of the JGS in New York.

"After a while, I began to speak on the subject," she says, adding that her career in sales made her comfortable giving presentations. She has been speaking ever since, and on Nov. 13 will lead an interactive session at the JCC on the Palisades entitled "Jobs of Our Ancestors."

At first Isenberg, who self-published her own family tree, spoke to would-be genealogists mainly about how to get started and what resources were available to help them.

Now she also points them to the newsletter of the Bergen County JGS, which Isenberg edits. But there are more resources now than when she began.

"The Internet has changed the field dramatically," she says, "When I started out, I had to do my research in person, using the New York Public Library and writing letters. Because I was in sales, I also had the opportunity to travel and visit cousins," she adds, describing how she borrowed photos wherever she went.

But even with the Internet, those seeking their roots "still have to work," says Isenberg. "You should start with what you know and work from there. For example, if you know your grandparents’ names and where they are buried, you can get their burial certificates and find out where they were born. Then you can get their birth certificates and follow the trail."

Isenberg is a first-generation American, so most of her research has centered on Europe. She was fortunate, she says, to have had the opportunity to travel with her parents to the cities where they were born: with her father to Koblenz, Germany, and with her mother to Vienna.

The genealogist now has 7,000 names in her family data base. For 10 percent of these individuals, she also has occupational data.

In reviewing this data — a sometimes challenging task, since some documents are in other languages, such as Dutch, for which she needs a translator — she has made several discoveries.

"Many professions ran in families," she says. For example, she uncovered five generations of butchers. "This was a profession that could be passed from father to son. If only the older son was permitted to stay in town, the other sons could still set up butcher shops in other towns."

Isenberg says that the women in her family tended to be seamstresses, and that many of her relatives were in the needle trades. She recalls that her father hated the fact that his uncle’s family made sailor suits. Because these clothes were so readily available, he was forced to wear them even as he grew older.

While one ancestor was described as a "rag picker," says Isenberg, there are records of doctors and lawyers as early as the 1700s, with one medical school professor in the 1800s.

"In addition," she says, "a lot of my ancestors had unpaid jobs in the kehillah. In small towns, everyone had to participate in the community. We had cantors, Hebrew school teachers, mohels, scribes, a shochet, and undertakers."

Isenberg says you can learn a good deal from studying people’s occupations.

She points out that the choice of jobs reflects the skills, educational level, talent, and personality of the individuals themselves and that the jobs they fill reflect the historical context of their times — for example, one of her German ancestors was described as a "kolonial waren," or dealer in goods from the colonies.

In addition, she says, we can glean information about the closeness of family life from jobs that are passed down from generation to generation.

Isenberg attributes the growing interest in genealogy to the increased ease of doing research, citing resources such as the Website www.Jewishgen.org. She also thinks that as more baby boomers retire and have increased time on their hands, more and more people will become involved.

She is excited about the upcoming presentation at the JCC.

"I invite everyone to bring in whatever material they have about the occupations of their ancestors, as well as stories about them and what they did," she says. "It should be a lively program. And it will give new ideas to those who are getting started in the field or have hit a brick wall."

For more information about the Nov. 13 program, call the JCC on the Palisades at ’01-569-7900, ext. ’04.

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