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Rooting Out Your Roots

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joan Glanz Rimmon remembers the exact day her life changed. On Jan. 14, 1986, she ventured into the Los Angeles Family History Center, the genealogy library run by the Mormon Church in Westwood, to do an hour’s worth of research on her grandmother’s family before returning home to fix dinner. Some 12 years later, she’s still working at her second “job.”

“It was like someone shot me with heroin,” said the 63-year-old Bel-Air resident. “It’s worse than drugs. Once you start doing genealogy, you can’t stop.”

Rimmon’s addiction has taken her to Germany, where she scoured archives and unearthed a 1773 letter granting her great-great-great-great-grandfather permission to settle in the town of Battenberg. She’s managed to track down some 6,500 family names and she self-publishes annual newsletters for the two branches of her family.

“I wanted to know about my family--what they did, where they lived, where they moved to,” says Rimmon, who has discovered a relative who fought in the Civil War and one who worked on the Manhattan Project. “Now I’ve got cousins falling out of closets.”

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According to the American Assn. of Retired People, genealogy is the nation’s third most popular hobby, ranking behind stamp and coin collecting. Many experts trace the boom to the airing of “Roots,” the 1977 TV miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel about slavery and African American ancestry. But the computerization of genealogical records, the proliferation of such genealogy software as Ultimate Family Tree and the ease of global communication via the Internet make it very much a hobby for the ‘90s.

“Genealogy is like doing a puzzle with an unknown number of pieces,” says Steven Abrams, a Van Nuys-based certified public accountant and a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. ‘People always ask me, ‘When will you be done?’ Well, you’re never done.

“The information I gather is part of me,” says Abrams, who in the course of his research determined that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is his second cousin, once removed. “If all these things didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here. It’s part of my personal history.”

Abrams and the society have organized the 18th annual Jewish Genealogy Seminar being held at the Century Plaza Hotel from July 12 to 17. The six-day event, nicknamed “Hollywood Chai,” features lectures and workshops for beginners and experts alike. A resource room, with reference books and computers wired to the Internet, is available for use throughout the seminar.

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Lecture topics range from finding data in obscure Eastern European shtetls to tracking Jews in the motion picture industry. Author Harriet Rochlin, for example, will speak about pioneer Jews in the West. Dr. Michael Berenbaum, the president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, will talk about his organization’s research. Victor Perera, author of “The Cross and the Pear Tree” (Random House, 1995), will lecture on Sephardic Jews. And the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center’s Victor Ozair will cover the history of the Jews in Iraq.

“The specialization in the lectures allows advanced genealogists to hone their research and add to their data,” says Abrams. “Beginners can listen to the experts and learn how to get started. It’s a great networking opportunity.”

The seminar also spotlights the Southland’s treasure trove of Judaica. In addition to the Mormon Family History Center, libraries at UCLA, the Hebrew Union College and the University of Judaism contain vast holdings of Jewish newspapers, directories, Rabbinic resources and Holocaust records. Also, Los Angeles has 15 Jewish cemeteries, and indexes to several of the oldest cemeteries will be available at the seminar. (The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s library, which shares its space with Yeshiva University, and the Peter Kahn Jewish Community Library at the Jewish Federation Council headquarters, are also excellent resources. Both libraries are in the process of moving, and neither will be accessible during the seminar.)

The Family History Center ranks as the most comprehensive genealogical resource in Los Angeles. Located behind the Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, the library is open to the public, free of charge. The center’s holdings include all U.S. censuses, from 1790 to 1920; all major National Archives immigrant passenger list indexes; Hamburg emigration passenger lists and indexes; selected California marriage indexes; Civil War records; significant collections of Jewish records from Hungary, Germany, Austria and Poland, and more.

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Genealogy is important work for Mormons, says Ross Birdsall, director of the Family History Center. “It’s a church doctrine and we have a responsibility to trace family history. But we’ve always encouraged non-Mormons to use our collections. We estimate that 78% of the people who use the center are not church members.”

About 1,000 people visit weekly, says Birdsall, who encourages first-time users to gather basic family information from relatives before beginning their search. The microfilm room, a beacon of dim lights and strained eyes, dominates the complex, which includes a reference room and computers. The center also offers classes on genealogy topics. (For two days during the Jewish genealogy seminar, registrants may enjoy exclusive use of the center.)

Just minutes away from the center is UCLA’s University Research Library, which has amassed more than 500 rare “Yizkor” books--histories of Jewish communities in Eastern European towns. Also at URL is the Henry Bruman Library of Maps and Government Information, which includes various maps of Eastern Europe at points in its turbulent history.

Those with relatives in the film industry can investigate the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The library has amassed voluminous clippings, scripts, musical scores, books and periodicals about all aspects of “The Biz.” The Herrick also houses the personal papers of several prominent Hollywood figures, including George Cukor, Hal Ashby and Sammy Cahn.

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The Frances-Henry Library, located at the Hebrew Union College near downtown L.A., is known for its archives of historic Jewish periodicals.

For general research, Abrams recommends a visit to the registrar-recorder / county clerk’s office in Norwalk. Among the holdings: L.A. County marriage and death certificates from the 1850s to the present; statewide indexes to marriages from 1949 to 1986 (the only place where the 1949 to 1959 indexes are available); real estate records dating back to 1850; and county birth indexes from the 1860s to 1905 and 1956 to the present. (Birth indexes from 1906 to 1955 aren’t available to the public because some include confidential name change and adoption information.)

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For information about the 18th Annual Seminar on Jewish Genealogy, call (818) 786-3239. Or access the Web site at www.jewishgen.org/jgsla.

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