25 May 2014

IAJGS 2014 Conference Keynote Speaker David Laskin

David Laskin will be keynote speaker 7:00 PM Sunday evening, 27 July 2014 at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) annual conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have just finished reading his most recent book.


The first few pages of David Laskin's book, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, start as any other family history might: with a family tree. Most of us do not wish to read about someone else's family history, especially if it will be a recitation of dates and events. David Laskin's family history, however, balances the intrepid genealogist's need for credible sourcing with the reader's desire for a compelling and well-written story.

Laskin tracks three parts of one family from Volozhin and Rakov (today in Belarus), the descendants of Shimon Dov HaKohen, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. One group became immigrants to the United States; one made aliyah to Palestine; and one stayed in Eastern Europe. The U.S. immigrants were successful in business - in one case, incredibly successful as founders/owners of the Maidenform Company. The ones that made aliyah struggled to reach their vision in the new land. One only need look at Laskin's family tree to see the outcome for the Eastern Europeans well-before the last chapters describe the expected.

Laskin was fortunate in that he had access to family members' memoirs,  interviews and, best of all, letters. Still Laskin colors his story with details and impressions that spring from his writerly instincts. He is careful to identify where information was scant, where recollections of other witnesses help furnish his family story with first-hand perspectives. He uses the historical record to advantage, but uses it as a story-teller should - to not only provide the setting and feel of the times, but also to help us understand how participants may have perceived and experienced the events.

Interestingly, he provides no footnotes in the text. It is not until one reaches the back of the book that one finds chapter notes. This is a welcome technique: it provides the background sourcing of the text, while also identifying where the author was indebted to the historical record and where he may have taken license.

From this book, one may learn something about how to use historical background information in portraying one's family history. Laskin uses the historical record so masterfully, it's almost imperceptible.


In a prior work (The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War) Laskin wrote about U.S. immigrant experiences in military service to their adopted country during in World War I. In keeping with the World War I centennial theme of the IAJGS conference, Laskin intends to speak during his keynote address about the Great War and the experiences of Jewish families in Europe and the United States. He will place individual family stories within the context of historic events in both the new and the old world. His thesis is that the processes started during the Great War affected the future of Jewish experience and identity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Based upon his success in telling his family's story in The Family, I expect that Laskin's talk will be one worth hearing.

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