Re: How far back can one go? #general

Lee Jaffe

I'm intrigued by the underlying issues implied by this question.  For the most part, this revolves around what one considers valid evidence.  I know a couple of people (not Jews) who have extensive family trees going back hundreds of years – one more than a 1,000 years – where the only evidence are the trees themselves.  Someone, at some point some generations back, pulled together a family tree, which has since been handed down like a precious heirloom with all of the reverence accorded divine revelation.  I do think it is significant that someone managed to record this information early enough and that narrative was preserved to the current generation, but does this constitute the sort of evidence we hope for when tracing our family trees?  Perhaps there are supporting records or DNA evidence that corroborates the families' anecdotal narrative, but in neither case has external evidence been sought:  the families own records in themselves were considered sufficient.  Perhaps this speaks to the value one gives to a family tree.

I've mentioned in another thread that last winter Ancestry started prompting me with hints that lead to my paternal 3x great-grandmother ... and then linked her to a father and mother which lead to a vast branching tree that eventually reached back to the 12th C.  The records from the purported 4x ggm to ancestors born in Portugal, Amsterdam, Fez, Constantinople and even a British Norman baron were pretty rock-solid, but they came from a variety of sources, not all of them conventional.  For instance, one of the links was an Inquisition record, prompted by an indiscrete letter from the Constantinople branch to to family in Portugal, outlining the family's history.  Academic investigations into this family's history supported the Inquisition's version, revealing other historical evidence in support.  These include 16th and 17th C. Papal records, Dutch marriage records and gravestones which seem to be better preserved and more accessible than their 19th C. Polish counterparts.   If you can get back past a certain point in your family tree, the narrative may lead very far back indeed.

That is a very big IF... in my case, the link from my almost-certain 3x great-grandmother (born c. 1800) to her purported mother was uncertain at best.  The link appears to be based on a narrative in a doubtful text whose main theme is that most of the early modern Kabbalists and many rabbis were secret Catholics.  In one account the (otherwise unknown) daughter of a leading Kabbalist married the son of a famous rabbi (a marriage for which there is no supporting evidence) and one of their daughters was my 3x great-grandmother.  It's an enticing story because, if true, I can lay claim to 15 generations of family history.  Quite a few families accept this link and include those earlier generations in their trees.  I don't know if they know the background that supports that version or, like those families I mentioned earlier, for them the tree itself is the record. 

Lee Jaffe

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