Today, I had the honor to guest blog for the Author’s writing initiative 10DayBookClub! The idea behind this post is to encourage people to start writing their own memoirs!

Share your writing here - 400 to 500 words - send to guestblog@10daybookclub.com

Eyes shut, I follow Miss Perry’s prompts. It’s my first English class in America. Miss Perry looks precisely like what I envisioned an American teacher to be. Blond hair—almost bleached—pinned back into a bun by a yellow pencil. The deep blue of her eyes is soft yet penetrating. Her tiny intellectual glasses reside at the tip of her nose and threaten to fall off at any moment.
“This is our weekly creative writing exercise,” she announces.
“Think back to when you were very small. As far as you can remember,” she instructs the class. “When you’re ready, open your eyes and begin writing down your earliest memory. Write without stopping! Keep writing! Do not put down your pencil under any circumstance! No erasing, no corrections!”
Miss Perry became my favorite teacher and the only one I remember by name. At the conclusion of this guided meditation, I produced my first…

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“What a strange gift!” I thought to myself as I unwrapped an old photograph framed in a beautiful, gold, antique picture frame. I was a young bride of twenty-six at the time—returning from a honeymoon in South America—to find my home over-flowing with boxes filled with wedding presents. I placed the photo on my desk and stared for what seemed like a very long time. As a matter of fact, I had a difficult time peering my eyes away from this remarkable image. I stared, and they stared back at me. “Who are these people?” I pondered. I knew they were related to me, but exactly how, I was uncertain. Many questions came to mind: “Where did they come from? When was the photo taken? Who sent me this photo and why?” If there was a card along with this unusual gift, I do not remember. All I remembered—at least until recently—was that a cousin of my grandmother sent me this photo. I did not know this cousin and found it even weirder that she sent me a gift, but after checking with my grandmother, I found out that I had met this favorite cousin when I was a little girl. My grandmother had invited her to my wedding but she was unable to travel to Mexico for the festivities and sent this gift instead. “It’s a photo of my grandparents, my mother’s parents” my grandmother told me. Out of respect, I kept to myself the fact that I found the gift bizarre.

For years, this picture lived on a shelf in my library. I would like to believe I sent my grandmother’s cousin a thank you card for her award winning gift. My husband and I dubbed it: “Creepiest wedding gift”—as I must admit—we found it a bit scary. It’s not that I did not appreciate discovering what my great-great-grandparents looked like, but my great-great-grandmother had a very disturbing stare. His forlorn, sad eyes, juxtaposed with her glare make the photo even more eerie. Eventually, after several moves, it ended up in a box somewhere, where it remained undisturbed for at least a decade. Then, three years ago, my son, had a bar mitzvah. Together, as bar mitzvah project, we created a family tree MyHeritage.com. Thanks to this tree, I started an amazing personal journey, became the family historian, published a book and began this blog. At the heart of this ongoing, phenomenal endeavor, is this sepia print of my ancestors.
Hand Written
Kranowitz Family Tree
When you start a family tree, you begin with names. As the tree grows, the branches connect, the generations expand, one can not help but wonder who these people where? What they looked like? When or where they lived?  What did they do for a living? What where they like as people? The more I researched, the more I wanted to know. So, one of the first things I did when I had some time—after the bar mitzvah craziness died down—was to dig up old photographs. My favorite, by far, was the prized photo, now bestowed “the most intriguing photo” award. Dusted off, and prominently displayed on my desk, I began at the beginning. Names. What where their names. My mother, who was visiting at the time, brought with her an old family tree. One page, was clearly labeled, with a xerox copy of this famed photo, at the top. Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky. I summed-up what I knew, Moshe Aaron, was a postman, my mother recalled. His wife Feige, was a very ill woman, she suffered from arthritis or something like that, she ventured. They had many children (eight, we learned from the tree).
Last August I welcomed seventy members of the Kranowitz family to a, first ever, family reunion. As I stood infront of this group of cousin’s—some of whom I had only met on the internet—I scanned the room looking for genetic similarities. Behind me, I projected, this now famous family photo, and waited for everyone to settle down. After two years of research, I learned many things about Moshe Aaron and Feige (we are now on a first name basis). Moshe Aaron and Feige had a total of one hundred and seventy one descendants. One hundred and forty one of them are living around the globe today. Many of them were seated comfortably around the room. I began my welcome speech with a question: “How many people had ever seen this photo?” Almost all the hands went up. “How many of the people in the room, had ever seen this photo before visiting the reunion website?” I continued. A lot fewer hands went up, mostly belonging to the eldest of the four generations of cousins present. “How many of you have this photo hanging at home?” I wondered. A few hands came down, but almost every table, had a representative who displayed this photo on their walls. “How many people know who these people are?” I asked. A few hands came down. “How many people know their names?” Aside from my mother, myself and two cousins who are genealogist like myself, only the elders kept their palms raised.  Like me—when I was a young bride, staring at her forefathers—most of my family, knew very little about  Moshe Aaron and Feige. Everyone in the hotel conference room, was either a descendant or married to a descendant of Moshe Aaron and Feige. They all somehow owe their existence, or the existence of their children, to the choices and the sacrifices Moshe Aaron and Feige made over a century ago. Some, like my children, were six generations removed from the photo. For others, this was a photo of their grandparent. Grandparents whom they never met. I proceeded to share their story, our story, and what I learned in years of researching the photograph and the people in it. I began by telling my family how I acquired the photo myself as a wedding gift, but forgotten from whom. Cousin Flossie, interrupted me: “I sent it to you!” she said. “Do you still have the frame?” she asked. “I do, “I proudly told her.” She beamed, and I continued with the tale.
Genealogical research is a lot like working on a puzzle. As clues are uncovered, the story comes together. Moshe Aaron, the patriarch of our family was born around died at the age of seventy-one. I learned his age at death, from an article my great-grandmother published in the Belitza Yizkor Book (Holocaust Memorial book from the their home town of Belitsa, now in Belarus, whose Jewish community was obliterated by the Nazis). He died at temple while saying the Shmone Esreh prayer (a central prayer in the Jewish liturgy). From this photo, I determined what year it was when he was seventy-one, and therefore I could surmise the year of his birth. Turns out this snapshot was taken in the last year or year and a half of both their lives. I deduced this fact, when I showed the photo to an elderly distant cousin on the Yarmovsky side. He pointed out an obscure old custom. In the only known photo of Moshe Aaron Kranowitz, he is wearing a skull cap, also known as a yarmulke or Kippa, in accordance with his religious observance. As was the custom back then, this particular type of Kippa was only worn by eastern european jews who were seventy years old or older. Among the Jewish community, seventy years was considered a life span. A special ceremony was celebrated at the temple on a man’s seventieth birthday, and only then did he wear this type of kippa. At the age of eighty-three, a second bar mitzvah was celebrated—a custom still practiced by some jews today.
Another tid-bit I discovered was that Moshe Aaron had a second wife. Shortly after Feige passed away, he remarried to woman named Fruma-Leah. Here is where I did some math and put together the puzzle. Moshe Aaron was older than seventy when he remarried (he was married to his first wife Feige in the photo, with the Kippa) but younger than seventy-two. Feige must have died by 1923 or so. Flossie who was born in 1924, was named after Feige, and Ashkenazi jews do not name their children after living relatives. If wife number one, Feige, was alive in 1922-3—as documented in the photo—and Moshe Aaron was at least seventy years old in that photo, than, she must have died shortly after the photo was taken, dating the photo to around 1922. Moshe Aaron outlived Feige by no more than a year or so, making his second marriage very short lived and a miracle that it was noted on our family tree. If he died around 1923, then he was born around 1853. The last think I expected of this elderly grandfather, was that he would rush to remarry after losing wife, his life-long companion. By 1922, his youngest daughter, Sara Esther, was in her twenties, indicating that he was not looking for a wife to care for any young children. Who knows, maybe he married Fruma-Leah to care for him as he was aging? Or, maybe he married for love?
Like Moshe Aaron, Feige’s portrait, reveals her as an observant jewish woman, dressed in the black dress and head coving typical for the time. Her most striking feature are her eyes. Their stare is intense, but their color is very light. Blue? Maybe Green? The color of my eyes. I was the first person in four generations on my branch of the family with light eyes. Feige’s eyes passed down to me. No one remembered where the green eyes came from, until I studied this photo. As I looked closely, I at her face, I realized something else. Feige’s face was full of scars. The scars are part of what makes her seem so frightening. One of the cousin’s at the reunion brought another photo of a younger Feige. It is difficult to appreciate the light eyes in this second photo, but it is clear that her face was smooth when she was a young woman. These scars were mostly likely pox marks. Did she survive the small pox I wonder?
Every time I listen to the song The Story, by Brandi Carlile, the lyrics remind me of Feige’s scarred face. “All of these lines across my face, tell you a story of who I am” Brandie bellows and I think about Feige and her story. This vintage snapshot of my second great-grandparents reveals only a sliver of their story, a story I am still piecing together. I have a hunch that this photograph was taken on Moshe Aaron’s seventieth birthday and sent to America to share with their five grown children who had immigrated. I base this educated guess on the fact that, in their children’s possessions, there was no other photo of Moshe Aaron, and only the one other photo of a young Feige. This must have been a very special occasion, for the couple to have their picture taken. They were very poor, and portraits would have been expensive. They were religious jews who mostly did not believe in having their photo taken. Most young Jewish immigrants, brought a family portrait with them, before they sailed across the atlantic, often never to return. The Kranowitz siblings, had no such photo among their meager belongings. This is the only photo they had of their parents. By the time this photo was taken, they had not seen their parents for ten years or so. One brother immigrated in 1905 and the others between 1913-1914. I bet they requested a photo for many years, and probably sent money home for just that purpose. Did the photo arrive in America via the mail? Did someone personally deliver the photo to the Kranowitz siblings? I can only imagine what this photo meant to them.
Many questions remain unanswered in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words? I wrote 2,063 about this prized picture and I could easily add a thousand more. I can not put a worth to this photograph. To me, it’s priceless. A treasure to be unveiled.

Do you have an intriguing photograph that tells a story? Want tips for finding old photographs? Want to share an amazing discovery for your family’s history! Write a comment and share your thoughts!

(Much more about Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky can be learned in my book Stored Treasures, A Memoir).

With all the twitting, facebooking and blogging, are we as a society losing the art of journal writing? Does anyone keep a diary anymore? Does it matter? Can a blog replace a journal or a diary? I have spent much time pondering these questions as I foray into the blogging universe?

When was the last time you kept a diary? I myself was only a sporadic journal writer. As a child—well intention as I may have been—I meticulously inaugurated scores of blank notebooks, intended as dairies. The endeavor would rarely amount to more than ten entries, with only one exception—a beautiful, japanese style embroidered journal—a gift form my uncle Larry Bogdanow (may he rest in peace). I recently unpacked this ancient relic and reread it for the first time in about thirty years. Reading my diary was like opening a small window into my eleven year old world. Back then, I approached journal writing like many girls my age. I dated each entry and then predictably began: “Dear Diary”, proceeding to write to my diary as if I was speaking to a best friend. Anne Frank and Judy Bloom’s Margaret clearly influenced my stylistic techniques of journal writing. This prized possession of mine was a very private and the only thing I regretted about this particular journal, beautiful as it was in my eyes, was that it did not have a lock and a key. To protect the privacy of my most inner thoughts, resorted to hiding the diary under my mattress. In the diary, I describe the need absolute privacy was the only way to keep my writing completely honest with myself.

One of Minnie Crane Travel Journals and
my diary from when I was eleven.

How many children today keep a diary? None of my kids ever attempted writing one. Does gender influence journal writing? After all, I am card holding member of the Parents of Three Boys Club. Jeff Kinney’s, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, probably boosted diary writing among children today as much as Anne Frank Diary did generations earlier. But did the craze stick? Can diary writing compete with an elementary schooler’s aspiration to facebook? For all the obvious reasons, I was thrilled to foment journal writing and purchased two copies Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Do It Yourself, for my for my sons upon their insistance. Sadly, both remain mostly blank and continue to collect dust on the bookshelf. Granted—this could be the equivalent of my own multiple failed attempts at writing a diary—but frankly I doubt they will show interest in writing a diary ever again. As they have grown, facebook has provided an outlet for the need to record what they are doing everyday. Each to a different extent, uses facebook to share with intimate circle of hundreds of friends, what they are up to on a daily basis. Is posting a facebook status the equivalent of a daily? Do one hundred and forty character tweets count as journal entries?

Call me old fashioned, but I believe something very important is being lost. I’m certainly not a technophobe. On the other hand, blogging for the first time in 2012, does not qualify my as a forerunner in the use of new technology. Yet, finding my great-grandmother’s journals a few years ago, stirred something very powerful in me. It not only lead me to publishing her memoir, but it rased my appreciation for the documentation of our lives to another level. To find those lost journals, I sent my family on a treasure hunt, to forage crowded attics and dig through overflowing drawers. A hundred years from now, what will my great-grandchildren find as they go searching for clues about their past.  Certainly some may argue, that electronic records, have a better chance to survive, than a diary did a hundred years ago. After all, the cloud will not be destroyed in a house fire, a hurricane, a flood or even a war. Many hard copies of books, documents, photos or precious diaries have been lost to such catastrophes. While ten years ago, electronic files were easily lost as computers crashed or floppy disks became obsolete, today internet giants promise an infinite cloud to store our books, music, photos and documents. But will the cloud save my blog into the next century and beyond? Will my facebook profile be accessible to my descendants once I pass. What will this tell them about who I was?

What legacy will these snippets of our lives leave behind? In my interest in the genre of women’s memoir written by their descendants I recently discovered a wonderful book by Barbara Anne Waite,  ELSIE: ADVENTURES OF AN ARIZONA SCHOOLTEACHER 1913-1916. Barbara chose to tell her grandmother’s story in the “Wild West” by weaving together Elsie’s diaries, letters and her own insights into Elsie’s years in Arizona. The resulting book, shares many similarities to my great grandmother’s story. One striking difference is how both women Minnie and Elsie, only eight years apart in age, chose to record their lives in a very different fashion. Minnie recorded her memoirs, many years after the fact in a long narrated fashion. Elsie kept a diary, compulsively recording short snippets of her day over a period of three years. Her entries are often not much longer than a tweet. So reminiscent of a facebook update are her entries, that I dare to name Elsie the predecesor to facebook. To get to know Elsie as a woman, one must read between the lines, very much in the same way, my great-grandchildren may have to do, if they are lucky to come across and gain my facebook profile. The difference is, that Facebook updates are meant publicize personal feelings, while diary entries are usually private and intended only for the author’s eyes—at least until they die. Studying both will provide a picture into someone’s personality. Schools and employers have been known to peek into facebook pages to gain insight into a potential recruit’s character. Facebook has a policy to memorialize profiles which they created mostly to help mourners communicate with their loved one’s on-line community. I don’t believe their intention was to leave a legacy for generations to come, but is reassuring to know the records are maintained.

Diaries did not directly morph into blogs, though blogging may be a fairly closer analogy to journal writing than facebooking. Like journals, blogs come in a large variety of forms and functions. Their purpose though, is certainly different than diary writing. Or is it? Journals were mostly private and personal. At times they were published into books, much like blogs do today. Some blogs are posted publicly—to the world at large—while others are private, accesible by invitation only. While providing some privacy, the virtue of sharing the blog, changes the intention from a look inward to a form of communication. How will generations from now, gain access to these private blogs? Will the internet hosts of these blog understand the needs of family historians hundreds of years from now and declassify them?

Most of us have given up letter writing long ago for the faster more efficient e-mail.  Millions have moved away from books and into electronic readers. As a society, we bankrupted film manufactures, local photo shops since no one prints photos any more. Today photo libraries live in a virtual cloud and are displayed in electronic frames. As a genealogist—who studies personal histories—I worry about the future of all these forms of communication and documenting of our lives. Most of all, I am struggling to let go of diaries. What if facebook goes out of business? What if the cloud is not economically viable. I want to believe that today’s younger generations still poses a need to connect with their inner-selves privately. Once, this seemed to be an innate human necessity which was popularly accomplished through diary keeping. Maybe the need for privacy has changed, someone will invent an iDiary and bring it into this rapidly electronic, paperless world. I hope that the internet will permit future generations to sift through its’ vast cob webs, making hidden treasures more readily available than ever before. After all, it’s the stored treasures of our past we might want to uncover someday.

Are you still writing a diary? Have your kids every written one? Do you think it’s important? Share your thoughts! Write a comment!

Stored Treasures, a Memoir is my personal quest into the past. Not just any past—my past. True, not exactly my past, but my family’s history. My husband and children, struggled to understand this obsession I developed. Warning! Genealogy is extremely addictive. “Mommy, when are you going to finish your research?” asked the youngest of my three sons, late one evening as he was trying to pull me away form the computer screen. He had a very good point? It was his bed time after all, and instead of spending quality time with him, during his last few waking moment, here I was slapping away a the keyboard. How does one explain to a ten year old, that investigating our past is a never ending project? 

I stepped away from the computer, tucked my son to bed, and thought about how the need to understand the past has changed my life. As far as addictions go, my research into our roots, is a healthy one. The good news for me, I’m not alone in this obsession. Turns out, there are almost twenty million Americans actively researching their roots and a hundred million more have interest in doing so. But why are some of us fascinated with the past, while others focus on the future? Is learning about where you come from truly essential for the present?  I believe it is.
The best way I found to explain my infatuation with the past, was to write a book.
Honestly, the book was not intentional. I set out to make a family tree, as a Bar Mitzvah project with my son. The task seemed simple, yet the more names we filled in, the more I names I realized I didn’t know. I began digging. I removed cob webs from boxes nearly forgotten at the back of attics. I wrote and called long lost relatives, and I learned the cob webs can be removed very quickly on the internet. I made some amazing discoveries. I uncovered much more than names. I found holocaust records, travel documents, photos taken more than a century ago and much more. But the most amazing of all, was my great-grandmother’s journals. 
The first time I read Minnie’s journals I knew that I uncovered so much more than what I was looking for. I found a way to explain to the world, why looking into one’s past, is how we connect to the present and find a direction for our future. 

Are you a genealogy junky? How did you get hooked? Do people around you understand your quest? Do you want to start researching your family history but don’t know how? Share your story! 
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