Tracing Family Trees
Five minutes with Jake Garfinkle ’23
I’ll be working with my friends, like at some table in the library and they’re doing their calculus homework or whatever, and I’m like, “Oh wait, I gotta make a call.”
And it’s like, “Hi Sylvia, my name’s Jake Garfinkle and I’m a genealogist, I have a woman who’s looking for you.” And then I tell her that she has a sister she doesn’t know about. And my friends are like, “What did you just do?”
When my interest in genealogy started I think I was nine. My great-great aunt was having a birthday party and so we were all going down to Washington, D.C., like this huge entire family thing.
And I was like, “Dad, who are all these people? How am I related to them?” And he’s like, “I don’t know. You figure it out.” And he brings out this big folder of like, documents and, like, random names, and so I spent about two to three months before the birthday party, after school, just sorting through names, trying to piece together how all the documents were related. And I think I built like, it was about 500, 600 people, in a family tree. It was a cool experience ’cause all the relatives got to add on.
I started for my family and then when the trail ran dry for me, I went to other families. And to date, I think I’ve researched about 28,000 people.
I study anthropology. I really, really love connecting people to their history, like making something out of it, right?
I’ve had cases where I found two students who are related; it’s happened I think two or three times now. I sometimes host Shabbat dinners and two people I’d done research for were there and I’m like, “Wait, you guys need to talk—you guys are related!”
For me, it’s not just names on a paper. It’s about storytelling. It’s about bringing those stories into life.
A lot of times people find things they’re not expecting. I found in my own family children that were given away for adoption in secret, and have reunited them with the family. I worked with a girl who was African American on her dad’s side. She didn’t know her grandparents’ names. Turns out she had this amazing history of her great-great-great-grandfather being a formerly enslaved person who learned how to read and write and then went on to serve in the Tennessee state legislature during reconstruction. And that was just something her family did not know.