What Nonna Said – Family Lore and Oral History RYO #9

Family Lore and Oral History Within Jewish Family History Research

Dictaphone, pen and paper for recording oral history.

In this historytracings blogpost we continue our series on researching your own Jewish family history by looking at family lore and oral history within Jewish family history research.

Our previous blogpost It’s Double Dutch! RYO #8 looked at encountering foreign languages within Jewish family history research.

What Nonna Said

In your family are there pieces of information about your family ancestry which have been retold through generations of family members?

Some families are rich in family lore passed down by previous generations no longer around to explain more or ask questions of, whilst in other families very little family lore has been retained. Is there someone in your family alive today who recalls what Nonna said, who holds valuable information about people and times gone by? We will explore how gathering oral history can create new layers of knowledge about your family ancestry as well as your own contemporary family life and relatives for the benefit of future descendants.

Virtually Present

In the 21st century there are many formats to record and retain oral family history. Verbal information and stories can be transcribed or gathered as audio and video files. Modern technology and internet connectivity offers a vast array of different platforms to store and present family information which can be shared within closed family groups or with the wider public. Bespoke genealogical websites and online tools offer innovative formats for presenting and storing information and harnessing social media can create highly visual and interconnected repositories of audio, visual and virtual data.

There is something to be said however for a dual approach to gathering information in the 21st century. Our fascination with the online world and virtual communities cannot substitute our own family members when it comes to looking for the prime source of our own personal oral family history. There is much to be gained through building family relationships and traditional methods of information gathering face to face and person to person. So too the dissemination of family lore in non-digital formats which can be physically passed on to one another and not left to the vagaries of future access issues and file deletion have other tangible benefits as a back up to the ever more technologically advanced approach to family history.

Word of Mouth

In matters of family history research we still rely on identifying concrete traces of our ancestors’ lives as we seek written records and first hand evidence. Whilst we cannot connect with our ancestors directly, we can connect with their existence through the representation of their lives depicted in the words and images of historical documentation. How much more a sense of connection can we get when the words are our ancestors’ own and the interpretation of their lives, their life narrative, is also their own. In the blogpost Time Together and Life Stories we touched on the significance of telling, hearing and sharing life stories that takes life facts and form a narrative which gives those facts meaning for both the speaker and listener.

The value of oral history goes hand in hand with written historical accounts. Yet it is often the spoken stories and dialogue between speaker and listener which can bring to life the heart of the historical matter in a way that a written account cannot. The older generation in your family may be as technologically savvy as the young, but some folk might prefer the more traditional forms of sharing information over a cup of tea or the phone. There is nothing like direct interest from a captive audience to encourage the speaker. Whilst oral history can be formally gathered at a scheduled interview, family lore is often transmitted at the most impromptu moment when there isn’t even anything to hand to write with. It is important to make time for both.

Person to Person

There are many sources of advice and guidance on gathering oral family history, be it an informal chat or formal interview. One such publication is the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide. Preparation for an interview is essential. From considering the location of your oral history encounter; deciding what format it should take: storytelling, conversation or structured questions; identifying if there are objects or photos which might act as prompts; firm up your role and whether you will record or transcribe?

The practicalities and comfort of the speaker are important as are potential matters of confidentiality, disclosure and copyright, which should be discussed between the parties and mutually agreed upon. Be prepared and sensitive to the fact that the speaker may disclose hitherto guarded details whilst sharing information about key historical events during their lifetime or significant moments in the lives of their parents and grandparents which may hold great emotional charge. Information you are told may have wider implications so be prepared to handle this carefully and discuss such issues should they arise.

Evaluate by Exploration

Family recollections can sometimes just convey facts but usually these are packaged in an interpretation of experiences and events. For that reason, once you have gathered family lore you will inevitably ponder its origin and meaning. Whilst you may chose to take some family anecdotes with a pinch of salt, it is also worth giving them the benefit of the doubt by trying to explore what once lay behind them. How historically accurate these facts and details are may or may not be born out with further research and exploration, however keep in mind that these details probably had their origins somewhere within your family for a particular reason. Even if they incorporate a fabrication of the truth or just aspirations, they also point to something of significance for the person or people with whom that lore originated and for those who have passed that lore through generations.

Tell your Own

If you are fascinated by your family history when all you have to go on are facts, names, dates, places and perhaps a handful of life events recorded in historical sources, you will know how much more interesting and insightful snippets of family anecdotes can be. Have you considered sharing the oral history of your life, your childhood and your recollections of former times and family members? You could record or video yourself sharing family anecdotes, write an account of a key event in your life or invite a family member to reminisce with you.

As the term “folklife” indicates, what is recounted as oral history is often about far more than just one individual or a family and their experiences, it unlocks the spirit of the time in question, the life of specific communities and the impact of historical events on wider society in a particular time and place. For the speaker too, telling one’s life narratives affirm personal heritage and life experience unique to that individual. Even siblings do not have the same family recollections or impressions of the same family events or relatives. Everyone’s life story narrative has a unique perspective including yours.

Ed., historytrace, 05/01/2016

Historytrace can help you to explore family lore through the historical contextualisation of your ancestors’ lives. We can also help you gather, research and organise oral and written historical accounts to create lasting and meaningful family histories for your family and future generations. If our services could help you take your family lore further do get in touch using the Contact page of this website.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “What Nonna Said RYO #9. Family Lore and Oral History Within Jewish Family History Research”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2015; copyright image: freeimages.com / Goncalo Gil.

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