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New Roots

The Gene Pull

The curious joys and odd surprises of tracing your family tree.

The transformation began, oddly enough, in Memphis in December 1991, when two unrelated incidents led me to start rethinking my stance on the matter. I'll get to the first one later; the second occurred at a Christmas party, where I met a man who shared my last name. In the spirit of the season and fueled by a good bit of liquid holiday cheer, we marveled at the coincidence and speculated that we might be related, knowing quite well that, in fact, we were not: he is black and Baptist with roots in the Deep South; I am white and Jewish and entirely a product of New York City. He explained he was often taken for Jewish, at least by those who encountered him only on the telephone, but he did not, as far as he knew, have even a single Jewish forebear. He did, however, inform me that in the part of north-central Louisiana where his father grew up, there were hundreds of people named Rubin, all of whom were black.

Naturally, this stoked my imagination. How did this happen? It occurred to me, of course, that if I wanted to solve this mystery, I should just go down to Louisiana and investigate; but it also occurred to me that this would involve genealogical research, and that still carried certain negative associations in my mind. This could be the thin end of the wedge, I thought, a gateway drug to a full-fledged addiction. Start out on a simple academic quest, end up like those poor trembling souls at the Massachusetts Archives, ever frantic to find just one more ancestor. Did I really need this?

Perhaps not, but curiosity has a way of working on me over time, and after about six years I was able to rationalize that, since I wouldn't actually be tracing my own family tree, I wouldn't fall into the genealogy trap. I was wrong, as it happened, but by the time I figured that out it was far too late.

And here's the strange part: I never was able to solve that mystery, but I got hooked on genealogy anyway. It started early: the first time I pored over a Louisiana census roll and spotted the name Rubin in one of the columns, I experienced the same mixture of astonishment, excitement, and joy that I had as a child in the 1970s when, canvassing a local park with a metal detector, I dug up a quarter from 1892. Actually this was even better, because there was no chance some nosy grownup was going to call my parents and tell them I was defacing public property.

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