Arthur Kurzweil: Banquet Keynote Speaker!
From: Jay Sage, Conference Webmaster (
Date: Mon, 30 Mar 2020 20:05:22 -0700 (PDT)

A new press release was just sent to me to add to the website. It contains the following super-exciting information:

Arthur Kurzweil, who is the founding father of our movement in many ways, will be the
banquet keynote speaker. Arthur served as co-chair of the first “seminar” on Jewish
genealogy and authored the inspirational classic, From Generation to Generation, regarded
by many as “The Bible” of Jewish genealogy.

Kurzweil was the keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary celebration of my society, the JGS of Greater Boston, and he delivered one of the most inspiring, moving, and entertaining talks I have ever heard. I can't wait to hear him again in San Diego.

Just thinking about this got me to search for the short summary of his talk that I wrote for the September 2007 issue of the JGSGB journal Mass-Pocha. I have appended it.

-- Jay

Jay Sage
Webmaster, IAJGS 2020 Conference, San Diego, CA
webmaster [at]

Arthur Kurzweil’s Keynote Address:

Jewish Genealogy As a Spiritual Pilgrimage

Jay Sage

The 25th Anniversary keynote address was delivered by Arthur Kurzweil, one of the fathers of Jewish genealogy. He helped launch the field as we know it today with the founding of the Jewish Genealogical Society (New York) in 1977 and the publication of his groundbreaking book From Generation to Generation in 1980. Kurzweil’s talk was extraordinary, both extremely humorous—he has impeccable comic timing—and profoundly moving and inspiring. This account cannot begin to capture the excitement of his presentation. He began by recounting how he became involved in genealogy. Like many of us, he originally found the topic utterly boring; he could not imagine why anyone would have the slightest interest in finding out about their ancestors. One day, however, he decided to see if he could find any evidence of the tiny Polish village, Dobromil, where his father claimed to have been born. He didn’t want to call his father a liar, but he had never been able to find Dobromil on any map, in any atlas, or in any encyclopedia.

Being a librarian by profession, Kurzweil went to the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, where he was surprised to find a card catalog listing for a book with Dobromil in its title. He submitted a request for the book and was amazed when the librarian handed him a 500-page book devoted entirely to a village that didn’t even appear on any map. The book, of course, turned out to be a memorial book, written by former residents and survivors from that town. As Kurzweil leafed through the book, he got his next shock: there, in a photograph, was his great-grandfather. His passion for genealogy had been ignited!

Kurzweil then sought out experts—Jewish historians and Jewish librarians—and asked them how a Jew could trace his family tree. They all told him the same thing: it’s impossible; their names were changed; the records were all destroyed; it cannot be done; don’t waste your time. Fortunately, as we now know, they were wrong.

Slowly but surely Arthur pieced together the Kurzweil family tree. He found one of the authors of the Dobromil book living in New York and learned that there was a Dobromil Society that still got together once a year. Kurzweil attended the next meeting, where a 93-year-old man tapped him on the shoulder and told him that he had played the fiddle at Kurzweil’s grandparents’ wedding in Dobromil!

Like many of us, Kurzweil worked at first on only one side of his family. Finally, his mother began asking him when he was going to do something about her family. His mother knew of only one relative, who was born in Europe and now lived in New York. Kurzweil went to visit him one evening, but the man said he didn’t remember anything about the family. It was only as Kurzweil was about to leave that the man suddenly remembered something. When he was a small child in Europe and would misbehave, his mother would reprimand him with, “That’s no way for a descendent of the Stropkover Rebbe to act!”

Kurzweil knew nothing about the Stropkover Rebbe, but he had heard of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Satmar Rebbe and the rabbis from other towns in Europe. He could hardly sleep that night, waiting for the library to open in the morning. There he found a book that listed all the rabbis of all the towns in Europe. (Kurzweil is convinced that there’s a book somewhere on every subject.) Stropkov had six rabbis over the years, and one of them had his mother’s surname. He had discovered her great-great-great-grandfather! Rabbinic dynasties often have recorded genealogies, and Kurzweil was able to trace this line back to the 1500s. It opened up a huge branch of the family, most of whom, sadly, were murdered in the Holocaust.

As the talk progressed, Kurzweil began to weave in the spiritual aspects of genealogy and eventually addressed the subject explicitly. When we do genealogy, some people think that we’re putting names and dates on pieces of paper, but we are really engaged in a deeply spiritual exercise, mitzvah work.

As his genealogy work induced in him a transformation from secular to observant Jew, Kurzweil became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsalz, an expert on the Talmud. Steinsalz explained to him that it is impossible to understand the Talmud from the outside; only when one engages in it can one really understand it. Genealogy is the same. Those who have not done genealogy often don’t understand why we do it. They think we are crazy. Understanding genealogy grows out of doing it. The story of the Israelites at Sinai illustrates this. When offered the mitzvot, God’s commandments, the Israelites answered “na’aseh v’nishma,” loosely translated as “we will do and then we will understand.” We usually think it’s the other way around, that we first understand and then do. But it is not so with the Talmud or with genealogy.

Kurzweil told of the genealogical experience that had the most impact on him. A cousin whom he interviewed remembered that there was one family member who survived the Holocaust but remained in Poland. There had been no contact with him for 40 years, and she remembered only his name. Finding him seemed hopeless. Kurzweil again turned to the New York Public Library, which has phone books from all over the world. There, in the Poland phone book, was a listing for the man with his address. Kurzweil immediately wrote to him and soon received a heartwarming reply that began, “Dear Cousin Arthur, Please promise me this will be only the first letter in a continuing correspondence.” He wrote further, “I hope that you will come one day to visit us in Poland so my 7-year-old daughter can meet you, because Jewish children in Poland do not believe that Jews have families.” Kurzweil did go to Poland and met the family.

Kurzweil encapsulated the spiritual power of genealogy in the following story. He commuted every day to Manhattan on a train that was always filled with religious Jews in their Chasidic garb, all sitting silently. Having been taught, however, that Jews should never travel more than a yard without talking Torah, Kurzweil finally built up the courage to ask an elderly Chasid sitting next to him a question about a Jewish topic he was studying. The man was surprised that Kurzweil did not know this material, so Arthur explained that he had not been given much of a Jewish education and was only now beginning to study. He was astounded when the man’s reply was, “You’re lucky. You are closer to God than I will ever be.” Kurzweil asked him how he could possibly be closer to God than a man who had grown up religious and had studied all his life. The man explained that each person is connected to God by a rope. When a rope, having been broken, is tied back together, it becomes shorter. Similarly, we genealogists, in repairing broken family links, are bringing families closer together.

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