May 29, 2024
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Clifton Genealogist Aims for More Than Names and Dates

Imagine being adopted, raised by a Jewish family in Pittsburgh, and reaching a roadblock trying to find your birth family in Nova Scotia. It would help if you had the family name in Halifax correct, but it’s not always that simple. That’s the point at which Eric Feinstein of Clifton, a professional genealogist, can help.

In his research, Feinstein regularly thinks “outside the box.” For the situation mentioned above, he Googled the client by using her first and second names only. The family name, which she believed to be her birth family’s name, turned out to be one letter too many. The result was a meeting with “tons of family.”

Feinstein works with Jewish and non-Jewish families. He said that helping people find birth families are some of his most fulfilling cases.

He has a degree in Soviet and East European Studies, including Russian literature, political science and history, and had originally planned to become a professor or work for the CIA. Fluent in several Eastern European and European languages, he said, “Even knowing all those languages, you can translate anything on Google Translate.”

After college, Feinstein entered a Ph.D. program, but after becoming religious, he decided against becoming a professor. Instead, Feinstein went to Israel and lived there for two years. He also lived in Germany as part of his “Jewish journey” and learned Spanish and a bit of Portuguese from clients when he worked in telecommunications.

By 1998 he had “fairly saturated” the genealogical research on his own family. In all the tracking Feinstein has done, he’s gone back the farthest in German records. The earliest is about the 1700s. For his ancestral family in Ukraine, the earliest documents he found are from 1800.

“There’s definitely more I can do,” Feinstein reflected about his personal family history records, “I haven’t spent the money to do it.” He moved on when he married and researched his wife’s family history back to the 1780s or earlier in Poland.

After that his business began to blossom. While working full-time in telecommunications for over 20 years and traveling periodically to South and Central America, he worked at genealogy on the side. He never advertised, and started with pro bono work. Now, almost all his work is by referral. After finding burial records online for a friend, he had another friend in Vienna photograph the tombstone. Future clients saw the picture and said, “I’ll pay you.”

Feinstein put everything into a book of about 150 pages and then found his client/friend’s second cousins living in New York. He made a call to them, and they also wanted to buy the book. That family in New York hosted “a huge gathering” of the people Feinstein found along the way. Feinstein was the guest speaker at the party. Once people started paying him for his research in 2010, he had what he termed as a “heimische hechsher.”

Feinstein’s wife, Ami, is a graphic artist who works with him. Feinstein said, “She is more of the marketing and psychology of the business.” Feinstein is the self-described “nuts and bolts.”

Growing up, Feinstein lived in Massachusetts. When the family moved to New York to live with his grandmother, the eldest of nine, Feinstein observed that she called all her cousins every two weeks. He questioned why her address book included some names with no numbers. His grandmother explained she always wanted to remember her aunts and uncles from Sambor who were killed in the Holocaust. Feinstein named his business Remember Sambor Genealogy based on that poignant memory,

Feinstein uses 20-30 consultants around the world. He gets them “by trial and error.” His goal is to find others who “go the extra mile, people who think like a genealogist.” He wants his consultants to “have the interest of [his] clients at heart.”

With so many Facebook genealogy groups offering free research, Feinstein said “there’s always [something] to research. I didn’t invent genealogy; there’s something for everyone. The more people interested in their family, the better for my business.”

Feinstein works in his home office during business hours and again after dinner. The pandemic has increased business, “with people home decluttering and checking things off their list. There are fewer distractions.” Suggesting “there’s one genealogist in every family,” Feinstein acknowledged, “There are certain times that it becomes an interest to people, for example, when naming a child, or at the loss of a parent.”

Commenting that he’s “busy all the time,” Feinstein said, “Genealogy is like how an accordion can play one note or a symphony.” While he “can’t promise or predict results,” he said he gives it his all.

There are, however, times he has turned down clients. He said that he “cannot in good conscience take their money if there is no research left to do.”

Feinstein charges “by the scope of the work, charging a certain fee for book art and research.” Calling the family tree program charts “too static,” Feinstein and his wife created their own family tree charts using Microsoft Publisher, and “the result is a one page, like a snapshot, because people have the concentration for one page.”

He aims for “more than just names and dates, but to see how people lived, by uncovering and sharing pictures of a house from 1900 or buildings in Ukraine or Russia.”

Feinstein added, “People want to know where they’re from. A lot know and have specifics and a lot are not experts on their families. There’s a mix, and a lot of people are paying for research as gifts.”

While Yad Vashem has actual records and “tons of lists,” Feinstein noted, “You have to take anecdotal sources with a grain of salt unless the information is independently verified.”

As for DNA testing, Feinstein conceded, “If it’s called for, it’s great for first, second and third cousins and can be a valuable tool.”

Feinstein insisted, “There’s so much stuff you can find. Jews were 10% of the population in Poland, and Jews owned the photography studios. There are so many pictures out there. Someone in the extended family may have them. You never know who has stuff until you start reaching out.”

Feinstein can be reached at [email protected] or 646-886-5038.Visit his website at https://www.genealogybyeric.com.

By Sharon Mark Cohen

 

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