Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is Truth?

A Family History/Genealogist actively tries to sort out truth from 'family fictions.' But what exactly does 'Truth' mean?

I have a couple examples from the family of my great grandfather Barney Newmark's brother Sol.


Sol and Sarah Newmark were married in 1902 in London. What was Sarah's maiden name? Looking at the marriage certificate, UK 1901 census, various birth and death certificates of herself and her children (I don't have her birth record) It's roughly 50% Sandler and 50% Nathan. The origin of the confusion is clear - her father's name almost undoubtedly was Nathan Sandler. Sometimes she utilized the religious tradition of adopting her father's given name as her maiden name (without using the 'daughter of' construction). She wasn't consistent though, and it's not as if prior to Year X she used one, and after Year X the other, it went back and forth, even when she was the informant. She had two maiden names, neither one more truthful than the other, and which one she gave to those who asked must have depended upon her mood.


Sol and Sarah's oldest son, born in 1905, was named after Sol's deceased grandfather, Israel David Nejmark (believed to be the original Polish spelling of the surname). Sol's youngest brother, born in 1904, was also named for the same man. So there was an uncle/nephew one year apart in age named Israel David. Or was there?

I just retrieved the birth certificate of Sol and Sarah's son. It reads "David Israel". The inversion could easily be a clerical error. However, there is a Jewish superstition against naming children after living relatives, so there may have been reason for them to avoid giving him the exact same name as his 1 year-old uncle. If the names were intentionally inverted on the birth certificate, I have no reason to believe their son was ever referred to in that manner by family or anyone else his entire life.

The superstition was that the angel of death could get confused and come for one and take the other. But even if we assume that there was no clerical error on the birth certificate, and they intentionally gave him an 'official' name different from his uncle, if the 'official' name was never actually used by the family, is it still the 'true' name? Wouldn't the name he was called by everyone his entire life be the 'true' name?

3) and a final example from my great grandfather Barney Newmark

Barney was born in Poland on March 17, 1886, or so he always told everyone, including his family (at least when he wasn't claiming he was born in Ireland). On his Draft registration form, and on his death certificate with his wife as the informant, it says April 14th. On his Declaration of Intent to become a citizen he wrote March 25th. So minus a birth certificate, what is Barney's true birthday?

(Interestingly March 25th is exactly 8 days after March 17th. This is interesting because the Jewish naming religious rite is scheduled for the 8th day, which could provide an explanation for the importance of both dates. April 14th, 1886 also fell almost exactly one lunar month after March 17th. March 17th was the 10th of Adar 2, and April 14th was the 9th of Nisan. However, the only thing that happens 1 month after birth that I can find is the redemption of the first born male, and Barney wasn't the first born. It is conceivable that in converting from Hebrew date to Gregorian date some incorrect math was used that produced a date a month off. However, even if this is the explanation for the multiple dates, not knowing what the Hebrew date was, it is impossible to know which was the correct calculation, and which one wasn't.)

Reading this years later on Sept 14, 2017

I realize I had forgotten what I discovered about the Hebrew calendar in 1886. In the intervening years I've confirmed that observing a birthday on the date of circumcision was definitely a Polish/Lithuanian Jewish custom. However, I am intrigued that March 17th, 1886 fell in a leap month. I'm unsure why this didn't occur to me back when I wrote this post, but...

Those who are born on February 29th would celebrate their birthday in most years on March 1, even though they realize that their 'true birthday' was February 29th. Might someone born in the 2nd month of Adar, in non-leap years, celebrate their Hebrew birthday in the month of Nisan on the appropriate date? Could this have lead Barney, really born on March 17th, 1886, to state that his birthday was April 14th. But still, use March 25th as his 'circumcision date.'

This explanation connects all three dates of birth in a very logical fashion. It isn't necessarily true. But it is very intriguing.

1 comment:

Art Zemon said...

Oh how true! And this is why I record *all* of the birth dates that I can find, picking the one which strikes me a "most true" to put at the head of the list.

My parents even had two weddings, one private and a public ceremony a couple of months later. Which is the right date for their anniversary?

-- Art Z.