Sunday, February 10, 2019

NERGC 2019 Interview ~ Schelly Talalay Dardashti

The 15th biennial New England Regional Genealogical Consortium conference will be held in Manchester, New Hampshire, from April 3-6. Visit the website for all the conference information and register before February 28 to get the early bird discount! For those of you in New England, this is the best, closest conference you'll get a chance to attend. This will be the third NERGC conference that I have attended and I'm looking forward to it!

Several New England Geneabloggers have been invited to interview some of the speakers and I have the pleasure of sharing my interview with Schelly Talalay Dardashti. Following are the questions I posed and her answers:

Elizabeth Handler: Your bio says you have been researching your family for 30 years. What got you interested?
Schelly Talalay Dardashti: It’s all my daughter’s fault. I was a happy needlepointer until then. She was 12, and studying for her bat mitzvah. She came home one day with a form asking for parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their English and Hebrew names. That night, we attended an engagement party for my husband’s niece and we began asking questions about my husband’s Persian family. We came home with hundreds of little cocktail napkins with names and relationships scribbled on them. That was the start. Then she said, “OK, we worked on daddy’s side and now we have to do yours.” That was challenging because, unlike my husband’s massively huge Persian family, mine was really small with few people to ask. But we persevered and I was hooked. I haven’t completed a needlepoint since then, as my daughter often reminds me!

Since then, I have continued to work on the DARDASHTI tree, and now co-admin the Jewish Persian DNA Project with a newfound DNA cousin, Nika Hazini, in London, UK, and the connections we are finding are groundbreaking. It seems that all Persian Jewish families are related (and quite closely!). I also co-founded the IberianAshkenaz DNA Project with Judy Lefkowitz Simon, which is based on the premise that Ashkenazi families often have stories about Sephardic origins. Both Judy and I had this story in our families. The large group has been extremely successful in connecting known Sephardic families with ostensible Ashkenazim, as well as Hispanics of Jewish ancestry (conversos) and with Hispanics who really had no idea they had Jewish ancestry. Both projects are at FamilyTreeDNA.

Elizabeth: Do you have both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry? For those who are not familiar with the differences, can you summarize them briefly?
Schelly: Our story, confirmed via archival documents in Catalunya, Spain, is that our TALALAY side is Sephardic and we left Spain very early, by 1398. We eventually wound up in Mogilev, Belarus. Sephardim, in the narrowest definition, are those Jews who lived in Iberia (Spain and Portugal) who then migrated elsewhere. There were many difficult times resulting in forced conversions, exiles, etc. 1391 was a major one, with many going to North Africa, but 1492 saw the complete exile of all Jews from Spain. It was either convert to Catholicism, be killed or leave. Ashkenazim are those Jews who went up the Rhone Valley into Central and Eastern Europe. However, researchers of Sephardim, and DNA evidence also shows, that Sephardim did migrate into Eastern Europe. Not all families passed down that tradition so it was lost, but people today see DNA surprises. This also skews medical research studies when they try to pin a specific condition to Ashkenazim, but the researchers (and their study participants don’t really know that some may actually be Sephardim) are not aware that some participants are actually descendants of Sephardim.

Elizabeth: How is researching Sephardic Jewish ancestry different than researching Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry?
Schelly: There are linguistic challenges and repository challenges. Ashkenazi researchers need Hebrew, Yiddish and a few secular languages (German, Polish, Russian, etc.). Sephardic researchers cover communities in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, as well as Asia. A third group are Mizrahi or the Jews of Iran and Iraq. So immediately there are numerous languages to deal with. Even working with Spanish archives, documents are in Latin, Castilian, Catalan, numerous local dialects. Languages mean different alphabets as well. For Ashkenazim, we have the alphabets for Hebrew, Yiddish, Cyrillic and others written in the familiar Roman lettering. For Sephardim/Mizrahim, we are talking Hebrew, Arabic (several varieties), Italian, Sicilian dialect, Turkish, Greece, Farsi and others. However, the good part is that surnames were used in Spain back to the year 1000, so that is easier. In some European countries, Ashkenazim didn’t have surnames until the 1800s, and prior to that only patronymics were used such as X son of Y. For Ashkenazim, it is hard to trace back an Eastern European name past the 1700s. However, we have documents from Catalunya dated 1353-1398 where the family name is clearly indicated, and I have seen many archival documents much earlier (1200s) – all with clear surnames used today.

Elizabeth: Tracing the Tribe – Jewish Genealogy on Facebook is one of the best resources for those researching Jewish ancestors. When did you start this group and what gave you the idea?
Schelly: I was the genealogy columnist at the Jerusalem Post (1999-2005) with a popular column, It’s All Relative. Then I started the first, pioneer Jewish genealogy blog, called, Tracing the Tribe – The Jewish Genealogy Blog. Facebook prompted many geneabloggers to switch over, and Tracing the Tribe – Jewish Genealogy on Facebook began in 2007. Today we have nearly 28,000 global members and grow by about 1,000 each months. Facebook gave us the global reach necessary to help each other with research, translations and more.

Elizabeth: I see from your bio that you are a journalist as well as a genealogist. Do you have any recent or upcoming articles that you would like to share?
Schelly: I have written stories for JTA, The Forward, Hadassah Magazine, Family Tree Magazine, Reform Judaism and others. As the US Genealogy Advisor for MyHeritage, I also write and edit blog posts for the MyHeritage Blog.

Elizabeth: Have you attended NERGC in the past? What are you most looking forward to at NERGC 2019 (besides enjoying the company of hundreds of other genealogists)?
Schelly: This will be my first time presenting at NERGC. I was sorry to have missed Springfield last year, as the earliest branch of our Talalay (Tollin) family settled there in 1898 and I had been there previously and met those cousins. I love genealogy and genetic genealogy conferences – and present at many each year. I usually go to RootsTech, Jamboree, NGS, IAJGS, CeCe Moore’s Institute for Genetic Genealogy and many others, as well as presenting to many societies. It is so stimulating to be in the company of hundreds, if not thousands, of others who share the same interests and common challenges. Regional conferences are important, as they can bring together many people who may not always attend the major national events. All these events are important for sharing our somewhat obsessive interest, to learn about new topics, new developments in specific fields, and for making lasting connections. I have friends today whom I met at conferences 20+ years ago – It is fascinating to connect with them at the same events today.

Schelly will be teaching "Sephardic Research: Jewish Genealogy's Other Side" (Friday, 3:15 to 4:15). Let me know in the comments if you are planning to attend NERGC.

I have also interviewed Elissa Scalise Powell at my other blog, From Maine to Kentucky.


  1. As an active member of TTT, I really enjoyed this interview. I didn't know about the NERGC until your post. I live in MA so might consider coming.

    1. Amy, so glad you enjoyed the interview. I hope you do plan to come to NERGC. You can register for just one day if you'd like.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!