Virtual Legacies: Genealogy, the Internet, and Jewish Identity

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As Jewish identities become more hybridized in what Manuel Castells calls a "network society," genealogical research intensifies the questioning of how Jews identify and who identifies as Jewish. Jewish identities based on relation, location, and devastation develop out of genealogical research, especially when networks such as the internet increase access to information and communities of other researchers. Mining the internet for genealogical information and searching for heritage only add to the possibilities of Jewish identity, revealing Jewish kin, connections to a particular place, or the tragedy of the Holocaust--evidence of the ways in which the World Wide Web changes Jewish identity formation. The internet is a virtual gathering place for the commemoration and study of Jewish life and culture, even as its use challenges conventional modes of Jewish community and identity formation. Through its treatment of the internet and Jewish identity, this dissertation explores new media and their cultural impact, arguing that new media enable penetrable and osmotic identities instead of reifying delimited parameters.

Using Marianne Hirsch's "postmemory," Hayden White's "emplotment," Vivian M. Patraka's "goneness," and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's "hereness" as critical lenses through which to view Jewish genealogical Web sites, I show how the narratives on Jewish genealogical research Web sites, cyber-shtetls, and personal genealogy Web sites and blogs reveal constructions of Jewish identity that have never before been articulated as viable options for forming Jewish communities. Jewish communities of relation, location, and devastation may resemble other Jewish communities, but they are unique in that they are virtual--their homes are online. The narratives found on each genre of Web site are functions of postmemory, in that they are the results of family lore, emplotted in order to tell coherent family histories. The "hereness" of postmemory confronts the "goneness" of much of the lives and times that compose Jewish culture, allowing for the creativity that emplotment requires. When Jewish genealogists search for their heritage online, they encounter communities of other genealogists who are just as eagerly emplotting their own genealogical narratives.