Humankind is one (happy?) family, says author who planned Global Family Reunion
Interview'It was like throwing 100 simultaneous bar mitzvahs'

Humankind is one (happy?) family, says author who planned Global Family Reunion

In 'It's All Relative,' A.J. Jacobs takes an amusing deep dive into genealogy, genetics, and family history

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Shot of crowd holding up 'I'm a Cousin' signs at The Global Family Reunion in New York, June 6, 2015.(Ryan Brown)
Shot of crowd holding up 'I'm a Cousin' signs at The Global Family Reunion in New York, June 6, 2015.(Ryan Brown)

A.J. Jacobs said he was going to do it. And he did.

True to his promise, Jacobs pulled off the first-ever Global Family Reunion on June 6, 2015. It took months of planning, and wrangling celebrity cousins to help publicize the event. Ultimately some 3,800 people showed up at the main site in Queens, New York, with another approximately 6,500 taking part via 44 simultaneous reunions around the world, for a grand total of more than 10,000 attendees.

Not bad for a guy who had never organized anything larger than a 40-guest birthday party for his wife.

A.J. Jacobs (Courtesy)

“It was like throwing 100 simultaneous bar mitzvahs,” said Jacobs, who had left the organizing of his son’s bar mitzvah to his wife.

Despite the enormous stress involved, Jacobs lived to tell about it in his new book, “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.”

“If you reframe stress as excitement, it works 40% of the time,” the Manhattan-based Jacobs half-joked in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.

Loyal readers know Jacobs likes to challenge himself. The author is known for carrying out longterm, elaborate and extreme experiments on himself and then reporting on the experience. His previous books have been about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, following the Bible literally for an entire year, and trying out just about every diet and exercise regimen possible in the quest to be healthy.

“It’s All Relative” follows suit as an engaging read that intertwines four main strands: Reportage on how genealogical research is done; how this research and its findings affect our lives; Jacob’s own family history; and preparations for the Global Family Reunion.

This latest book took Jacobs, a contributing editor at Esquire, twice as long to write as usual. He attributes this not only to his need to recover for several months after the Global Family Reunion, but also because this book was more personal than the others.

“I went deep into my family and my own psyche for this one. A lot of it is about my ancestors and how they affected me,” he said.

Liquor store owned by A.J. Jacobs’ great-great uncle A.J. Sunstein in Pittsburgh before Prohibition, circa 1905 (Courtesy)

“It’s All Relative” begins with a chapter about how Jacobs, 49, was spurred to dive into the deep and vast genealogy ocean by an out-of-the blue email he received from an eighth cousin named Jules Feldman, who lives in Israel.

“I thought it was some sort of Nigerian scam at first,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel back in 2014.

“This guy wrote to me and told me he had a family tree with something like 80,000 people and that I was on it,” he said.

Jacobs used Feldman’s database as a starting-off point and partnered with the Israeli-based and MyHeritage to harness the power of technology and online crowdsourcing to build what he hoped would be the biggest family tree ever.

‘It’s All Relative’ by A.J. Jacobs (Courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

Each chapter in “It’s All Relative” deals with a different aspect of genealogy or family history, and ends with a countdown to the Global Family Reunion and how his planning progresses (unfortunately, not always well).

Jacobs’s humorous writing and intriguing chapter headings, like, “Our Animal Cousins,” “The Kevin Bacon Delusion,” “Thanks for Having Sex,” and “The FBI and My Grandpa,” combine for a fun and compelling journey through what could have been mere shop talk, of interest only to professional or die-hard amateur genealogists.

However, the book is actually part of an exploding popular interest in genealogy. While increasing numbers of people engage in the discipline, many more do so vicariously by watching television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are,” “Finding Your Roots,” and “Heir Hunters.” There are also genealogy podcasts and radio shows, like the Mormon Channel’s  “Extreme Genes,” hosted by a deep-voiced, Utah-based researcher named Scott Fisher who Jacobs got to emcee at the Global Family Reunion.

How to build a Museum of Me

“Genealogy is having its moment,” said Jacobs, who is hooked on it now and plans to continue researching his family history and recording oral histories of older relatives.

Jacobs attributes this boom to the easy online accessibility to documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, censuses, and ship manifests. The ability to search for digitized old newspaper articles also helps verify family lore and hang history on the branches of a family tree.

A.J. Jacobs (center) with his son and ‘Finding Your Roots’ host Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Courtesy)

Additionally, the advent of inexpensive DNA tests has made a major impact on the genealogy field. According to Jacobs (who subjected himself and other family members to spitting into tubes and swabbing their cheeks) five million Americans have done these tests.

Some results bring no surprises, while others deliver good ones. And then there are results that are euphemistically called “nonpaternity events” revealing that the assumed father is not the biological father — news that can sometimes tear families apart.

In his book, Jacobs cited estimates that two to 10 percent of worldwide births are “nonpaternity events.” Jacobs thinks the real rate is somewhere in the lower end of that range.

“That’s still a huge number. Over a hundred million people worldwide. Just a couple of decades ago, we had to rely on rumors and whispers. The old catchphrase was “Mother’s baby, father’s maybe.” But DNA has changed that. No more maybes,” he wrote.

Another engine of the genealogical craze is the increasingly individualized nature of our society.

“People are interested in themselves, and genealogy lets them create what a professional genealogist I spoke with called ‘The Museum of Me.’ It feeds people’s ego and vanity,” Jacobs said.

This is especially true in cases where people can trace their ancestry to famous individuals or the aristocracy.

A.J. Jacobs’ grandmother Ann Kheel with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the New York home she shared with Theodore Kheel. (Courtesy)

Jacobs, who descends primarily from Ashkenazi Jews, can’t claim aristocratic roots, but he did discover interesting individuals on his family tree, including  one who fought (albeit extremely briefly) in the Civil War, and another who traveled westward on a pioneering wagon train. Noted American legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who served in the Obama Administration, is also a relative.

The author already knew his pro-union lawyer and civil rights activist grandfather Theodore Kheel represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it wasn’t until working on “It’s All Relative” that he filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain Kheel’s FBI file.

Among the interesting bits of information contained within was that in 1962, his grandpa helped organize the 45th birthday party of president John F. Kennedy at which Marilyn Monroe “wore a tight dress and sang the most suggestive rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in history.”

The family of humankind

The idea of the Global Family Reunion was to ultimately get away from the particulars of one’s own ancestry and embrace all of humanity as family.

Jacobs would like to hold other such reunions in the future, but for now he relishes his memories from June 6, 2015, when he succeeded in bringing thousands of people of different backgrounds together to celebrate.

Sister Sledge performs at The Global Family Reunion in New York, June 6, 2015 (Elana Goodridge)

“There was a crazy variety of people there and it made me so happy. There were no riots, no fisticuffs. Everyone got along,” he said.

Jacobs doesn’t consider himself Pollyannaish for thinking that bringing people of radically different backgrounds or points of view together to recognize their genetic connections can help resolve conflicts. In his book, he cites a study that appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in which Israelis and Palestinians treat one another with more kindness when they are under the impression that they share significant DNA.

Israelis and Palestinians treat one another better when they think they share significant DNA

“In the last years we have seen more tribalism — national, racial, political — and the huge problems of the world, like weapons of mass destruction, poverty and climate change, need universal cooperation,” Jacobs said.

“I don’t think recognizing genetic connections is going to cause world peace to break out tomorrow. But I do think it can be a useful tool,” he said.

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