Author A.J. Jacobs likes to go to extremes. He’s read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He’s followed the Bible literally for an entire year. He’s also tried out just about every diet and exercise regimen possible in the quest to be healthy. Now, he’s reinvented himself again, this time as a crack genealogist who is trying to build the world’s largest family tree and get all its members together for a massive Global Family Reunion.
If you don’t have anything else planned for June 6, 2015, you might consider attending the reunion in New York. After all, chances are you are actually related in some distant way to Jacobs. Actor Daniel Radcliffe is. So are comedian Ricky Gervais and former US President George H. W. Bush, to name just a few.
If Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and the Vilna Gaon were alive today, they’d also be eligible to attend.
It turns out this reporter is also Jacobs’ cousin.
“You’re on my family tree, too,” the author says in a phone interview. “We’re just 27 steps away from one another.”
He sends a screenshot of his family tree on Geni.com to prove it.
When many of us can barely stand to get together with our immediate family, is it even reasonable to expect thousands of extremely distant relatives to mix and mingle at a big bash at The New York Hall of Science, where Sister Sledge will appear singing “We Are Family?”
The enthusiastic Jacobs, 46, seems confident he’ll be able to pull off the biggest family reunion in history. He’s obviously not expecting the 77 million people who appear so far on the world’s biggest family tree, let alone all 7 billion members of the human race, to show up. He’d just be happy to exceed the size of the best-attended family reunion to date, at which 4,500 members of a French family gathered in August 2012.
“So far we have people from 160 countries and from all the continents on the tree,” he says. “We are really hoping to get people from every country.”
Jacobs, editor at large at Esquire magazine, a commentator on NPR and a columnist for Mental Floss magazine, is obviously not compiling this massive family tree on his own. He is partnering with a number of genealogy-related companies, including Israel-based MyHeritage, which has more than 75 million registered users and 27 million family trees (and is owner of Geni.com).
“We get a lot of requests for help from people wanting to host family reunions, but this is different. A.J. is seeking to shatter a record,” says Aaron Godfrey, public relations and social media manager at MyHeritage.
“We are working with him on logistics for the reunion and we have a team of curators [who make sure contributed data is correct] who are working specifically on A.J.’s project.”
The building of Jacobs’s massive family tree relies on online crowdsourcing, a technology that has made genealogy more accessible for all and more interesting to younger people.
Crowdsourcing isn’t everyone’s preferred method, however. Jules Feldman, who can take credit for initially setting Jacobs off on his cousin quest, prefers doing things the old-fashioned way.
Feldman, who made aliyah from South Africa 43 years ago and lives on a kibbutz in northern Israel, is an avid genealogist. In mid-2013, he emailed Jacobs and told him that he was his 10th cousin.
“I thought it was some sort of Nigerian scam at first,” says Jacobs. “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.”
Feldman had read some of Jacobs’ articles and was familiar with his experiential (or as Jacobs himself calls it, “guinea pig”) style of journalism.
“I suggested he take on genealogy as his next project. I thought he was the type of guy to take something like this on. He’s capable of getting into weird stuff,” Feldman says of his very distant and adventurous cousin.
Feldman gave Jacobs his database as a starting point, and the author took it from there.
“A.J. took it in the direction of crowdsourcing. It’s not the direction I would have taken it in, but it’s appropriate for what A.J. is trying to achieve,” says Feldman.
Jacobs finds genealogy compelling particularly because it is going though a technological revolution that enables far-flung individuals to collaborate online and combine information to create “mammoth family trees.”
“This is all very cool, but it is also very important,” he says. He cites the scientific value of family trees, in that they help scientists trace and study genetic traits and diseases.
There’s also the fact that genealogy can bring history to life for children. It’s one thing for Jacobs’ sons to learn about Albert Einstein. It’s another for them to learn about “Uncle Albert.”
Finally, there is Jacobs’ hope that the discovery of family ties will bind people closer together.
“Maybe people will start treating others with more kindness. We generally treat family better than we do strangers,” he says.
As would be expected from any out-there undertaking by Jacobs, there is going to be a book that comes out of the Global Family Reunion project. It will be similar in style to the author’s previous books, “The Know-It-All,” “The Year of Living Biblically” and “Drop Dead Healthy.”
“There will be some stuff on the science of genetics, the history of genealogy, and what the notion of family means today, with adoption, gay marriage, sperm donation, and the like,” he says.
He will also share with readers the process of putting together and carrying out the family tree project, and he’ll report on the actual reunion.
“And, of course, I’ll meet cousins like Warren Buffett and Paul McCartney and hit them up for some advice,” he half-jokes.
“Supersize Me” filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“he’s also a cousin”) will turn the whole venture in to a documentary.
Feldman is considering making the trip to New York next June to attend the Global Family Reunion.
“I’m thinking about it,” he says.
If he goes, he’ll most certainly be guaranteed a spot in what his cousin hopes will be the largest-ever family photo in history.
“Those with a proven connection will get a bracelet and get to be in the photo,” Jacobs promises.