Ear­li­er this week, Doreen Car­va­jal wrote about try­ing to recov­er her fam­i­ly’s secret iden­ti­ty. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Most every­one has a fam­i­ly tree. But how do you turn a dry chart of birth and death dates into some­thing more vibrant that can be shared for gen­er­a­tions? Turn into a reporter. And then pre­serve the sto­ry in a com­pelling way.

By writ­ing about my own fam­i­ly mys­tery with my first book, The For­get­ting Riv­er, I want­ed to share the sto­ry of the secret Sephardic Jew­ish iden­ti­ty of the Catholic Car­va­jals in a way that could intro­duce ances­tors to descendants.

I’m a jour­nal­ist by trade, but I made many mis­takes along my own jour­ney to explore my fam­i­ly. A basic les­son I learned was to start ear­ly to inter­view rel­a­tives about per­son­al fam­i­ly his­to­ry. By the time I began to probe our past, key rel­a­tives with vital infor­ma­tion had died.

But one of the most cru­cial mis­takes I made was that I lost my own jour­nal­is­tic skep­ti­cism when I ques­tioned fam­i­ly mem­bers about del­i­cate sub­jects. I did­n’t gath­er much infor­ma­tion when I asked direct­ly if we were the descen­dants of Mar­ra­nos, forced Chris­t­ian con­verts who main­tained a dual iden­ti­ty to escape per­se­cu­tion dur­ing the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion. To probe sen­si­tive fam­i­ly his­to­ry, I real­ized belat­ed­ly that it’s best to work from the edges. Think. Watch. Observe. I asked benign ques­tions and searched for records that allowed infor­ma­tion to seep out about cus­toms, house­hold rit­u­als, job pat­terns, prayers. I found that the old­er gen­er­a­tion some­times con­fid­ed more in their grand­chil­dren and nieces than their own chil­dren. From this strat­e­gy, I learned about a hid­den meno­rah kept in a bed­room dress­er or fourth cousins mar­ry­ing fourth cousins, an almost trib­al habit of trust­ed secret Mar­ra­no fam­i­lies inter­mar­ry­ing and main­tain­ing the appear­ance of being Catholics.

Late­ly, I’ve been think­ing about oth­er strate­gies that fam­i­lies can exploit to start con­ver­sa­tions and unlock mem­o­ries. An acquain­tance orga­nized a fam­i­ly reunion for a large black fam­i­ly on the East Coast with some painful his­to­ry dat­ing back to slav­ery. Some rel­a­tives were reluc­tant to remem­ber those times, but they set­tled on the idea of cre­at­ing a gri­ot cook­book, ask­ing rel­a­tives for fam­i­ly recipes along with sub­mis­sions of per­son­al mem­o­ries evoked by the dish­es. The gri­ot is a ref­er­ence to a tra­di­tion­al West African storyteller.

Once con­ver­sa­tions start flow­ing, seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Make a record­ing. The Sto­ryCorps is a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that offers advice about pre­serv­ing per­son­al his­to­ry, down to sug­gest­ed con­ver­sa­tion open­ers (What is your ear­li­est mem­o­ry? What are the most impor­tant lessons you’ve learned in life?).

For the finale – and a gift to future gen­er­a­tions – make a dig­i­tal slide show with a sound­track that mix­es music and their words. There are many iPad appli­ca­tions that allow ama­teur geneal­o­gists to turn into mul­ti-media pro­duc­ers. Make sure the slide is show is about two min­utes and focus on a time or a sto­ry that can lead to more conversations.

Vis­it Doreen Car­va­jal’s offi­cial web­site here.

Doreen Car­va­jal’s first book, The For­get­ting Riv­er, is about her search to recov­er her Catholic fam­i­ly’s hid­den Sephardic Jew­ish roots in a mys­ti­cal white pueblo on Spain’s south­ern fron­tier in Andalusia.