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Family History Toolkit

Introduction

Do you wonder if your grandmother remembers her first date?
Have you asked your coach about the hardest game she ever played?
Are you curious about what your tutor remembers from her bat mitzvah?

These are the kinds of questions that oral history interviews can help you answer. When you interview a friend, relative, or community member, you'll hear stories like never before!

What is Oral History?

Conducting an oral history interview is like listening to a choose-your-own adventure story about someone else’s life. Every person you know has a unique story to tell, and you probably won’t ever get to hear it—unless you ask. Oral history lets you ask questions to get the information you think is most interesting.

Oral history also reminds us that famous people aren’t the only ones whose stories matter—every person is part of history. And when you interview someone whose story is not already well-known or documented in a public place (like in the newspaper or on TV), you are doing the important work of contributing to history.

Getting Started

Choose a “Narrator”:

In a book, the person who tells the story is called the “narrator.” In an oral history, the person you interview is also called the narrator because he or she is the one telling the story.

Deciding whom to interview starts with thinking about what you want to know. Ask yourself: Which person do I want to learn more about? Perhaps it is your mother, grandmother, or another family member who is the keeper of family memories, stories, and traditions. Maybe it’s your coach or piano teacher, or your friend’s mom. Or it may be someone who is a role model for you or who has had a major impact on your community. The person you choose to interview for this project does not have to be Jewish or a woman. Many different kinds of people play an important role in shaping the young Jewish woman that you are becoming.

Part of what’s fun and memorable about oral history is making a connection with another person, and usually that’s easiest to do face-to-face. When that’s not possible, technology gives us other options, like phone, email, and video. Figure out what you think will work best for you and your narrator.

Preparing for the Interview

  1. Before you conduct the interview, make a list of things you want to know about your narrator. This should include key facts and information (names, dates, key events in her life, etc.) and questions you would like to ask. We have a few sets of interview questions (see “Question Sets” section below), or you can use the “How to Ask Great Questions” section below to create your own.
  2. Decide how to record the interview. Do you have or can you borrow a video camera or audio recorder? You can also just take notes. Whatever you decide, make sure you assemble the necessary equipment in advance and know how to use it.
  3. Sometimes it is a good idea to have the narrator bring along an object to talk about or show you. This could be a favorite family photograph, an old toy, book, or keepsake. It could even be a piece of clothing or a birth certificate. Consider asking your narrator if he or she would like to share something. If they do, take a picture or scan it so you can have your own copy of it.
  4. Make sure you have a good place to do your interview. You’ll want it to be quiet and fairly private so that you and your narrator will feel comfortable talking together. You may also want to consider having comfortable chairs, since you will be sitting for a while. And have some water on hand—your narrator might get thirsty from all that talking!

Tips and Techniques

Here are a few things to remember while you are conducting the interview.

Do

  • Start with easy questions about basic biographical information to help your narrator feel comfortable. Leave more difficult questions until later, when you have established a connection with your narrator, and she has become more comfortable speaking honestly with you.
  • Follow up with additional questions that encourage your narrator to say more about her experience. If you are interested in hearing more about something she shares, just ask.
  • Even though it is hard to wait, do allow long pauses or silences. Sometimes it takes a moment for the narrator to collect her thoughts.
  • Do keep the focus on your narrator’s story—try not to share your own experiences or feelings.

Don't

  • Don’t interrupt your narrator while she is in the middle of a story. Instead write other questions down so you can ask them later.
  • Don’t ask leading questions that make assumptions about what your narrator thinks or feels. Instead ask open questions (see “How to Ask Great Questions” section below) to understand how she feels.
  • Don’t express encouragement with phrases like “uh huh” or “oh, wow,” because they can interrupt the narration. Instead show your appreciation or understanding through eye contact, facial expressions, and other non-verbal signs.

Interview Location and Time

  • Conduct the interview at a time and place that are convenient for your narrator. The more comfortable the narrator feels, the more likely she will relax and enjoy the experience.
  • Make sure that there is as little noise as possible. The sound of ringing phones, barking dogs, fans, air conditioners, refrigerators, or other electronic equipment can create background noise that will disrupt the interview.
  • If possible, arrange the interview so that as few people as possible are present. The presence of others will change how the narrator answers some questions or how comfortable she feels sharing certain stories.
  • Limit interview sessions to no more than one and a half to two hours. It may be tiring for the narrator to remember so much and to talk for such a long time. You can always do several short interviews instead of one long one.

Remember, the most important thing is to enjoy the chance to learn about the person you are interviewing. In other words, have fun!

How to Ask Great Questions

The key to getting a good story is asking good questions. If you don’t know what you want to ask, you can get some ideas from our lists in the “Question Sets” section below.

The following question-writing guidelines will help you collect an interesting oral history from your narrator.

Two Kinds of Questions:

Oral historians ask two kinds of questions when they are conducting interviews—closed questions and open questions.

  1. Closed questions are important for finding out short pieces of factual information. Questions about dates, names, etc. are essential but they don’t make for very rich or exciting stories.

    Examples of closed questions include:

    • What year were you born?
    • What were your parents’ names?
    • When did your family come to this country?
    • What high school did you attend?
  2. Open questions, on the other hand, allow you to draw out your narrator’s memories, opinions, and points of view. These questions make the narrator’s story interesting and fun.

    Open questions often begin with:

    • Why?
    • Can you describe…?
    • Tell me about…
    • What was that like?
    • How did you feel when…?
    • What were your expectations about…?
    • What challenges did you face when…?

The One-Two Punch Method:

In order to record a well-balanced oral history, try using the one-two punch method. First you ask a closed question to learn a fact or get a specific answer. Then follow with an open-ended question to allow the narrator to say more about her response.

Here are some examples of pairs of closed questions and open-ended questions:

  • Closed: What was your mother’s name?
  • Open-ended: Describe your relationship with your mother when you were growing up.
  • Closed: When did you move to the new house?
  • Open-ended: How did you feel about moving to a new house and a new neighborhood?
  • Closed: When did you graduate from medical school?
  • Open-ended: What it was like being one of only three women in your medical school class?

Once you come up with a list of questions, put them in an order that makes sense to you. Are there some things that you need to know before you can ask about others? Decide which questions are more important or interesting to you and make sure you put them at the top of the list in case you run out of time.

Question Sets

There are lots of different questions you can ask your narrator. Choose from the sets below, or pick some questions from each group and make your own set!

About Family

  • Which of your family members settled in the United States? Who came first? Where did they come from? Why did they emigrate?
  • List and describe your family members (siblings, parents, grandparents). What was your relationship with them? What influence did they have on your life?
  • Where did you grow up? Describe your house and your neighborhood. Who lived in your household?
  • Did you have any special or interesting family traditions (e.g., food, birthdays, holidays, etc.)?
  • Which Jewish holidays did your family celebrate? Which were the most important to you? Why?
  • Did anyone in your family serve as your role model? Who? Why?
  • Were girls and boys treated differently in your family? What were your family’s expectations about education, marriage, work, Jewish identity, and religious observance?

For Grandparents

  • How many grandchildren do you have? What are their ages?
  • What were your expectations about becoming a grandparent?
  • Was your own mother or father (or someone else) a role model for you as a grandparent? Why and how?
  • What name did you want to be called as a grandparent? Why? What associations does this name have for you?
  • Describe your experience of being a grandparent. What have been your roles and responsibilities? Greatest rewards or challenges?
  • What do you want your grandchildren to know/remember about you?

About School

  • Where did you go to school?
  • What subjects did you enjoy most? What did you enjoy least? Why?
  • What extracurricular activities were you involved in and what drew you to them?
  • If you are Jewish, how did that aspect of your identity affect you at school?
  • Were girls treated differently than boys? Explain. How did you feel about that?
  • Describe what you and your friends did together for fun. What did “hanging out” look like when you were young?
  • Did you have any particular role models, male or female, in school, such as teachers, coaches, or advisors? Describe your relationship with them and their impact on your life.
  • What did you want to be when you grew up? Why? If you are Jewish, were there careers that you did not feel were open to you as a Jew?
  • What were the important events or milestones in your youth (e.g., bar or bat mitzvah, learning how to drive, graduation, etc.)?

About Judaism/Jewish Identity (Note: Ask these questions if the person you are interviewing is Jewish.)

  • What aspects of Jewish identity are most important to you (e.g., religious beliefs and observance, affiliation with a particular religious movement, relationship to Israel, secular Jewish culture, Yiddish culture, Sephardic culture, Jewish foods and culinary traditions)? How is this expressed in your life?
  • Have your feelings about being Jewish changed over time? How?
  • How has your gender affected your experience as a Jew?
  • Did you raise your children with a religious orientation different than the one in which you grew up? How and why?
  • Did you have a bat mitzvah? As a child? As an adult? Describe the experience and its meaning for you.
  • Can you recall any milestones or turning points in your religious life?
  • If you are a Jew by choice, describe the experience of conversion.
  • If you (or members of your family) are married to a non-Jew, how has the experience of intermarriage affected you?
  • Have you or your family experienced or been aware of antisemitism? How has it affected you?

About Social Life and Leisure

  • Where would family and friends get together during your childhood and teenage years? Were there special gathering places? What would you do?
  • Did you have any hobbies or special interests? Describe.
  • Who did you tend to socialize with? Were your friends mainly drawn from within the Jewish community or from outside it?
  • Did you have favorite radio programs, television programs, or movies that you listened to or watched regularly? Describe.
  • How important was reading in your life? What were some of your favorite books and authors?
  • Who are/were your favorite movie stars, singers, authors, etc.? What did/do you like about them?

About Work

  • As a young woman, what expectations did you have regarding your working life? If you chose to work or not to work in paying jobs, what factors influenced your decision?
  • What factors influenced your choice of profession or particular jobs? What responsibilities did you have in your various jobs?
  • What were your goals and aspirations regarding your work life?
  • What were your expectations around earning money? In your first jobs? In later jobs?
  • What do you consider to be your greatest achievements in your field of work? What are you most proud of?

About Activism/Volunteerism

  • Have you served as a volunteer for any community or civic projects (e.g., synagogue or other Jewish groups; alumni associations; cultural, artistic or political organizations)?
  • Which organizations have been most important to you? Why? Describe your involvement.
  • What were your motivations for doing volunteer work? What did you hope to accomplish?
  • Do you think of yourself as a leader? As an activist?
  • Do you associate particular Jewish values, such as tzedakah or tikkun olam, with the work you did/do?
  • What were your satisfactions and rewards from this community service?
  • What political and social movements or causes have you been involved in? What were your motivations? Describe your experience.
  • Have you had important role models or mentors? How have they inspired and/or influenced you?

About the World Today

  • How do you feel about the world today compared to the world in which you grew up?
  • What trends or changes in the world are surprising or disturbing to you? Why?
  • What words of wisdom would you offer to the generations that came after you? Do you have a philosophy of life or particular values that are important for you to share with younger people?
  • What are your greatest hopes for the future?

Say Thank You

Sharing one’s life story is a gift. When someone gives you a gift, it’s important to say thank you. No matter whom you choose to interview, write a letter to tell the person how much you appreciate the time he or she has spent with you and, more importantly, the memories, wisdom, and reflections shared. Everyone loves to get mail and writing a letter is a great way to thank your narrator for sharing her stories with you. Pick a nice card and hand write a letter to tell your narrator how much you appreciated getting to talk to her. Here is an example of a thank you letter:

Dear Grandma Di,

Thank you so much for letting me interview you for my bat mitzvah project. It was really fun to hear about your trip to India! I also loved seeing the pictures of you and your best friends. I can't wait to show you my project when I come to visit in a few months! I miss you!

Love,

Stefanie

Recording and Sharing Your Interview

Make sure to record your oral history interview so that you can save it and share it with others!

Before the Interview:

Days before you conduct the interview, you should decide how you are going to record it. It is often more interesting to watch a video than to listen to an audio recording, but some people feel uncomfortable being recorded on a video camera. Talk to your narrator and decide which type of recording would be most comfortable for him or her.

After you’ve decided which type of recording to make, learn how to use the device. Make sure you know how to start and stop recording. You also need to make sure you have all the necessary equipment. Do you need to charge a battery or bring a power cord? If you are using a digital device, how much memory do you have available? If you are using a non-digital device, how many tapes will you need? Will you need a tripod or a table to rest the camera or audio recorder on? You might want to use a microphone that can sit on a stand or clip onto your narrator’s clothes so that his or her voice is recorded clearly. Test your equipment a few times before the interview in order to make sure it works. You might have to ask your parent or another adult for help.

Release Forms:

After you’ve conducted your interview, you may decide to give the recording, transcript, or project to a library, university, archive, or other historical organization that will save and preserve the interview for years to come. Sharing the oral histories that you collect with these kinds of institutions allows other people to search for them and read them. When you contribute your own interviews and research to the historical record, you expand everyone’s knowledge of history.

It is good practice to have your narrator sign a release form at his/her interview. A release form explains who is interviewing, who is being interviewed, and what parts of the interview you are allowed to share with other people as well as with institutions. If you aren’t sure how to fill out a release form, here is Stefanie’s example. Then you can download our basic release form and have your narrator sign it at the interview.

Equipment Checklist

  • Recording device
  • Memory cards, CDs, or tapes to record onto
  • Power cord or charged batteries
  • Tripod or stand
  • External Microphone(s)
  • Extension cords
  • Notepad
  • Pens/pencils
  • Questions
  • Release Form

Setting Up:

When all of your equipment is set up, first take a sample recording to test to make sure that your recording device is working and that you can hear both you and the narrator on the recording. If you are making a video recording you need to decide if you will be on the video or if your recording will only show your narrator.

Recording an Opening Announcement:

To make sure that you (and others) know who and what is being recorded, you’ll need to record an opening announcement. After you’ve turned on the recorder, say the following:

“This is (your name) and I am here with (narrator’s name) to record his/her life history as part of the (name of your project). Today is (date) and we are at (place/address). (Narrator’s name), do I have your permission to record this interview?”

As an example, you might say:

“This is Stefanie and I am here with my grandmother Diane Emily Weinstock to record her life history as part of my bat mitzvah project. Today is February 23, 2011, and we are at my grandma’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Grandma Di, do I have your permission to record this interview?”

After the Interview:

Immediately after the interview, make sure to save and protect your recordings. If you’ve recorded onto a tape or CD, label the tape or CD with the name of the person you interviewed, the place, and the date. If you used more than one tape, also write “1 of 2” or “2 of 2,” etc., so that you don’t lose them. Pack them away in a safe place until later.

If you are digitally recording onto a memory card or device, make sure to download the recordings onto your computer as soon as possible to avoid deleting or recording over them. Save the files with the name of your narrator and the date of your interview so you can find them later. If you have more than one file, also include “Part 1,” “Part 2,” or “Part 3,” etc., in the file name, so that you know the order.

Photographs and Other Artifacts:

Photographs are another type of recording you can make. If you bring a camera to the interview, you can photograph your narrator or get a picture of the two of you together. If your narrator brings an object to share, you can also take a picture of the object (like an old dress or a favorite toy) and add it to your collection. As with the recordings, make sure to save and label the files on your computer with the name of the narrator, the date, and a description of the object.

If you have hard copies of photographs, you might want to scan them, especially if they are not your own. The same goes for old newspaper or magazine articles, birth certificates, wedding announcements, artwork, etc. Saving these kinds of objects can be tricky, so ask an adult for help. You may also want to read some more tips on preserving family papers.

Sharing Your Interview:

There are many ways you can share your interview with others. In each case, please make sure you have the permission of your narrator before you share the interview. See our ideas below!

  • Write a Speech or Letter:
    Many girls give a d’var torah as part of their bat mitzvah celebration. Using your torah portion as a guide, you can incorporate the stories of your narrator into your speech. Even if you aren’t going to have a traditional bat mitzvah in a synagogue, you can write an essay or letter about your interview and send it to a local newspaper. You could also make a video to send to your family and friends in an email!
  • Use It at Your Party:
    If you are going to have a party or celebration, think about how you can share the stories from your interview at the event. Are there quotations or photographs you could use as decorations? Maybe you would like to show a video of your favorite part of the interview. You could also write something short to hand out to people when they come in or share it as part of a “toast” or candle lighting ceremony.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Family History Toolkit." (Viewed on June 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/stories/family-history-toolkit>.

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