Correction: This article’s headline has been updated from “Resistant Genealogy” to “Resistance Genealogy.”
Baltimore amateur genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn, 49, is the creator of “Resistance Genealogy,” a term that has suddenly brought her a considerable amount of fame, to which she is still adjusting.
And that is, essentially, a tweet-by-tweet exposé on hypocrisy, and a commentary on the stories America tells about itself.
The concept began several months ago, when Mendelsohn watched White House adviser Stephen Miller go on CNN and tell the anchor that immigrants should be required to speak English.
Something in the statement rankled her, so Mendelsohn, a journalist whose genealogical research had been mostly contained to her own family tree, logged on to a few research databases, then responded with two sentences that were promptly retweeted 17,000 times:
She included a PDF of the census document, which specified that Miller’s grandmother spoke only Yiddish.
A few weeks later, Mendelsohn read conservative commenter Tomi Lahren’s assertion that the country needed to punish the “illegal behavior” of undocumented immigrants. Mendelsohn took to her databases, landing on court documents for Lahren’s great-great-grandfather. He’d been born in Russia, and then immigrated to North Dakota, where he was indicted on a charge of forging his naturalization documents.
Mendelsohn went back to Twitter: “Law-abiding citizens like her great-great-grandfather, indicted by a grand jury for forging naturalization papers?” She went viral again.
When Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson declared that the United States shouldn’t accept immigrants from “failing countries,” Mendelsohn dug up a narrative written by his great-great-grandfather, who said he’d left Switzerland because his prospects there were so limited.
Miller, Lahren and Carlson never did respond back. When The Washington Post reached out to all of them for comment, only Carlson called back: “The United States is a completely different country now,” he said. “The idea that [having] a relative who came 150 years ago means I have to have a specific view on immigration? It’s so dumb it’s hard to believe you have to respond to it.”
He continued: “There’s only one question that matters: what’s good for the country in 2018?”
She wasn’t trying to stir up trouble, she says, so much as she was trying to point out a truth about the history of America: almost everyone came here from somewhere else, whether that migration happened one generation ago or six, whether the migration was a hopeful choice or a forced imprisonment.
In Mendelsohn’s personal history, the boat in question carried her infant grandfather. His parents, a shoemaker and a housewife, boarded in Latvia and eventually settled in New York. Rosie Mendelsohn, Jennifer’s great-grandmother, birthed 10 children and saw all but one die in childhood. Rosie herself died at age 36 from tuberculosis.
“When I think of the opportunities afforded to me over two generations, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling,” Mendelsohn says. “The fact that I can type something on my computer and hot food will come to my door. Or that in 10 minutes I can be at Johns Hopkins and have the best medical care in the world. I am the manifestation of everything [my ancestors] were hoping to do.”
Mendolsohn wants people to interrogate their own histories. If people are unbothered by their own ancestors’ immigration, but opposed to it now — why? What deeper issues have come into play?
Something about her work has spoken to people — particularly to liberal armchair activists who have no political power, but who are looking for ways to apply their own bookish skills to the cause.
Mendelsohn has been contacted by television producers. Book editors. People wanting her to find their relatives. People wanting to know if they are her relatives. One local artist sent her an email, “I feel really inspired to create a visual project on the work you do”; another man asked whether she ever did “non-political, non-adversarial genealogical research,” which she took mean that he just basically wanted help locating distant cousins.
“This poor girl emailed me asking me for a job,” Mendelsohn says, scrolling past another email. “And I’m like, I don’t even have a job.”
Her genealogical research is all done in her spare time, squeezed in between paid freelance writing work and raising two children. Sometimes she’ll trace a famous family tree for hours and decide not to post anything. Her most successful tweets have been the ones laden with irony.
“So Dan,” she wrote in January to Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media who had recently tweeted that it was “time to end chain migration.” “Let’s say Victor Scavino arrives from Canelli, Italy in 1904, then brother Hector in 1905, brother Gildo in 1912, sister Esther in 1913, & sister Clotilde and their father Giuseppe in 1916, and they live together in NY. Do you think that would count as chain migration?”