Ancestors: Who We Are and Where We Come From” by David Hertzel— Relationships

Hertzel, David. “Ancestors: Who We Are and Where We Come From”, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.


Amos Lassen

While we are not aware of it, we involve our ancestors in every aspect of the way we live today. They are part of our rituals, both public and private and our secular and religious lives. We are often organized by laws and customs which came into being through our ancestors just as those living today will do the same for their descendants

Medical professionals consider ancestral information when making diagnoses and studying disease; many psychiatrists consider one’s relationship to ancestors important in understanding the mental and emotional disposition of subjects. In the legal professions, previous cases are considered before decisions are made and perceptions of ancestry are used as a determinant of personal, ethnic, racial, and national identity. We are passionate about our ancestry and we are well aware of how those who came before us influence us philosophically, medically, psychologically and religiously and the implications of these to their own perceptions of the same.

David Hertzel takes us on an introductory foray into the nature of relationships people today have with their ancestors, and explores the significance of ancestry and ancestral belief in our modern world in his new study, “Ancestors”. Two questions lead us— “who are your ancestors?” and “what is your relationship to those ancestors?” Hertzel interviewed thirty-five elders and people of prominence within particular social or intellectual communities. Interviewees were those who were already accomplished in an area related to ancestry, its nature or its meaning and these included “genealogists, geneticists, tribal chiefs and elders, researchers in some aspect of family or ancestry, family elders, and experienced practitioners or supervisors of particular ancestral rituals”. Interviewees were selected from diverse cultural backgrounds for purposes of contrast, comparison, and breadth and were not asked to ‘represent’ particular belief systems, doctrines, or nationhoods. They describe their own personal experiences and beliefs involving ancestors.

From these interviews, Hertzel was able to see common themes regarding ancestral practices and beliefs (how we sanctify our ancestors, how we create a living narrative of our ancestry, and how certain experiences such as suffering and love are shared across generations and seem to transcend death). Excerpts from interviews then are used as examples throughout his narrative exploration of the concept of ancestry offering looks into the diversity of ways that people think about who they are and where they come from.

Hertzel firmly believes that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before and we are indebted to them. Those interviewed in this study are “people of prominence within a particular social or intellectual community” and are referred to as ‘elders.’ These include those of Native American spirituality and Hindu, Mormon, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish religions as well as those from to other cultures. Many came to the same conclusion that “it is important to remember, to honor, and to be guided by those who have gone before.” Additionally, Hertzel gives his own insights based on the interviews and considers what constitutes family and what is our obligation to them.)

Hertzel, while a historian, uses a multidisciplinary approach to the voices in his book. The subjects of the book are quite open, sometimes painfully so, about their views and how they relate to their ancestors and even though this book deals with loss, it also deals with hope. We read of intangible religious mysteries, diversity and commonalities. Here is history as seen through families and we understand that progression has no substance unless we trace the influence of one generation upon the other. which is exactly what this important book achieves. Here is the truth in both the cultural and spiritual effects of those who came before us. The main message that we get from this study is that whether we are able to vocalize or admit it, we are deeply influenced by those who are no longer with us.

One thought on “Ancestors: Who We Are and Where We Come From” by David Hertzel— Relationships

  1. David Michael

    Thank you for your beautiful review. Your own comments are insightful and add to my understanding of the mysteries this book explores.


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