An Overview of Jewish Genealogy

by Robert J. Friedman | Feb 19, 2010

Robert J. Friedman

Are you looking for connections through Jewish genealogy? Exploring a Jewish past that was lost due to intermarriage or conversion? Searching for family lost in the Holocaust? Today there are more resources than ever to attain those goals.

Who Are the Jews?

From early beginnings in the Mideast almost 6000 years ago, Jews migrated to all corners of the globe. Jews have not had a home territory or common vernacular language for most of the last two millenia.

Those who remained in the Mideast or went to North Africa or Asia are known as Mizrahi, or Eastern Jews. Those who accompanied the Romans to Spain, and later flourished under Muslim rule, became Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino, a hybrid of Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

As they reconquered Iberia, Catholic monarchs forcibly converted the Jews. These "New Christians" became known as "conversos" (Spanish) or "anusim" (Hebrew). Those who secretly continued to practice Judaism in private were formerly called "Marranos," a derogatory term meaning pigs, and are now properly referred to as "crypto-Jews."

Expelled from Spain, Portugal and their colonies by 1500, Sephardic Jews took their language and culture with them to existing Jewish communities in North Africa, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Netherlands. The first Jews to permanently settle in North America were Sephardic--forced from Portuguese Brazil, they found refuge in Dutch New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654. Increasingly, Hispanic residents in the American Southwest, Latin America, and Spain are today discovering family traditions that hint at a Jewish past.

Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of those who settled along the Rhine River and other Roman trade routes in France and Germany from the 5th Century onward. Economic restrictions, expulsion edicts, and periodic anti-Semitic massacres kept the Jewish population in these areas limited, and prompted migration eastward to Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Ashkenazi Jews also developed their own distinct language, Yiddish, combining German, Hebrew, and Slavic elements.

Some "Jewish Geography"

In 1650, the largest number of Jews lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a huge country that extended deep into what is now modern Russia and Ukraine. By 1800, however, Poland and Lithuania ceased their independent existence and were divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Russia restricted the movement of its newly acquired Jews, allowing them to live only within "Congress Poland" and the "Pale of Settlement," regions within the annexed territory that already had the highest concentration of Jews. But 19th and 20th Century wars and political changes altered these borders considerably, so that your ancestor born in "Russia" in 1885 may have actually been born within the modern boundaries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, or Russia!

By 1800, the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire also included areas with significant Jewish populations, including Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary, Transylvania, and "Austrian Poland" (Galicia and Bukovina). The Austro-Hungarian "Dual Monarchy" gave Hungary autonomy in 1867 and jurisdiction over Slovakia, Transylvania, and other areas now part of Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria.

So Where Do I Start?

Jewish genealogy begins with oral history and "family archives" containing photos and documents. Specifically Jewish items include bar/bat mitzvah invitations, yahrzeit calendars (showing when to light a memorial candle for a deceased relative), ketubot (marriage contracts), and wimpels (made from an infant's swaddling cloths).

Interviewing older relatives may be a challenge, because immigrants often rejected contact with the societies they left behind. Jewish family life was violently disrupted over the last 200 years and memories can be painful. Jewish genealogists can help repair that damage by forging new, forward-looking connections.

After exhausting family sources, the next step is to sign up at JewishGen, a free web site, and register yourself in the Family Finder, where genealogists look for other people researching the same ancestral names and places. Also search the Family Tree of the Jewish People, where researchers share their data, and join a Jewish Genealogical Society to network and learn from fellow enthusiasts.

At this point, most of your research may focus on standard U.S. resources, like the census, vital records, immigration and naturalization records, city directories and telephone books. As you search, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

What's in a (Jewish) Name?

Just as we may have many nicknames today (like Rick, Dick, Richie, Ricky, etc., for Richard), the names of our Jewish ancestors also varied, especially in multiple languages. Generally Jews had at least two given names: one in Hebrew, used for official religious purposes, and a vernacular name in Yiddish and/or the language of the surrounding country.

Thus the Hebrew name Tzvi, meaning "deer," could be translated into German (Hirsch), Yiddish (Hirsh) and/or French (Cerf). These could appear in records as double names (Tzvi Hirsh, Aryeh Leib [lion]) or as interchangeable single names. Additionally, certain Biblical names were associated with specific symbols, leading to the possibility of three interchangeable names. For example, Benjamin is associated with a wolf (Zev in Hebrew, Volf in Yiddish).

What About Surnames?

For thousands of years, Jews used a patronymic system, in which the child's given name was followed by the father's given name (e.g., Moshe ben Yitzhak, or Moses son of Isaac). Many male given names eventually evolved into permanent surnames. Avraham became Abrahamsohn (German), Abramowicz (Polish), Abramovici (Romanian), etc. Among the most widespread Sephardic surnames are Rodriguez (child of Rodrigo), Henriquez (child of Henrique) , and Nunes (child of Nun). Less commonly, surnames were also derived from female given names, and called metronymics (Rachelson, Perlman).

Jews began using family names in Italy, Spain and Portugal as early as the 12th century, and in Prague and Frankfurt well before 1800. In medieval times, many names were based on the family's ornamental house sign. For example, a house with the sign of a red shield literally became the House of Rothschild. Others included Adler (eagle), Schiff (ship), and Stern (star). In the 1300s, prominent rabbinical families began maintaining hereditary surnames (Luria, Horowitz, Rapoport, and others).

However, most Jews in Europe did not use hereditary surnames until Christian authorities required them. Between 1780 and 1835, the Austrian and Russian Empires, France, and the German states issued decrees ordering Jews to adopt permanent surnames. Some took the name of their birthplace or former residence (Warshawsky, Frankfurter, Toledano). Occupational names were widespread, like Schneider (tailor), Molina (miller), and Gabay (sexton). Often personal characteristics became the basis for surnames: Crespi (curly hair), Slepak (blind), Lang (tall). Many artificial surnames just sounded appealing: Goldblum (gold flower), Silberfeld (silver field), Gr´┐Żnbaum (green tree).

Spelling Variations and Soundex

To better cope with Eastern European alphabets and phonics, Jewish genealogists prefer to use the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex system rather than those used for the Census and other U.S. records. See, for example, the Avotaynu Consolidated Jewish Surname Index. Before you search the index, be sure to read the section, What is a "Jewish Name"?

Jewish Sources

  • Gravestones: Most Jewish tombstones contain the Hebrew names of the deceased, his or her father, and occasionally the deceased's mother and/or spouse. Additional inscriptions may indicate that a man was a Kohen or Levite, hereditary religious categories that can be useful in determining family relationships.
  • Synagogue records: Although they have not been systematically created or preserved, synagogue records may contain lists of members, donors, marriages, and bar/bat mitzvahs, as well as vital records, burial registers, and minute books.
  • Landsmanshaftn: Before labor unions offered health and welfare benefits, and before government "safety net" programs were created, immigrants formed landsmanshaftn, or "homeland societies," to offer each other mutual aid in the form of sickness and unemployment benefits, social events, and the right to be buried in the society's cemetery plot.
  • Rabbis: The personal papers of rabbis may contain some of the same kinds of records kept by synagogues, including his personal register of ceremonies performed. Similarly, some circumcision registers have been preserved here and there.

Back to the "Old Country"

Sooner or later, you will find your ancestral town. Armed with that information, you can look for relevant genealogical records on line, on microfilm, in books, and in original documents stored in various archives. See below for web sites that can help you track down those records.

The Holocaust and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World)

Many Jews are trying to document the fate of Holocaust victims to commemorate their names and lives. This genealogical research has often led to the discovery of family members who actually survived the Holocaust, unbeknownst to their American kin. Family reunions born of such discoveries are simultaneously joyous, poignant, and bittersweet. An essential role for the Jewish genealogist is to help repair the torn fabric of Jewish family life by addressing and healing these deep emotional scars.

Millions of pages of Holocaust documents have been preserved, and increasing numbers of them have been microfilmed, scanned, and made available to the public, including the largest collection of all, held by the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. In addition to huge quantities of records created by the Nazis, extensive records have also recently become available from formerly Communist countries like Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine, to name a few. For more information, see the web sites listed below.

Essential Web Sites for Jewish Genealogy

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