Got mishpucha? Jewish family extends beyond religion, encompassing a cultural heritage worth discovering. Here's how to stop futzing and start finding your Jewish roots.
In the beginning
Vera Weizmann, wife of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, once noted, "We Jews are a strange people: We remember Moses, the Kings David and Solomon, but we know next to nothing about our own forefathers besides our parents and occasionally our grandparents."
But those recent relatives are the best place to start your research. Chances are pretty good that you may have a living first- or second-generation American relative who can shed light on your family's arrival in this hemisphere: According to noted Jewish genealogist Gary Mokotoff, approximately 95 percent of Jewish families in America crossed the Atlantic after 1881.
Present-day Jews in North and South America have origins in one of three groups. The largest and the one that most influences American Jewish culture comes from Eastern Europe. Broadly known as Ashkenazim, they came en masse during the Russian pogroms, from 1881 through 1914. Waves continued to arrive throughout the 20th century, particularly as Jews fled many European countries as a result of World War II.
A second Ashkenazic segment migrated from Western, assimilated cultures such as France and Germany. The German Jews, for example, established communities starting in the 1840s. The third segment, called Sepharadim, originated in Spanish, Portuguese, Arab and African nations, as well as Dutch and English colonies. They arrived at various points dating back to the Marranos, who came with Columbus.
Since your ancestors most likely came with the most recent Ashkenazic group, collecting family stories and interviews to document your American Jewish experience may involve dealing with a very manageable 100 years of life in the United States. Trace your family's immigration, and fill in as many blanks as possible: Why did your ancestors come here? Where did they come from? Where did they settle? How did they maintain their Jewish identity?
For stateside research, the American Jewish community has vast resources. When you collect place-specific information, local divisions of the American Jewish Historical Society (www.ajhs.org) may be able to help. The Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest (www.jhsmw.org), for example, preserves primary source information on 150 years of Jewish life in northern New Jersey, from Newark to the Delaware Water Gap, where many families arriving through New York ports may have settled. The Southern Jewish Historical Society (www.jewishsouth.org) keeps records dating to colonial times. At best, you may find concrete ties to past generations, or, at the very least, a picture of daily life as your American Jewish ancestors may have lived it.
For specific genealogical guidance, contact one of the more than 75 worldwide Jewish Genealogial Societies. Look for the JGS in your area at www.jewishgen.org/ajgs/ajgs-jgss.html. JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org) also lists many other resources, including groups specializing in a particular region. If you know approximately where your family settled and its area of origin, a local society or interest group will be a great resource.