Fiddler on the Roots

By Dena Eben Premium

“You are my brother,” the Moroccan vendor proclaimed to my father. All his life, my father’s olive complexion, unlike that of any close relative, had drawn stares and comments. His parents fled Germany for America in the 1930s, but his dark skin, coupled with a thick, black beard, told a different story. That day in the Jerusalem marketplace was no exception.

Until my father’s bone marrow closely matched a boy of Portuguese descent, we’d only speculated that his skin tone signaled Arabic roots. Finding out that he had genetic ties to the Iberian peninsula revised the story: Not only had our ancestors escaped Hitler, but also the Inquisition.

Donating bone marrow — although it can save a life — is not the best route to finding your Jewish roots. While all Jews are genetically linked, millennia of migration in the Diaspora, the scattering of Jews after the Babylonian Exile in 597 BCE, make the chances of being a potential donor slim to none. Instead, the best advice mirrors other forays into genealogy: Go with what you know and work your way into the past.

Jewish genealogy is about discovering culture, not necessarily religion, although it helps if you have a small amount of basic theological knowledge. When you delve into a rich and well-documented 5,761-year history, sometimes the line between culture and religion blurs. A working knowledge of key terms, such as shtetl (small Jewish community in Eastern Europe), ketubah (marriage contract) or get (divorce contract), may be invaluable to your research. For many eager researchers, it is the gradual assimilation into American life that sparks their interest in reclaiming a Jewish heritage.

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 <> may be able to help. The Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest <>, 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 <> 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 man 75 worldwide Jewish Genealogial Societies. Look for the JGS in your area at <>. JewishGen <> 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.

Beyond the begats

If you’re still stumped, traditional Jewish naming patterns might turn partial information into breakthroughs, since they provide clues about other family members. Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews are named after a close deceased relative, so a birth date could signify the approximate death date of an ancestor sharing that name.

Most American Jewish immigrants, having Ashkenazic ties, had four names:

a Hebrew name, used on religious documents and often inscribed on gravestones with the deceased’s father’s Hebrew name

a Yiddish name for everyday use, similar to the Hebrew name, that may appear on a vital record or ship’s passenger list

Research firms, like the New Jersey-based Routes to Roots, often shed light on a dark past. Some have research contacts in Europe; others have branch offices in those countries. Individual genealogists in Europe, the United States and Canada also hire out their services; the Federation of Eastern European Family Historical Societies maintains a list at <>.

Another source for European records is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City <>, most of whose holdings can be borrowed from your local Family History Center. “They have incredible collections of Jewish vital records for Germany, Poland and Hungary,” Mokotoff notes, “and they are slowly acquiring records in such countries as Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.” If the FHL doesn’t have the records you need, however, you may be in for a long wait: The opening of government records in post-Communist Eastern Europe has led to a flood of information that still needs to be transferred to microfilm.

Cemeteries also may have clues to your ancestral origins. Many immigrants organized in landsmanshaftn, denoting a common town of origin, and Jewish cemeteries often belong to congregations that drew members from the same Old World community. Congregational or landsmanshaft plots, like those of my great-grandparents, list an immigrant’s birthplace on the tombstone. (There is also a tradition of leaving rocks on top of the gravestone, which may indicate to a visitor that another relative or friend of the deceased is available to make more genealogical connections.)

Once you obtain even partial information, such as port of entry, limited vital statistics and, most important, region or town of origin, you can start unlocking your overseas roots. All it takes is a lot of patience and a bit of chutzpah — nerve, or in this case, perseverance — an intrinsic quality that has helped Jews survive throughout history.

Bearing witness

You might think that the migratory nature of the Jewish people and the purging of communities by the Cossacks during the pogroms and the Nazis during the Holocaust means many Jews have no concrete evidence of their past. This popular misconception can hinder successful research. “While most things Jewish were destroyed, birth and death records exist in government archives,” Mokotoff says.

Many also believe that a heritage trip to the old country would turn up very little information, since most vestiges of shtetl life have been erased by tyranny and time. On a trip to the Ukraine last year, I found plenty of evidence to the contrary. The famous Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev, long used as a puppet theater by the Communists, now functions as a house of prayer; sawdust from new floorboards filled the air during my visit. Formerly repressed or partially destroyed communities find renewal today, though they’re struggling. In fact, one way to encourage these communities’ rebirth is by planning a heritage trip that will give hope and provide volunteers, supplies or funds.

If you’re searching for survivors or victims of the Holocaust, heritage museums and Holocaust centers may have the records you need. Fortunately, the atrocities were well documented. Yad Vashem <>, Israel’s national Holocaust records archive and museum, keeps a names registry, as does the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum <> in Washington, DC. Holocaust “remembrance centers” in major cities also may contain archives and directory books. The Museum of Jewish Heritage <> in New York City is currently developing a Family History Center and has a collection of 15,000 objects, photographs and films relating to specific families and communities dating from the 1880s to the present.

Teach your children’s children

For many Jewish genealogists, researching the past brings them closer to the present. “Most claim that they feel more Jewish since they’ve started,” Mokotoff says. “I think it’s because you immerse yourself in Jewish history.”

The connection to history fuels a need to sustain that legacy. Present-day researchers combat centuries of persecution by passing on stories about generations past. You may find surprises, like my father’s Arabic-Iberian roots, or inspiring moments like my visit to the Brodsky Synagogue. Even something as small as a recipe can be significant. If you can’t find specific family ties from Europe, complete the story of your family’s time in America. Perhaps look into adopting Israeli customs that will bring you closer to a vibrant and inherently Jewish culture.

Don’t for get to document your own family’s life. By preserving your daily life and Jewish-American customs, your own children and grandchildren will be able to carry the mantle of your 5,761-year-old heritage.


American Jewish Archives

3101 Clifton Ave. Cincinnati, OH 45220 (513) 221-1875 <>

Center for Jewish History

15 W. 16th St. New York, NY 10011 (212) 294-6160 <>

This is the online gateway to Jewish genealogical records and sites of other prominent organizations — the American Jewish Historical Society <>, YIVO Institute (East European Jewry) <>, Leo Baeck Institute (German Jewry) <>, the Sephardi Federation (Iberian, Arabic, African Jewry) <> and the Jewish Genealogy Society of New York <>.

Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Sprinzak Building, Givat Ram Hebrew University Box 1149 91010 Jerusalem Israel +972 (2) 563-5716 <>

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

333 Seventh Ave. New York, NY 10001 (212) 967-4100 <> Works with refugees, most recently resettling immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Its Web site features a service to find lost relatives and an immigrant archive. The society facilitated the escape of more than 70,000 families during and after the Holocaust, and will search its case files on these relatives for a fee.

International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies

4430 Mt. Paran Parkway NW Atlanta, GA 30327 <>

Routes to Roots

136 Sandpiper Key Seacaucus, NJ 07094 (201) 866-4075 <>

Yad Vashem

Box 3477 91034 Jerusalem Israel +972 (2) 644-3400 <> Most Holocaust-related records are stored here.
From the April 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine