Hebrew Heritage

By Etan Harmelech Premium

What do comedian Billy Crystal, actress and singer Barbra Streisand, director Steven Spielberg, MGM co-founder Samuel Goldwyn and movie-theater tycoon Marcus Loew have in common? These mega-movie millionaires all have Jewish heritage.

But it doesn’t matter whether your own Jewish family tree includes Hollywood stars or ordinary peddlers and tailors: Researching your roots can prove more rewarding than winning an Oscar. “Jewish genealogy is like kissing. You just can’t experience it from the outside and know how good it is,” says Arthur Kurzweil, author of From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History (Jossey-Bass).

Jews across the world share almost 6,000 years of common experiences despite differences in language, cultural traditions and religious convictions. That connection goes even further for North American Jews. For example, American Jews — 80 percent of whom are European-descent Ashkenazim — know that the best way to tell if someone is Jewish is to ask for his last name. From Goldberg to Silverstein, Baum to Rosenblum, surnames capture the very essence of American Jewry. They’re instantly recognizable, and Jews often think of them as being steeped in tradition.

In reality, most Jews didn’t acquire hereditary surnames until the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian empires passed laws requiring Jews to adopt surnames in the countries’ native tongues. Before the promulgation of those laws, most Jews simply used their father’s given name.

Though the relatively recent advent of Jewish surnames can be vexing to Jewish genealogists, it’s hardly your only hurdle (oy vey!). Frequent border shifts and place-name changes in Eastern Europe make it difficult to locate ancestral towns and figure out which archives hold records of your family.

During World War II, Europe’s Jewish population shrank by two-thirds. Those who survived persecution fled to various parts of the world. “The Holocaust is the single most difficult aspect of Jewish genealogy. It colors everything we do,” says Kurzweil.

Still, genealogical payoffs outshine the obstacles. Whether it’s learning what befell relatives in the Holocaust, walking through the shtetl (town) where your great-great-grandparents grew up or becoming more in touch with your religious roots, you’ll discover just how good experiencing your Jewish heritage is.

Setting the stage

You’ve surely heard this shpiel before: The best place to begin researching is by talking to your relatives. Perhaps they’ll tell you new stories about your great-grandfather or give you old photographs of your ancestors.

Since American Ashkenazic Jews hail from more than 15 countries in Eastern Europe alone, you’ll want to be sure to ask your relatives if they know your ancestors’ country and town of origin — the keys to locating overseas records. If no one knows your ancestors’ shtetl, you can gain clues from several US records.

First, look in staple US sources, such as censuses, which include the person’s country of origin and language spoken, and vital records.

Next, try passenger-arrival lists — they often give places of origin and departure ports. You’ll find them on microfilm at NARA, genealogical libraries, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> and the FHL’s branch Family History Centers. But to locate your ancestors’ list, you’ll need to know when and where they arrived in America.

Like many other ethnic groups, the majority of American Jews — 2 million — immigrated to the United States between 1881 and 1924, most via the port of New York. You can search that city’s passenger lists online at <castlegarden.org> and <ellisisland.org>. Stephen P. Morse’s “one-step” Ellis Island searches <www.stevemorse.org> include a Blue Form specifically for Jewish researchers. All three forms (Blue, White and Gray) let you search the records by town of origin, meaning you can find your relatives as well as other emigrants from the same shtetl.

When asked, many American Jews say their ancestors came simply from Russia, Hungary or Germany. But European boundaries have shifted tremendously since 1924 — when the greatest period of Jewish migration to North America came to a close. In some cases, as for Czechoslovakia (now two separate nations), the country of origin no longer exists. Use gazetteers and JewishGen’s ShtetlSeeker <www.jewishgen.org/shtetlseeker> to help locate villages.

US naturalization records usually provide the applicants’ towns of origin, too. Because so many Jewish immigrants entered through New York, NARA’s Northeast regional branch in the Big Apple could have the records you’re looking for. Alternately, you could file a Freedom of Information Act request with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services) <uscis.gov> if your ancestor applied for citizenship after 1906 — but getting responses to these requests usually takes awhile. Passports also may hold clues to ancestors’ hometowns (check NARA and the FHL).

Finally, look to your US forebears’ final resting places and local synagogues: Jewish immigrants often formed landsmanshaftn, societies based on their towns of origin. Frequently, members bought plots in Jewish cemeteries, so if your ancestor was buried in a landsmanshaftn -owned plot, he likely came from the town that society represented. Look for landsmanshaftn records at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Records (see the opposite page for organizations’ contact information). Synagogues recorded birth, circumcision, marriage and death information. Those records, particularly marriage contracts (see page 51), name the brides’ and grooms’ hometowns as well as their parents’. To find these records, write or visit the American Jewish Archives or American Jewish Historical Society.

The Nazis damaged many synagogues during World War II, including the 1741 fortress-style synagogue in Brody, Ukraine (shown above in 1940 and at right in 1995).

Changing scenes

Once you identify your ancestor’s hometown, you can tackle foreign records. To get an idea of what’s available, check the FHL’s Jewish research outline (from the FamilySearch home page, click Guides, then Research Outline, and then Jewish Genealogy New). As you’ll see, the FHL has an impressive collection of Jewish records from Germany, Poland and Hungary, and it’s continually adding to its stockpile of microfilmed Jewish records from Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

A common misconception is that all Jewish genealogy records were destroyed in the Holocaust. Gary Mokotoff, founder of the Jewish genealogical publisher Avotaynu, says that’s simply not true. “While most Jewish records were destroyed, government records such as birth, marriage and death records did survive,” he says.

Vital records: To find birth and death records for your Jewish ancestors, you’ll need to contact the proper archives in their town or country. But be prepared: Compared to US repositories such as the FHL, some foreign archives are notoriously unreliable. Those in Eastern Europe — where 95 percent of American Jews trace their ancestry — are especially challenging to work with. The Czech government, for instance, has refused to let its archives be microfilmed.

Although access is improving, written and telephone requests for information too often go unfulfilled. In many cases, the archives just aren’t equipped to deal with your request unless you’re there to spell out what you need. The Ukrainian archives, for instance, has 680 total repositories, including 24 state repositories, in which the document you want could be stashed away.

You can turn to a free online resource for help. Through her nonprofit Routes to Roots Foundation <www.rtrfoundation.org>, certified genealogist Miriam Weiner has collaborated with archives in Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Lithuania to create town-by-town inventories of Jewish and civil records that survived the Holocaust. You can search those inventories on the foundation’s Web site (click Archive Database). For each town, you’ll learn available document types and years, as well as which archives hold them.

Limited records access isn’t your only challenge. Language can be a huge barrier — but you can get translation help from Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman’s Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide (Avotaynu). The price of processing requests can be a hurdle, too. For example, the Ukrainian archives’ Web site <www.archives.gov.ua/Eng> quotes a fee up to $500. Such hefty price tags are common in other nations’ archives. Prices vary depending upon how many archives are involved, how much material is being searched, the number of surnames are involved and how common the surnames are.


You could discover three generations when you look at birth records. Aron Bichek’s Feb. 11,1905, record from Berezno, Ukraine — written in Ukrainian and Hebrew — identifies his father as Yankel Bichek, son of Idel, and mother as Chana Polishuk, daughter of Moishe-Mordko.

If you find these obstacles too frustrating, you could hire a reputable researcher to do the work for you. Consult organizations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists <apgen.org>, the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists <icapgen.org> and the Board for Certification of Genealogists <bcgcertification.org>. And JewishGen <www.jewishgen.org> lists professional researchers under their countries of specialty in its Eastern Europe FAQ section <www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/eefaq.html>.

Whether or not you choose to hire a professional, the more time you put into the endeavor, the more you’re likely to get out of it. Due to staff turnover and foreign archives workers’ varying levels of experience with genealogical documents, it’s difficult to build a network of contacts. Weiner, who’s worked with many different chief archivists in Poland and the former USSR, says she’s personally built those relationships. “Each new archivist involves the development of new relationships and trust,” she adds.

If you have little luck with government vital records, go the religious route. Synagogues document nearly all major life events, including marriages, births and even circumcisions. Some of the most useful synagogue findings are ketubot (marriage contracts) and mohel (circumcision) books — if you’re fortunate enough to locate one. Ketubot — beautifully illustrated and bound books of marriage contracts from the 1800s and early 1900s — provide family information. Sorted by community, mohel books list the names and birth dates of each boy circumcised in a particular rabbinical district. The few surviving mohel books from pre-WWII Europe are scattered, but the Leo Baeck Institute has a number from Germany, and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People has a worldwide collection (see the toolkit on page 49 for both repositories’ contact details).

If you can’t find your family in synagogue records, look in Christian church records. In many countries, the national church (usually Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran) was responsible for keeping vital records of the entire population, including Jews. Consult the FHL’s Jewish research outline for details.

Census records: Enumerations from your ancestor’s homeland can provide a wealth of information, too. Typically, censuses include names, ages, places of origin, occupations and more.

In Europe, regular censuses began in Russia in 1719 (these were poll-tax enumerations), but weren’t taken in Baltic States until about 1940. Political turmoil and social upheaval made censuses sporadic even in countries that aimed to regularly conduct them. And keep in mind that some countries, such as Germany (1939), Hungary (1724 and 1848) and Austria (1724), counted Jews independently of the common census.

To locate European census records, see Angus Baxter’s In Search of Your European Roots (Genealogical Publishing Co.), JewishGen’s Eastern Europe FAQ section, and past issues of Avotaynu, the publisher’s research journal (check with a Jewish genealogical society, at <www.avotaynu.com> or in the FHL catalog).

Screening the Web

Perhaps no Web site is more useful to Jewish genealogists than JewishGen. It posts articles on major Jewish genealogy topics, offers tools to expand your research network and enables you to collaborate with like-minded genealogists.

Most prominent among these tools is the JewishGen Family Finder <www.jewishgen.org/jgff>, which lists genealogical studies being conducted by more than 76,000 researchers worldwide. By signing up, you can glean knowledge from and collaborate with Jews seeking similar information. For example, after entering the town name and/or surname you’re researching, the Family Finder automatically searches the site using the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System. You can then peruse a list of genealogists conducting searches about your family’s shtetl.

The Eastern Europe FAQ page gives a country-by-country breakdown for obtaining archival data, finding useful reference material and joining a relevant special interest group (SIG). SIGs facilitate research and information-sharing. Organized mainly by country of origin, they generally operate as listservs or chat rooms, with genealogists giving out advice and leads.

JewishGen’s searchable databases include country-specific collections of vital records, voting records, tax lists, censuses, business directories, cemetery data and more. You’ll also find databases for Jewish given names, FHL records and worldwide cemeteries.

Reel in Your Sephardic Roots

American Sephardic Jews face a more difficult task than their Ashkenazic counterparts. In fact, genealogical material on Sephardim can be scarce. And in many cases, it seems as if Sephardic Jews are either able to trace their roots extremely far back, or they can’t get anywhere at all.

The Sephardiclabel originally referred only to Jews expelled from Spain following that country’s 1492 Inquisition, but the term is often used to describe Jews from the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years, the definition has expanded again to include all non-Ashkenazic Jews. For genealogical purposes, Sephardim are often defined as Jews of Iberian, Italian and North African ancestry.

Many Sephardic Americans are relatively recent immigrants from Israel and Muslim lands who came starting in the late 1960s. But some Sephardic Jews came to the New World to evade the Spanish Inquisition. For these two groups, available US immigration records — largely from the 19th and early 20th centuries — won’t be of much use. Sephardic genealogists must instead turn to less-mainstream research techniques.

Breaking one of genealogy’s cardinal rules — working backward — may prove useful because Sephardic Jews with similar family names likely have a common ancestor before the Inquisition. Jeff Malka, author of Sephardic Genealogy (Avotaynu, $45), has compiled a list of common Sephardic surnames at <www.jewishgen.org/sefardsig/names.htm>. The Sefard SIG <www.jewishgen.org/sefardsig> provides a wealth of information on researching Sephardic roots. The International Sephardic Leadership Council <www.sephardiccouncil.org> plans to add a genealogy research center to its Web site this year.

Whereas Central and Eastern European Jews adopted surnames en masse in the early 19th century, many Sephardic Jews’ surnames date as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. So family names are much more important to Sephardic genealogists than to Ashkenazim.

Additionally, knowing traditional naming conventions is essential to tracing your Sephardic ancestry. Unlike Ashkenazic Jews, who generally name children after deceased relatives, Sephardic Jews often name their children after living grandparents. Oldest sons are named after the paternal grandfather, oldest daughters after the maternal grandmother, and so on. These patterns give clues to family relationships that can help you make sense of your family tree.

Documents from the Inquisition and prior eras are spotty. Although a smattering of records from the expulsion exists, few records were kept, much less preserved. “When Ferdinand and Isabella forced everyone to convert, they didn’t really write it down,” says Mokotoff, founder of Avotaynu.

After their eviction from Spain, Iberian Jews had three choices: Convert (those who did were called conversos), pretend to convert and secretly practice Judaism (marranos) or leave the country. Those who fled repatriated in Muslim nations, particularly in the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish exiles were welcomed with open arms.

To avoid further threat of persecution, many marranos jumped at the opportunity to start a new life in the Americas. Records of Spanish passengers on ships to the West Indies, including marranos and some overt Jews, are kept in the Spanish archives (Archivo General de Indias, Avenida de la Constitución, 41071 Seville, Spain, +34 (954) 500-528, <www.cultura.mecd.es>).

Remembering the tragedies

Many JewishGen SIGs focus on discovering what happened to relatives during the Holocaust, a research hurdle unique to Jewish genealogists.

Not all documents survived the devastation in Europe — so the knowledge you’ve accumulated about your ancestors in the United States may not yield corresponding documents overseas. Simply put, things aren’t as they once were.

During the Holocaust, 6 million of the 9 million Jews who lived in Europe were killed. The death tolls varied disproportionately between nations, provinces and villages. In the Polish province of Galicia, for instance, 95 percent of the Jewish populace was erased. Prior to World War II, Galicia had been home to the continent’s largest Jewish population.

When communities and survivors scattered after World War II, most remaining Jews settled in what was then British Palestine, today’s nation of Israel. “[Practically] every American Jew has a relative in Israel, even if they aren’t aware of it,” says Kurzweil.

And there are Israeli resources to match. In its Hall of Names, the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem has Pages of Testimony, which give information on murdered family members, as well as submitters’ names. You can search more than 3 million names in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names at <www.yadvashem.org/lwp/workplace>.

The Israel State Archives holds naturalization records (more than 28,000 names) of Jews who immigrated to British Palestine before 1948. You can write the archives to request records or research there in person. Look for data in stateside repositories, too: The United States Holocaust Research Institute in Washington, DC, has Holocaust records, including a collection of concentration-camp documents captured by American troops.

Yizkor books are another incredible resource for learning about Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Dedicated to preserving the memory of individual shtetls — and created for 1,000 towns to date — they contain information survivors submitted about their pre-Holocaust homelands. You’ll find town histories, lists of resident families before World War II, captioned photos and sometimes even town maps.

This typical scene from a town bazaar in Mogilev Podolsky, Ukraine, is representative of local culture throughout Eastern Europe.

Although most of the villages and towns hardly look like they used to (some were burned to the ground), yizkor books often can provide startling information. In From Generation to Generation, Kurzweil recalls how stumbling upon a memorial book in a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL) proved to be an emotional moment. “I was absolutely stunned when I saw a picture of Avrahum Abusch, my great-grandfather, as I looked at a group photo that took up the entire page.” Even if you don’t make a discovery like Kurzweil’s, yizkor books could lead you to people who knew your deceased relatives in Europe.

Jewish cemeteries suffered damage during World War II. Fewer than 100 tombstones remain in Dolina, Ukraine’s 1920 graveyard — and all are toppled.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Library of Congress boast superb collections of yizkor books. You may need a translator once you find a book for your ancestors’ shtetl, though, since the books are often written in Yiddish or Hebrew.

To find yizkor books at the Library of Congress, you can search its online catalog <loc.gov> for the shtetl name. From Generation to Generation lists villages, towns and cities that have corresponding yizkor books, and JewishGen offers memorial book resources (under the Projects tab). The NYPL has 650 of its yizkor books online at <www.nypl.org/research/chss/jws/yizkorbookonline.cfm>.

Once you’ve found your ancestors’ native country and discovered details of their lives, you may get the urge to make a pilgrimage to their hometown. “It’s the most powerful thing in the world,” says Mokotoff. Organizations such as Weiner’s Routes to Roots help genealogists plan such trips.

Whether your kin were Hollywood heartthrobs or just ordinary folks, your journey to find them will lead you to places you never dreamed.

Sound Check

More than 20 years ago, Gary Mokotoff noticed a trend as he was poring over a database and painstakingly cataloging Jews who changed their names upon immigrating to British Palestine. “I found many spelling variants of similar names,” says Mokotoff. He also realized he could make picking a name out of a database much easier.

Since the American Soundex system — an indexing code based on similar-sounding names — wasn’t cutting it for Jewish researchers, Mokotoff created his own Soundex system to fit the Jewish naming patterns he found. He then published his concept of the new system in the premiere issue of Avotaynu in 1985. Reader and genealogist Randy Daitch picked up the journal and wrote Mokotoff with some suggestions to improve the code, now called the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System.

According to Mokotoff, his system and what he refers to as the “woefully inadequate” American Soundex model have three main differences. First, the Daitch-Mokotoff system carries names out to six significant consonants rather than the American system’s four. This means fewer false positives — for example, using traditional Soundex, Peters and Peterson get the same code because the first four consonants (p, t, r and s) are counted the same. But with Daitch-Mokotoff, a clear distinction occurs when you add the fifth consonant.

Also contrary to traditional Soundex, the Daitch-Mokotoff system codes a name’s initial letter. Mokotoff cites the names Auerbach and Orbach (which are actually variations of same name) as perfect examples: Using Daitch-Mokotoff, the names are grouped together — not so for regular Soundex.

Additionally, the Daitch-Mokotoff system recognizes that certain combinations of letters are actually equivalent to single-letter sounds, and should be Soundexed accordingly. The combinations tz and cz are equal to the s sound. So, the surnames Lipschitz and Lipschicz have the same code. Under the older system, those two names have different codes.

Today, most databases of Jewish names allow for Daitch-Mokotoff searching. “It’s extremely helpful for the average family historian who knows their family comes from Bialystok but doesn’t know how to spell Bialystok exactly,” says Miriam Weiner of the Routes to Roots Foundation.

You can find surnames codes by entering them in JewishGen’s Soundex calculator <www.jewishgen.org/jos/jossound.htm> Read a complete guide to the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System at <www.avotaynu.com/soundex.html>.

Web sites

About.com Jewish Genealogy


American Jewish Historical Society Archives: Finding Aids


Central and Eastern European Magnates and Their Archives




Consolidated Jewish Surname Index


Cyndi’s List: Jewish


Dorotree Jewish Genealogy Software


Jewish Virtual Library






Unclaimed Holocaust-Era Assets


Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names


YIVO Catalog of Photographs of Jewish Life

<yivo 1000towns.cjh.org>

Yizkor Books Online


Books and CDS

The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names by Alfred J. Kolatch (Jonathan David Co.)

A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciations and Migrations by Alexander Beider (Avotaynu)

Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors by Barbara Krasner-Khait (Heritage Quest, out of print)

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy edited by Arthur Kurzweil and Miriam Weiner (Jason Aronson)

The Family Tree of the Jewish People CD (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, <www.iajgs.org/ftjp.html>)

Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Avotaynu)

• From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History by Arthur Kurzweil (Jossey-Bass)

• Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy by Gary Mokotoff and Warren Blatt (Avotaynu)

• Jewish Roots in Poland by Miriam Weiner (Routes to Roots Foundation)

• Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova by Miriam Weiner (Routes to Roots Foundation, out of print)

• Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and Their World by Jeffery S. Malka (Avotaynu)

• Tracing Your Jewish DNA for Family History & Ancestry by Anne Hart (iUniverse)

• Where Once We Walked by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack with Alexander Sharon (Avotaynu)


American Jewish Archives 3101 Clifton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45220, (513) 221-1875, <www.americanjewisharchives.org>


155 N. Washington Ave., Bergenfield, NJ 07621, (201) 387-7200, <www.avotaynu.com>

Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives

1109 W. Franklin St., Richmond, VA 23220, (804) 353-2668, <www.bethahabah.org/bama>

Center for Jewish History

15 W. 16th St., New York, NY 10011, (212) 294-8301, <www.cjh.org>: This location also houses the American Jewish Historical Society <www.ajhs.org>, American Sephardi Federation <www.americansephardifederation.org>, Jewish Genealogical Society of New York <www.jgsny.org>, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research <www.yivoinstitute.org> and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York <www.lbi.org>.

Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Box 1149, Jerusalem 91010, Israel, +972 (2) 563-5716, <www.sites.huji.ac.il/archives>

International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies

4430 Mount Paran Parkway NW, Atlanta, GA 30327, <www.iajgs.org>

Israel State Archives

Prime Minister’s Office, Qiryat Ben-Gurion, Building 3, Jerusaelm 91919, Israel, +972 (2) 568-0612

The Jewish Museum of Maryland

15 Lloyd St., Baltimore, MD 21202, (410) 732-6400, <www.jhsm.org>

Museum of Jewish Heritage

36 Battery Place, Battery Park City, New York, NY 10280, (646) 437-4200, <www.mjhnyc.org>

Routes to Roots

136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094, (201) 601-9199, <www.routestoroots.com>; foundation: <www.rtrfoundation.org>

United States Holocaust Research Institute

100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, DC 20024, (202) 488-6113, <www.ushmm.org>
From the August 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.