If you’ve started researching your Jewish ancestors, you might’ve heard that all the records were destroyed, or that Ellis Island clerks changed your family’s surnames, essentially cutting you off at the genealogical pass.
Don’t believe the rumors. In reality, there’s not a single documented case of an Ellis Island official changing an immigrant’s surname (learn the truth behind this common mistake). Archives hold impressive collections of records. And a wealth of online resources can help you fulfill the goals you probably share with every Jewish family historian: to learn the fate of lost branches, create memorials for relatives without resting places and connect with distant kin around the world.
That’s not to say Jewish genealogy is easy. Cultural differences, language barriers, religious persecution, forced conversion and genocide have created black holes in every Jewish family’s history. But those roadblocks needn’t stop you from discovering and honoring your past. With these seven research strategies to guide your genealogical journey, you’ll find that your family’s ties are stronger than any outside forces.
1. Learn your history.
Jewish history, unfortunately, is riddled with tragic events that complicate the work of genealogists. Marauding Crusaders destroyed many European Jewish communities. Massacres, mass conversions, the Inquisition and 1492 Expulsion shattered lives in Iberia. The Russian pogroms and the tragedy of the Holocaust affected our history forever. This Day in Jewish History
documents historical events in detail.
Many actions spurred survivors to move elsewhere—sometimes to the next village, or more often, far from home. That means you’ll need to cast a wide net to find information about your family. From the Middle Ages, Sephardic communities existed in major European cities (such as Hamburg, Vienna and Warsaw), and some Ashkenazi families made their homes in the Mediterranean.
To understand and decipher Jewish records—from Hebrew tombstones to Jewish marriage contracts (ketubot)—it’s useful to learn basic tenets and traditions of Judaism, such as life events and the Jewish calendar. Knowing the Jewish day ends at sunset, for example, helps you understand death records. An online calendar conversion tool such as Steve Morse’s
lets you translate Jewish dates to the civil calendar. Remember, too, that Jews use BCE (before common era) and CE (common era) instead of BC and AD when referring to civil years.
2. Follow the group.
Jews fall into two major groups—Ashkenazim and Sephardim—with further subdivisions. Because of each group’s unique origins and migrations, your genealogical research will take different paths depending on which group your ancestors belonged to.
The first Jewish immigrants to the New World were Sephardim, who orginated in the Iberian Peninsula. Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe began arriving in the United States as early as the 1840s. About 95 percent of Jewish immigrants to America—predominantly Ashkenazi—came in a wave starting in 1881 following Russian pogroms, and then after each World War. Although Ashkenazim in much of Europe generally were assimilated and spoke secular languages, Yiddish was the lingua franca for those in Eastern Europe—Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany.
Sephardim spoke Ladino, a mix of Hebrew, Spanish and other languages sometimes called Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo. The term Sephardic generally describes any Jews not of Ashkenazi origin, including those who lived in the former Ottoman Empire, the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Asia. But Jews from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and India are more correctly referred to as Mizrahi, Oriental or Eastern Jews. Roman Jews make up the oldest Jewish community outside Israel, and the Romaniote Jews have resided in Greece for more than two millennia.
Ladino-speaking Sephardim began to arrive in the New World in the late 1500s as conversos—the Spanish word for those forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Columbus’ ships included converso crew. Sephardim settled in Brazil, the Caribbean and New Amsterdam. Get more information on conversos.
3. Break down language barriers.
Jewish records can appear in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, German, Polish, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Hungarian, Romanian and more—whatever language was spoken wherever a Jewish community existed. Vital records kept by Jewish communities are likely to be in Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino as well as the secular language, which may have changed as borders changed. You’ll want to examine dual-language records carefully, because certain details might appear in only one language.
Sephardic records are especially challenging. Turkey is an excellent example of how convoluted the quest can be. Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities have existed side by side in what’s now Istanbul since the 1400s. Turkish was originally written with Arabic letters; since 1928, it’s employed the Latin alphabet. Sephardic records were written in Turkish, Hebrew, Ladino and solitreo, an obsolete script, while Ashkenazi and civil records are found in Turkish, Hebrew, Yiddish and Eastern European languages. (The Ashkenazi community kept its communal records in the language it knew best.)
To learn more about Jewish languages worldwide, visit Jewish Language Research
for maps, text, audio samples and additional links. As you trace your family into areas whose languages you don’t speak, FamilySearch’s Research Helps
can give guidance for writing to foreign repositories.
4. Trace the names.
In Jewish families, given names offer clues to past generations—sometimes more so than surnames. Ashkenazim generally name children after recently deceased relatives, so you can try to estimate Ashkenazi relatives’ years of death by matching infants to ancestors. Sephardim name offspring after the living as well as the dead.
Ashkenazi given names often changed as families migrated—Hebrew or Yiddish names gave way to colloquial diminutives or secular versions. The JewishGen Given Names Database
helps you find alternate forms of monikers based on local and Jewish vernaculars. For example, searching for the name David
turns up possible Yiddish nicknames of Debele, Dovitke, Tevele and Dovet.
The roots of European Jewish surnames are relatively recent, following civil laws passed in the late 18th century that required Jews to take fixed surnames. Many unrelated families adopted common names, so knowing the name of the ancestral village is often more helpful than searching for a surname.
Sephardic surnames, on the other hand, can be ancient—some appear in Spanish archival records as early as the 10th century. Many modern Sephardic names bear close resemblance to their original forms, indicating descent from a particular family. In Sephardic research, the surname is key to finding family in Spain or Portugal as well as Italy, Greece and Turkey. See the sidebar at right for clues to deciphering Jewish surnames.
Sephardic given names often follow established patterns. The eldest son is traditionally named for the paternal grandfather; eldest daughter for the paternal grandmother; second male child for the maternal grandfather; second female child for the maternal grandmother; next child for a paternal uncle or aunt; and the next child for a maternal uncle or aunt. But a recently deceased grandparent or sibling often takes precedence over a living relative. Some Sephardim commonly name children after their own living parents—a great honor.
5. Review available records.
Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have lengthy paper trails to follow—once you’ve identified your family’s ancestral town. You might find this in immigration records, draft registration cards, Social Security applications or other documents. When you know the town, you can determine where its documents are located today. JewishGen’s ShtetlSeeker
can help you find a town with phonetic searches and maps. Records may be in surprising locations. In Morocco, for example, civil registration wasn’t required until the 20th century and, with major immigration to France and Israel, many communal records were sent to those countries.
Some resources and documents are specific to Ashkenazim or Sephardim, but marriage, divorce, birth and circumcision records exist for both groups. They may provide three generations of names in one record through the use of patronymics (the child’s name derives from the father’s name, such as Moshe Leib ben David Leibovich, indicating the father’s and grandfather’s names). Many of these European records have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library
. Other records, such as circumcision, may have been kept privately by the mohel
, the person who performs the circumcision. But some communities kept mohel
registers, which indicate the date of circumcision, the parents and the mohel
Jewish birth records include the baby’s name, sex, date (civil and Hebrew), names and residence of parents and grandparents, and sometimes the mother’s maiden name, relatives’ occupations and name of the mohel.
A Jewish marriage record will generally show the date, place, the names of the bride and groom, the dowry, parents (with patronymics giving you another generation), and sometimes occupations and previous residences. In England, many synagogues kept separate marriage registers, now transcribed and published, for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations. Iberian marriage contracts will normally list several generations for both bride and groom. And don’t overlook Christian records—because of forced conversion, they might document your ancestor’s union.
Gravestones show the death date, the deceased’s given name, and his or her father’s name. Some Sephardic stones contain much more information. Cemetery registers, if they still exist, may also be useful.
Holocaust records are valuable for both Ashkenazi and Sephardic research. Some Sephardic communities were nearly destroyed in addition to the decimated Eastern European Ashkenazi communities. See the next section for more information on the repositories that hold records of the Shoah.
Records specific to Eastern Europe include cadastral records and maps—real estate maps showing where families lived in a town or village, sometimes for generations. Depending on the time period, Jewish records might’ve been kept by the parish church. So if you’re searching prior to civil registration, your Jewish ancestor’s vital records might be within the church records.
For Sephardic researchers, records may go back to the 10th century. Note that many smaller Spanish archives are only now beginning to go digital. In Lerida a few years ago, for example, the archive had just one computer and was attempting to catalog more than 10,000 documents. Inquisition records are maintained in dedicated archives, but notarial records identify accused or sentenced individuals as Jew or converso and can provide other details.
Every Spanish town’s archives holds notarial records. These extremely detailed files might include records of debts, real estate transfers, marriage settlements and divorces. Jews and conversos are noted, and variations of names can appear, as well as other towns of residence. Because of conversions, Catholic Church records are a next stop for baptism, marriage and death records.
6. Research in repositories.
You’ll find Jewish records in a number of different places, from Web sites to centuries-old archives. The worldwide Jewish genealogy community is made up of many dedicated volunteers who are transliterating and translating records. Projects might be as narrow as births from one small town or as gigantic as the 3 million Pages of Testimony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
hosts many databases, some of which are searchable for free on Ancestry.com
. You may also have luck with Jewish Records Indexing Poland
, which has some 3 million vital records. The Family History Library holds microfilm of original records used by Jewish volunteers to create accessible, searchable databases, while other groups work directly with Eastern European archives to create indexes. You can search many of these on JewishGen.
The Center for Jewish History in New York City holds records and library resources of the American Jewish Historical Society, YIVO Institute, Leo Baeck Institute, American Sephardi Federation and the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York. Also in New York, the Museum of Jewish Heritage preserves and celebrates 20th-century Jewish life and culture. You can view 650 digitized Holocaust memorial books—or yizkor—online at the New York Public Library Web site.
The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People Jerusalem
holds the collections of hundreds of Jewish communities as well as local, national and international Jewish organizations. The Central Archives has a large collection of vital record registers from Germany from the end of the 18th century onward, as well as registers from France, Italy and Poland.
7. Go genetic.
The most advanced genealogy tool—DNA testing—is raising as many questions as answers. My family is Ashkenazi with Sephardic roots; New Yorker Judy Simon had a similar story. “My grandfather always said we were marranos,” says Simon, using a derogatory term for Jews that refers to swine. “It was a story carried through the generations that our family left Spain during the Inquisition.”
In 2007 Simon and I co-founded the Iberian Ashkenaz Y-DNA project
to find more people like us. As of May, the project had 120 members, and Sephardic or converso Y-DNA matches were located for more than 75 percent of participants.
Simon and I discovered Ashkenazi families from Eastern, Western and Central Europe with indicators of Sephardic heritage, such as Spanish or Portuguese surnames, an oral history of Sephardic ancestors, children named after living grandparents or Mediterranean genetic disorders. The families couldn’t verify possible Sephardic roots through archival records, so we used DNA.
Simon’s male cousin was tested, and his matches were Ashkenazi Jews from villages near his own, where Latvia, Belarus and Lithuania meet. Two Hispanic men in Mexico and Texas matched him, too. Of the Ashkenazim who found matches, none had any idea they had paternal Sephardic roots.
The most important element of DNA testing for investigating Jewish ancestry is the size of the comparative database (that is, how many other samples your profile will be compared to). FamilyTreeDNA
has the largest Jewish comparative databases and the largest general DNA database, according to founder Bennett Greenspan, with records for Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Levites and Kohanim. JewishGen links to FamilyTreeDNA studies
. Another study, the DNAShoah Project
, aims to reunite families separated by the Holocaust. It’s free to join, and more than 1,000 samples are already in the collection—all potential ties to your past.
For Jewish genealogists, DNA testing isn’t just a family tree tracing tool—it can be a matter of life and death. Extensive testing in the Jewish community has nearly eradicated Tay-Sachs disease, a terminal neurological condition that appears in infancy. Ashkenazi Jews also have a higher chance of carrying certain breast cancer genes (as do Hispanic women).
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine