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.
1. Learn your history.
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.
3. Break down language barriers.
4. Trace the names.
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.
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.
6. Research in repositories.
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.
7. Go genetic.
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine