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Fiddler on the Roots: Researching Your Jewish Heritage

by Dena Eben
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Spotlight on Jewish Roots
Expert Dena Eben shows you how to begin searching for and documenting your Jewish roots. Learn some of the specific advantages and difficulties, and techniques for following leads when traditional records don't suffice.

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.

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.

Most present-day Jews in North and South America have roots in an immigrant group 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.

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 than 75 worldwide Jewish Genealogial Societies. 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 Begets

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;
  • An Eastern European name, appearing on old country vital records;
  • An American name, taken after the immigrant's arrival.

Crossing the Sea

Ask your living relatives for clues to your ancestors' immigrant origins. Finding your family's home country, province and, ideally, village is crucial to tracing your roots to the other side of the Atlantic. You can also consult passenger arrival lists, immigration records and naturalization records.

Once you've identified a country or region of origin, you can often acquire records by contacting specific foreign state archives. On average, an inquiry will be a pricey $300 to $500, but the information gleaned could be more valuable than the cost to obtain it, and it could substitute for or better prepare you for a heritage trip. Moldova, however, will not process information requests and accepts such inquiries only through Routes to Roots.

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 keeps lists of genealogists.

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.

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. 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 forget 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.

Famous Jewish-Americans

Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941): First Jewish US Supreme Court Justice (1916), he assumed leadership of the American Zionist movement in 1914 and is the namesake of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, largely due to his lifelong commitment to social justice.

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887): Poet noted for her sonnet The New Colossus. Her words, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," grace the Statue of Liberty.

Adolph Ochs (1858-1935): Newspaperman and philanthropist who, at 38, took over The New York Times and turned it into one of the most prominent newspapers in the world.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940): Russian-born anarchist, feminist and labor advocate.

Golda Meir (1898-1978): Born in Kiev, she emigrated to the US in 1906. An ardent Zionist, she resettled in then-Palestine in 1921, got involved in politics and rose to be Israel's fourth prime minister (1969-1974).

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (1906-1947): New York and Hollywood mobster who built the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Although a criminal, he's credited with the development of what would become the Las Vegas Strip.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): One of the most revered conductors and composers of the 20th century, he led the New York Philharmonic for 11 years. He is also remembered for musical scores including Candide and West Side Story.

Sandy Koufax (1935- ): Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, during the 1965 World Series. At 36, he became the youngest player voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Barbra Streisand (1942- ): Talented and multiple award-winning singer and actress of stage and screen.

Steven Spielberg (1947- ): The world's most successful living movie director, he acknowledged his return to Jewish culture after making Schindler's List (1993) and continues to film Holocaust survivors' testimony through his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. He co-founded Dreamworks SKG, along with former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, both Jewish.

For more prominent Jewish Americans, see the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine, America's most popular magazine on discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history. Family Tree Magazine is on sale at newsstands nationwide or you can subscribe and receive 6 issues for just $19.96 a year! Copyright 2001 F&W Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Dena Eben is a former assistant editor of Family Tree Magazine and the keeper of her family's history. She learned to type on a 1936 Erika typewriter rescued from Germany.

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