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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.