Studying your personal history can often be one of the most fascinating projects or hobbies to pursue. This is especially true when your past includes particularly rich historical and personal details.
Looking into your Jewish heritage needn’t be prohibitively difficult, despite some rumors you may have heard and some complications with records.
For instance, the habit of changing names upon entering the United States should not pose as massive of a problem as is often stated. You might not be able to trace your ancestors directly back to biblical times, but you should be able to get somewhere.
Piecing together your family history can help you discover your own personal story, and may even be able to guide you on your future route. Most importantly, any study of personal genealogy should give you insight into a community, a group of people with whom you can identify and interact.
And this may well be the best reason to get into genealogy in the first place. It gives you a way to connect and socialize with others of a similar background and to share stories of your experiences and pasts.
This guide includes:
- An extremely brief and selective history of Judaism to give you relevant context.
- Instructions for getting started with oral history.
- A short note on Jewish naming customs.
- An overview of resources and records for Jewish genealogy.
- Information on Jewish genealogical societies.
A (very) brief history of Judaism
For almost the entire length of recorded history, Judaism has maintained a solid presence as the oldest of the three Abrahamic faiths. Ancient Hebrew tribes ruled over much of the modern Levant.
Yet a series of disastrous wars against the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians left the Jewish people in a weakened state by around 2500 years ago. And finally, after absorption into the Roman Empire, the Jewish people in the province of Judea revolted multiple times between 66 CE and 135 CE, leading to the Jewish Diaspora.
Because of this, Jewish people were scattered all across Roman Europe and established small communities in cities. It was from these communities that the modern European Jewish community was born.
Jews have historically survived actual millennia of persecution and even genocide to emerge stronger and more unified. A strong sense of cultural and religious identity led to the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948 after a war of independence and keeps various Jewish communities in the Americas and Europe tied with other Jews in the Levant.
Now, you naturally cannot trace your ancestry all the way back to the Roman Empire, as those records were never too complete to begin with and now most are lost to time. But you may well be able to find your roots in 19th-century Europe, despite the damage done during various anti-Semitic pogroms through the centuries.
These attacks on Jewish communities run deep even into the medieval period, when crusading armies often massacred Jews in Europe as the crusaders marched east. Anti-Semitic sentiment rose in much of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Travesties such as the Dreyfus Affair in France from 1894 to 1906 and of course, the Holocaust 1933 to 1945, left a deep stain on European civilizations and terribly scarred Jewish communities.
Your journey into the past will likely connect you to these and countless other historical events.
Let’s start to go over the various resources you will have at your disposal as you begin exploring your Jewish heritage.
If you’ve already had some experience with genealogy, you may have already heard this, but it bears repeating: You should start any kind of personal historical research by simply asking family members what they remember about the past. It can often be too easy to dismiss your grandparents’ stories as just that…stories, but you can really gain a lot of valuable information from them.
So strike up a casual conversation. Ask your grandparents about their grandparents before that information is lost to time when they pass on.
In an interview like this, it’s important to keep your goals in mind, such as specific details you may want to learn. However, you should also be mindful and allow the conversation flow smoothly and naturally. You’ll almost always be surprised by some of the things you learn from your relatives.
Here are some useful things to find out while you speak with your relatives:
- When and where were you born?
- Where did your ancestors live?
- When did they leave Europe, if they did at all?
- Where did they live in the New World?
All of this, especially the geographical data, will help narrow your archival search greatly and save you a lot of time.
In addition, you may very well want to learn about the more personal elements of your relatives’ lives. You can ask questions like:
- What was your childhood home like? What did your room look like?
- What stories of family lore were passed down to you from parents or other relatives?
- How did you get along with your siblings?
- How did you meet your spouse?
- Did you have any pets?
- What were your hobbies? What did you like to do in your free time as a child/teen/young adult?
More extensive lists of possible questions are available here to provide you with organization and inspiration when speaking with your family members.
Consider beforehand whether and how you plan to record your family history interviews. Make sure to choose an interview location that is quiet and free of interruptions.
Jewish naming patterns
On a more specific level, you should learn a bit about Jewish naming patterns, which may really help you pinpoint family members from interviews.
When a child is born, the parents often assign the infant two names, one Hebrew, one secular. These two names often share a similar meaning, just in different languages. As you do your research, you may need to keep this tradition in mind to avoid confusion.
For Ashkenazim, Jews from Eastern or Central Europe, a child’s name is generally taken from a deceased family member, as a sort of memorial to them.
For Sephardim, Jews from Iberia or the Middle East, the name is often that of a (still living) grandparent. A baby boy will often be named for his grandfather and a girl for her grandmother.
This type of naming pattern is especially useful if you’re dealing with places where records really don’t exist. These naming structures should allow you to take your family history back an extra two generations or so, maybe more if you’re lucky.
Archival sources and important resources
Once you’ve spoken with your living relatives and learned what you can from them, it’s time to move on to archival materials. Specifically, try looking into synagogue records, as these will typically contain information about births, deaths, marriages, and other major life events in a given Jewish community.
You can even search Christian church records. In the absence of a modern bureaucratic state before the 19th century, churches typically collected records on all of the inhabitants of a given area, regardless of religion.
It is really important to go into this type of search already knowing where your family comes from in a geographic sense.
There are now so many massive genealogical databases available online that you can sometimes conduct your research without once using local archives or libraries. This can save a tremendous amount of your time and even some money from travel, but there is an issue with this.
Many people assume that if a certain record is not to be found online then it simply no longer exists. Not true.
This is an especially easy assumption to make with Jewish records, since endemic persecution and war often does leave records and people shattered. But just because you cannot find online records does not mean you need to end your search.
Try to find out roughly where your ancestors came from. Be aware that place names and ruling nations changed fast in 20th-century Europe. A town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909 may have been in Czechoslovakia by 1921, then in Germany in 1939. Town names do change depending on the official language of the governing nation, so be aware of that as you do local research.
Also, bear in mind that the Nazis did not simply destroy Jewish records. Rather they meticulously accumulated them to facilitate the Holocaust. As a result, there can often be fairly complete records of Jewish families in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
If you’re having no luck with online searches, but you have an idea of which region to examine (and when), then it might be time to contact or visit local archives and libraries. You can often find a whole cascade of information coming out of this simple discovery, especially as not all information in the United States is yet digitized.
That said, many records do appear online, so let’s go over your best options for finding solid results to get deeper into your family search.
There is one source in this field that seems to stand out above the others, even enormous companies like Ancestry, and that is JewishGen. This website contains a vast trove of documents and other sources that should let you track down long dead relatives as they lived in Europe and emigrated to the United States.
In addition, this genealogical treasure trove is free, which really is incredible given its value and high-quality.
JewishGen keeps detailed emigration records, immigration records, and more for you to peruse and find your ancestors.
JewishGen even offers interactive Jewish Genealogy courses for new (and more experienced) researchers. These courses range from the basics to specific topics and methods, so you’re sure to find a course that suits your needs. You will need to register for these courses. For anyone really interested in their Jewish ancestry, they are highly recommended.
You can also register for the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), which allows you to contact others involved on the site to see if anyone else has turned up results on your specific family names or towns during their research.
This is one of JewishGen’s most useful tools, especially if you prefer more social, collaborative research over working alone. You can also conduct this collaborative research anonymously if you’re concerned about privacy. As of now, the JGFF contains over 500,000 entries.
Once you have done some family research, you can go onto the JewishGen discussion boards and further your knowledge of not only the history of your ancestors, but also the broader community surrounding them.
There are other genealogy websites out there, but most people find that JewishGen serves them best, since it is specifically tailored for Jewish ancestry.
The bottom line? If you’re new to genealogy, and wish to learn more about your Jewish ancestors, stop by JewishGen’s page for “First Timers,” which will quickly orient you in the available records, sources, and databases.
This page also lists additional resources that you may find useful along the way. For example:
- The Yizkor Book Project: Here, you’ll find English translations of Yizkor (memorial) books.
- ViewMate Project: This project lets you post documents and photos, and you can even request help from other users if, say, you can’t decipher a photo caption.
- Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP): A collection of searchable family trees consisting of 7+ million individuals.
- JewishGen’s Holocaust Database: A valuable source for learning more about Holocaust victims and survivors, including more than 2.75 million entries.
- Country- and region-specific databases: Whether your family comes from Belarus, Poland, or Germany, you’ll find helpful information geared toward your specific area.
Further information can be found on FamilySearch. This popular website is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it also has quite extensive records on Jewish ancestry and genealogy. This site offers a massive variety of documents and images, as well as help with your research.
The Knowles Collection of FamilySearch is the Jewish section of the site. It comprises six databases, grouped by geographic region. This collection is growing fast, so expect it to improve in coming years.
Ancestry is another popular website, and it’s an amazing resource for genealogists. The company has literally billions of records. Plus, it runs AncestryDNA, which can provide information on another facet of your heritage.
Tip – Follow the links for more information on the best DNA test for ancestry, and how Ancestry.com vs 23andMe compare.
Avotaynu, Inc. is worth a look as well. The company publishes books and journals related to Jewish genealogy. If you’re looking for extremely well-researched guides to various aspects of genealogy, or if you want to stay up-to-date on recent genealogy research, you will find plenty of interest here.
If you’re trying to find immigration records of Jews who came to the United States, you may just be in luck. This website maintained by Ellis Island offers a free record of Jews who entered the United States through New York, the most common entry point. Simply search for your relatives’ names!
Of course, once you’ve located your Jewish ancestors within the United States, your search should become easier. Try looking in U.S. Census records, as these results should give you the most pivotal and difficult pieces of information: place and time.
Jewish genealogical societies
There are dozens of Jewish genealogical societies in the world, so consider joining your local one. You can find a list of these societies here, via the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
There are even the international conferences on Jewish genealogy held by IAJGS. If you’re really interested in learning about your Jewish heritage, or want to connect with a broader genealogical community, consider attending a meeting.
As you begin your deep dive into your Jewish heritage, keep in mind your reasons for doing this kind of research in the first place. Are you most interested in satisfying your curiosity, honoring your ancestors, or sharing their stories with living family members?
Family legacy really does matter, and getting to know your roots can give you a great insight into who you are. Also, the oral history interview process may well bring you closer to older members of your family, which would make the entire thing worth it on its own. They doubtless have many colorful stories and plenty of wisdom to share.
As you learn more about your heritage, you will extend the history of your ancestors into the present and even the future too. One of the best reasons to conduct family research in any group is to create a sort of narrative that goes beyond just you to find meaning and story in your family.
This type of storytelling is a fantastic way to preserve family memory across time to future generations. To tell a story is so remarkably human; it’s one of the things that defines us and makes us different.
So learn your own family story using the resources listed above. Find out who your long-lost ancestors were, what drove them, what they wanted, where they finally settled after what may well have been a life of struggle and conflict.