What Exactly is Jewish Genealogy?
Updated: Apr 5, 2018
By Susan Weinberg -
What do we mean when we talk about Jewish genealogy? How is it different from plain old genealogy? The “plain old” variety encompasses documents that exist for all ethnic groups within a given geographic area. That list includes census, immigration, naturalization, draft and vital records. While the names entered within them may be Jewish, there is nothing uniquely Jewish about the record itself. When we enter the world of genealogy we have to become familiar with these resources no matter our heritage. We can then use them to leverage some of the unique resources for our Jewish heritage.
Jewish genealogy encompasses resources, history and customs unique to Jewish heritage. By combining this more specialized knowledge with core genealogy knowledge we can begin to solve the puzzles that confront genealogists. So let’s take a look at what constitutes “Jewish genealogy”.
Customs: Naming Patterns
Do you know who you are named for? Naming patterns are important to understand when doing genealogy research. Ashkenazic Jews name children after deceased relatives, usually grandparents or great-grandparents. Sometimes the name may vary, but the letter it starts with is the same. Often you will see the same name repeated across cousins, a clue that the person after whom they are named passed away recently. I was trying to determine when my third-great grandfather Berek Herszkowicz passed away, My tipoff came with a grandchild named Hersz Berek in 1841. Working back I soon found the death record for Berek Herszkowicz in 1839.
Sephardic Jews follow a different naming pattern naming children after living grandparents. They follow the approximate pattern of father’s father, mother’s father, father’s mother and mother’s mother varying with the gender of the child.
I’m a big fan of tombstones and cemeteries, not quite as ghoulish as you might imagine. Jewish tombstones have a unique feature, they list the father’s Hebrew name. They also provide the Hebrew name for the decedent. This information can be used to verify a relationship with records from Eastern Europe or relationships between siblings. If you are fortunate you may find a double name that is easier to match.
My great-grandfather’s tombstone in a New York cemetery listed his father as Pesach Mordechai. He was buried in a section of the cemetery that at one time was managed by the Dunilowicz burial society, my first clue that he had come from that town. When I visited the Belarus cemetery in Dunilowicz, I indeed located the tombstone for Pesach Mordechai. Now I had a bit of luck in this endeavor. I had gone onto the Jewishgen email boards and asked if anyone had been to the town. There I found a woman who had the cemetery transcribed.
At the time of his death in 1904 surnames were uncommon as identifiers so I was grateful for a double given name that allowed me to locate him. Nearby was a tombstone of a woman whose father was also noted as Pesach Mordechai. Her tombstone was 30 years later than his and by this time they were listing surnames. I realized her surname was one that was often cited by my parents as belonging to landsmen (people from the same town), I was able to use immigration records for her son to identify her as a sibling to my great-grandfather. Later I matched up yet another sibling in another New York cemetery, verifying the relationship once again by the Pesach Mordechai on his tombstone.
Recently I worked on a project where I was able to match the father’s names and Hebrew names from a couple’s tombstone in Minnesota to their Polish marriage record. I’ve become a firm believer in the value of tombstone data in linking today’s world with the past.
You can contact cemeteries in the United States to ask how you can get a photo of a particular tombstone. Usually for a small donation they will assist you. Many cemeteries have added on-line access to their burial sites.
And check to see if your towns are included on the Jewish On-line Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). Whenever I travel overseas I take photos of neglected Jewish cemeteries that I pass on to them. They get them translated and posted on their site for that next researcher searching from her computer.
History: Holocaust Records
Holocaust records can be accessed at Yad Vashem or the International Tracing Service. You can also review Yizkor books for the communities from which family comes. Many are available at the NY Public Library site, although much is not in English.
Yad Vashem records can be used to verify connections as well as to locate survivors. Many years ago I was reviewing Yad Vashem looking for family members. I found a record for my grandfather’s brother, a man who was 18 years his senior. Much to my surprise the record was submitted in 1999 by his grandson. I eagerly emailed the Israeli Genealogical Society with two questions. Is he alive and if so how do I contact him? I realized that while we occupied similar perches in the family tree, the 18 year age difference of our grandfathers likely put us in different generations. My second question stemmed from the fact that the address on the testimony page was in Hebrew. I soon got a reply that he was alive and would welcome a letter along with the address in English. When I wrote, I connected with his daughter who was my contemporary. We began a correspondence and have visited several times in person since.
The International Tracing Service (ITS) is a good source if you have a Holocaust survivor in your family or want to get records on family members who were in concentration camps. You can submit a request on-line for the records that are on file. Keep in mind that no records were kept for death camps such as Treblinka.
Resources: Jewishgen There are many resources available for those of Jewish ancestry and familiarity with these is an important element of Jewish genealogy. The home for many of these is Jewishgen.org that in turn hosts many Special Interest Groups (SIG) and unique databases. While this merits a blog until itself, suffice it to say that within this site you can do the following:
Obtain free translations from fellow researchers through Viewmate.
Find other researchers who are searching the same names and towns through FamilyFinder
And as many Jews trace family to towns that are currently or once were part of Poland, be sure to explore the resources of JRI-Polandthat will enable you to locate birth, marriage and death record indices. Many of those records are actually now on-line. There are many other databases accessible through Jewishgen for other geographic areas.