Jewish genealogical research has become more popular in recent years than it was in the past. Historically, genealogy has been primarily a gentile pursuit (except in Biblical times, when knowing your Jewish tribe and ancestry was important). With the re-establishment of Israel, however, there has been a renewed interest in Jewish genealogy, as the rabbinate in Israel requires a strong level of proof of Jewish ancestry to determine a person’s status as legally Jewish.
If you are just getting started in researching your genealogy, whether for citizenship purposes in Israel or just out of curiosity as to your family history, here’s how to get off to a strong start with your research.
Getting Around the Myths of Jewish Genealogy
There are many myths associated with getting started in genealogy research for Jewish families. Most of these myths are just that… myths, with no basis in truth. Don’t give up on your research just because you’ve heard doing Jewish genealogy is hard. It doesn’t have to be. Here are some of the most common myths and how to get around them in your research.
Myth #1 – No One in the Family Knows Anything About the Family History
You may have been told this by a parent, or simply thought it to be true because no one in the family ever talked about the family history. However, don’t assume this is true until you actually ask someone. Choose any older relative to begin, and keep talking to them until you either find someone with information or discover that no one in your immediate family has actually done any research. Chances are high that you will encounter someone who knows quite a bit about the family history. This is the same way you would begin researching genealogy in any family of any religion.
Myth #2 – The Family Name Was Changed at Ellis Island
Many Jewish families in America have recent immigrants from Europe. A big myth among all families with recent immigrant ancestors (normally people who came during the early 1900’s) is that foreign-sounding names were changed to a person or family’s arrival in America. The fact is that no names were changed at Ellis Island. Names may have been recorded incorrectly due to the workers there not knowing how to spell the name they were given.
However, people either continued to use their correct last names after entering America or changed them themselves to sound more “American” and blend in. Any name changes done by an individual may or may not have been done legally through a courthouse. Either way, it is usually a relatively easy matter to match a person to their previous name through census records of people with similar names and the same ages and dwelling places as your ancestors. Using old newspaper records can also help identify ancestors who may have changed their names.
Myth #3 – Family Records Were Destroyed in the Holocaust
Again, this is simply not the case. When you find your immigrant Jewish ancestors and discover their country and towns of origin, you will likely be surprised the amount of information that is there on your family.
Most European nations where Jewish people lived before the Holocaust have very well-kept records of births, deaths, and marriages going back to the mid-19th century at least, and sometimes farther back than that. They were not destroyed in the Holocaust unless the building they were housed in happened to be destroyed during WWII or at some other point. The Nazis depended on these records to identify Jewish families in the areas they occupied, and so made sure the records were preserved. Out of that evil, genealogical good was perpetuated, and you can benefit from it in your research, finding out more about your Jewish family than you ever thought possible.
Looking Up Records in America
You don’t necessarily have to go overseas to find the records you need on your foreign Jewish ancestors. Both the website of the Church of Latter Day Saints (FamilySearch.org) and JewishGen.org (which is widely considered to be the definitive and premier site for Jewish genealogy online) have a lot of transcribed foreign Jewish vital records, books on Jewish genealogy, and other important information that can help you trace your Jewish genealogical roots.
Getting started in Jewish genealogy isn’t much different than getting started in genealogy with any other type of family. You may be dealing with more foreign records more recently in your family tree than non-Jewish families, and more personal name changes. However, with a little persistence and determination with your genealogical project, you can have just as much success with your Jewish genealogy as anyone else.