In last week’s article, we explored getting started with Jewish genealogy research. While there are some unique challenges to tracing Jewish family lines, there are plenty of resources available to aid you in your search. In this article, we’ll examine some of the best insights into researching Jewish names and tombstones.
Unraveling the Web of Jewish Names
Regularity and stability aren’t typical when it comes to Jewish names. As a family historian, don’t expect to see much consistency in the names of your Jewish ancestors from generation to generation. In fact, it’s common to find a Jewish ancestor who went by multiple names throughout his or her life.
In her 2017 RootsTech presentation, Laura Diamond, an expert on Jewish genealogy, offered a few clues to navigating and understanding Jewish names and name changes:
Besides a given name and surname, most Jews have a Hebrew name, or “new name.” When a newborn is named in a sacred ceremony, the name has spiritual significance that is carried throughout that individual’s life. This name is seldom found in secular documents such as vital statistics, but it is used for religious rituals and documentation. The Hebrew name is often found inscribed on tombstones.
- It is rare for a Hebrew name to be changed, but most other Jewish names have been altered—not just once but multiple times.
- In many communities, Jews didn’t have surnames until the 1700s when governments mandated the information for taxation purposes.
- Historically, the Jews used a patronymic naming system, which is a way of conveying lineage based on the name of the father and grandfather. When Jewish families were ordered to take surnames, they could choose a name, or the government would choose one for them. That means surnames may or may not be connected to a consistent, true bloodline.
- Many Eastern European Jews also had a Yiddish name, which is a common name, often like a nickname, that may appear on a vital record or a ship’s passenger list.
- Be aware that Jews often changed their names after immigration. “If you’re searching for them by the name they used in America, it is unlikely that it is the name they used before they came to the U.S.,” said Diamond.
For example, Diamond spoke of her own great-great-grandfather who listed his name as Charles Suttleman on all of his legal documents when he arrived in America. “He came over as Yechiel Suttleman. He had children who came over as Zuttlemans. … But if I didn't know that his Hebrew name was Yechiel, I never would have found him. So that’s critical,” she said.
The Value of Death Records and Tombstones
Once you’ve found names that connect to your family, take a look into death certificates and other statistical records. Many are available online and list the cause and place of death, the burial location, and the date of birth.
The next step is to locate the cemetery and location of the tombstone. The following websites are especially useful in finding Jewish cemeteries:
- JewishGen, which provides access to the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry
- Find A Grave, which has images of and information on millions of graves
- Cemetery Scribes, which preserves information for cemeteries that still exist as well as cemeteries that have been neglected or destroyed, including Jewish cemeteries in the U.K.
- BillionGraves, which contains information and images from cemeteries from around the world
In some cases, it’s possible to see an image of the tombstone on your computer. Don’t be surprised if you see pebbles or small stones on a tombstone. This Jewish custom is a sign of respect to the dead.
“Finding a tombstone of [a relative] can help you find that original Yiddish or Hebrew name,” said Diamond. “The majority of Jewish tombstones not only have the Hebrew name of the deceased; they also generally have the Hebrew name of the deceased’s father. This can help you … go back a generation.”
“Sometimes you really, really luck out,” Diamond continued. “I was recently trying to research one branch of my family, and it was getting pretty confusing until I found this … tombstone … [that] memorialized [the deceased’s] parents, his grandparents, his siblings—pretty much everybody. They gave the entire branch of [the family] tree.”
“You often see this with Holocaust survivors,” she said. “They’ll put memorials to their family members who don’t necessarily have tombstones of their own.”
Join us next week for part three of this series, which will explore useful resources for Jewish genealogy research.