Jan Mayer | Jun 16, 2017

Getting Started with Jewish Genealogy

This is the first of a three-part series exploring Jewish genealogy. Read part two and part three.

Researching Jewish genealogy has unique twists and turns that make it tricky, but don’t give up. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible, advised Lara Diamond, president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland (JGSMD) during her RootsTech 2017 presentation.

“[Jewish genealogy] isn’t impossible,” said Diamond. “There are actually a lot of resources out there.”

Getting Started

As with most genealogy research, it’s good to start with what you already know. Before diving too deep into your Jewish research, consider doing the following:

  • Have conversations with your relatives. Talk to both immediate and distant family members about their early memories. Ask questions about immigration. Ask where the family came from and where they settled.
  • Take notes and make files of all family lines. Search for significant names, places, and dates. If you discover more than one family line, make separate files to help you avoid confusion later.
  • Document every source. Even if you think you may not need a source later, document it. Doing this will spare hours of retracing steps when there is suddenly a connection you didn’t expect.
  • Search major sites. Even with a little information, it’s possible to begin researching on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or jewishgen.org.

Be Patient with Unusual Challenges

The unique history of the Jews creates uncommon genealogical challenges. When the Jews were exiled from their homeland about 2,000 years ago, they migrated to many parts of the world and adapted to local customs wherever they lived. They were also able to maintain separate cultural and religious practices, despite persecution. Trying to sort out the research is often difficult.

Don’t Discount Seemingly Inaccurate Information Too Quickly

In Eastern Europe, where many Jews settled , the Jewish people went by several names and spelled surnames in various ways. It’s not unusual to find members of the same family with different surnames because of name changes that occurred as they migrated.

Watch Out for Myths about Jewish Genealogy

There are plenty of incorrect assumptions about Jewish genealogy. Diamond outlined a few of them in her presentation:

Assumption: Jewish ancestry can’t be traced because all the records were destroyed by the Nazis during the wars.

False. “In some cases it’s true. There are some towns for which there are no records. But [for] the vast majority of towns, something does exist,” Diamond said. She has found complete records for her family lines in war-torn areas such as Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. It’s often possible to find birth, marriage, and death records; business directories; and burial and cemetery records.

Assumption: There is a lot of information online, but it’s not the only place to search.

True. There are many good sources of information online. “If you don’t find anything [online], that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That just means you have to look harder,” Diamond explained.

Your research may include making a visit to places where your ancestors lived or hiring a professional genealogist. While indexed and digitized record collections expand daily, there are many records that haven’t been completed yet.

“I was in . . . Ukraine in September, and they have these huge books that are falling apart, full of vital records that hadn’t been indexed and haven’t been digitized. But they exist, and they’re there. And they have your information,” said Diamond.

She also found valuable family records in a box in the basement of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Diamond said she believes that some very important information won’t ever be digitized because organizations are going after vital records like census records. “But there’s a lot more information that’s available about your family [in those records that are not vital records],” she said.

Assumption: Names and dates on family records are accurate and match other records.

False. Diamond explains that in the past, spelling and dates were entirely fluid. “It wasn’t that important when people were born.” Diamond said. For example, Diamond recently found the birth record of her grandmother’s brother showing he was born in Europe in January.

“When he was in America, he always celebrated [his birthday] in February. He picked George Washington’s birthday because he learned about him when he got to America and thought he was a cool guy. And he knew his birthday was in the winter. So you have that [type of situation],” she said.

Because spellings and dates tend to vary, Diamond advises against being set on thinking, “‘This isn’t my person because this is not how the name was spelled’ or ‘this isn’t their birth date.’” She says, “If you’re 30 years off, [it’s] probably not the same person. If you’re 10 years off, [it] very well might be.”

For the past 25 years, Diamond has traced all branches of her family back to Europe by using Russian Empire–era and Austria-Hungarian Empire records. Most of her research is in modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. She blogs primarily about her Eastern European research at larasgenealogy.blogspot.com.

What tips can you offer for Jewish genealogy research? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to be a part of the conversation. Join us next week for part two of this series, which will examine Jewish names and tombstones.

Jan Mayer

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