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What’s so Jewish about genealogy?

For the last three columns, I’ve been writing mostly about basic genealogy concepts, but now it’s time to look at what’s unique about Jewish genealogy.

As I said in the first column, there are Jewish genealogy myths that stop people from even starting to look for their ancestors.

Interestingly, Jews have never really been big on family history. Jewish genealogy societies* are far outnumbered by non-Jewish ones. One obvious reason may be that — beyond the aforementioned preventative myths — there’s the trauma of the Shoah, and how many were lost.

But that underscores the need and value of finding and remembering the ones we lost — and most of us lost a lot more family members than we’ve been told (if any family stories were handed down.) But the records mostly survived.

While many Christian families trace their relatively ordinary ancestors back for many generations, Jews . . . well, not so much. One exception are rabbinical families — especially famous rabbis. Within Jewish communities, well-known rabbinical families are often well documented, along with famous but secular Jews (think Rothschild or Einstein.)

Another difference is that a number of Christian families had or have Bibles, which often recorded family births, marriages and deaths. Of course, many Jewish families had or have Bibles, but rarely did they document family history.

So what else is different about Jewish genealogy?

It’s important to know what Jewish resources exist, other than traditional genealogical records (i.e. census records, secular birth, marriage and death records, military records, newspapers). Entire books have been written on the subject, but in this column, I only have space to cover a few of them.

Jewish resources include:

• Jewish (English) and Yiddish newspapers — they were very popular during peak Jewish immigration (1880-1920) and most old editions still exist, and your ancestor could be in them. See AJHS, below. Note that the Intermountain Jewish News has copies going back to before 1920; and online up to 1923.

Landsmanschaftn burial sections — townspeople (or landsman) — from the same shtetl or region, once they arrived, formed landmanshaftn or mutual aid societies, that helped each other in times of need.

One of their first tasks were to form burial societies (often named after the shtetl), which had sections in large Jewish cemeteries. Sometimes, finding out which burial society or section your ancestor is buried in, can lead to what shtetl they came from, especially if you have no other information to go on.

Records of those landsmanshaft may either mention your ancestor and/or provide information about the shtetl. See YIVO, below.

Holocaust records — most exist, including police and military records, camp prisoners, transport records and others. Yad Vashem created The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. According to their website, it “is a unique international endeavor initiated and led by Yad Vashem.

Its primary aim is to recover the names and reconstruct the life stories of each individual Jew murdered in the Shoah.”

Part of that database are the Pages of Testimony (POT), created by survivors in the 1950s and 1960s to help document who was killed, sent to different camps, or lost track of. There are well over four million POTs currently, which give details that the survivors remembered.

Yizkor books — Survivors of shtetls and cities where Jews lived collaborated to write books to remember the details of life there, and the people who lived in that time period.

They are almost all in Yiddish, but many have been translated. See Jewishgen, below.

An important record group for genealogists are church records. Obviously, the corollary for Jews would be synagogue records. However, due to the lack of standards and central authority, those records can vary widely, if they still exist. Those records might include:

Membership files — these were likely started after WW II, and might contain a wealth information, on congregation members.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah records

Burial records

Yahrzeit plaques — commemorating the annual death dates of congregation members.

Additionally, synagogues may keep records of organizations (and their members), prominent members, founders and contributors — any of whom could be your ancestor.

If the synagogue doesn’t exist anymore, they may have merged with another synagogue, whom might hold their records.

Sometimes the records are donated to Jewish historical groups, museums or archives — or sadly they are destroyed. But it’s worth researching.

Bris records — circumcision eight days after birth, may help you to find a male ancestor’s birth when civil records aren’t kept or are lost. Mohelim sometimes kept these records.

Ketubahs — elegant marriage contracts, giving names and dates, are given to brides.

Other resources to explore:

JewishGen — the best online resource for researching Jewish family history

American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS)

Center for Jewish History

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

* There is one here: The Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado

3 thoughts on “What’s so Jewish about genealogy?

  1. Terrie Snyder

    Just read this. Has it occurred to you, to begin with that the reason there are so many more Christian genealogy groups is because there are so many more Christians? Your contention that Jews didn’t keep family records is ridiculous. Much was lost in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. And much that was lost when the Jews were herded into mass graves was rescued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), which has provided complete access to Jews and any others at no charge.
    There are also records to be found in many websites and many active Jewish Genealogy groups of places like Facebook.
    How could you write this without knowing what you are talking about? If you are running this “Society” you really need to learn something about the subject you are representing.

    1. Ellen Beller

      Terrie, I just want to clarify that Mark Fearer, the author of this column, has never been the president of the Colorado Jewish Genealogy Society nor at present is he a member. We invite you to our programs, listed on our site and most of them are free of charge thanks to generous members. Ellen Beller, President of JGSCO

  2. Bernard (Ben Zion) Gurman

    I have to comment on Terrie Snyder’s comments. I fail to see what she is so upset about. If you read or reread the column, nowhere is he being dogmatic about anything. He is giving possible reasons for his statements. It does not obviate other reasons. As to Jews keeping family histories, I have attended several Jewish Gen annual symposiums. The overwhelming point of agreement is that Jews did not keep family histories except for verbal ones. My families left Europe during first few years of the 20th century. Some of my parents family knew bits of what they thought they knew about their ancestors, but almost total contradictions. Few know exactly how the family arrived in Canada. They believed they were born in Poland or Russia, but could not agree on the town or village, etc. Oh how I wish Jews kept records. I have friends, relatives, and acquaintances who have the same wish.

    By the way, I doubt anyone knows me yet. I have just recently joined.


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