Jewish genealogy and the search for roots near and far

Previously, I discussed the challenges encountered by African-Americans searching for ancestors who pre-date the Civil War and strategies for accessing both basic and more detailed information about this time period.  Similarly, genealogical research for those of Jewish ancestry presents unique obstacles.  With massive immigration toward the end of the 19th century and the destruction of large numbers of the Jewish population during the Holocaust, the past 200 years of Jewish history have undergone significant periods of upheaval and disruption resulting in few Jews residing in the same places where their ancestors lived.  Despite concerns that one’s Jewish ancestry would be difficult to document due to family name changes at Ellis Island, the lack of living relatives to provide an oral history and the destruction of records during the Holocaust, there are a wealth of resources in both Europe and the United States available for Jews to trace and expand their family trees.

For the Ashkenazi sect of Jews (those of Central or Eastern European descent), the search for ancestors initially leads back to Eastern Europe, where Jews accounted for more than 60 percent of the world’s total Jewish population prior to 1933.  In most European countries, Jews were obligated to register their major life events with a leader of the state church.  A surprisingly large number of Jewish vital records have survived and can be found in civil or church records located in the town of one’s ancestors.  The birth, marriage and death records of many Jewish communities in Poland, Hungary and Germany are also available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Another method for tracing ancestors is through their listings in city directories.  You may access city directories for numerous major European cities during the 19th and 20th centuries through the Family History Library.  An impressive number of records in the Family History Library’s catalogue have also been microfilmed.  For example, the collection contains a filmed version of all available Jewish records from 1895 to modern Hungary, including the 1848 census for several Hungarian counties, some of which are now located in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

When searching U.S. based records, federal and state census documents will likely provide an ancestor’s city of origin, family group and date of arrival to the U.S.  Most censuses between 1880 and 1920 required immigration and naturalization information so this is a fairly dependable source of information.  Similarly, naturalization papers, particularly after 1906, contain well-documented data including the names of an ancestor’s children and spouses, the date and location of arrival into the U.S. and the family’s original name.  To supplement this information, passenger arrival indexes for large East Coast city destinations, Canadian border crossings and other Atlantic ports of entry can provide insights into an ancestor’s closest living relatives in Europe and family relationships in the United States.

Finally, there is an extensive body of information available online for Jewish genealogical research.  Among these resources, Avotaynu (translated as “forefathers”) is the leading provider of materials for exploring Jewish roots and family trees.  Another site, JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), is a database of surnames and towns currently being researched by over 100,000 Jewish genealogists internationally.  This resource serves as a repository for the exchange of information among participants.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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