Jewish genealogy isn't easy, but it isn't as hard as you might think
Many things you "know" about Jewish genealogy aren't true
With a systematic approach, you should be able to trace back to your immigrant ancestors or farther
In the past, most Jews were not as interested in documenting their pedigrees as
gentiles were. In recent years, however, genealogy has become a popular hobby
for both Jews and gentiles, as evidenced by popular television shows like
"Who Do You
Think You Are?" Jewish genealogical research has also taken on an added
importance for those moving to Israel, because
the increasingly strict Israeli rabbinate requires higher levels of proof of
Jewish status. See the 2008 article in the New York Times magazine,
Do You Prove You're a Jew?" by Gershom Gorenberg.
I'm no expert on genealogy, but I have had a great deal of success over the
last several years researching my family tree and helping others research
theirs. From three Jewish parents, I have identified 22 of 24 possible
2nd-great-grandparents born in the mid 1800s; 24 out of 48 possible
3rd-great-grandparents born in the early 1800s, and a few ancestors back to the
early 1700s. This page will pass along some of the benefit of my experience.
Debunking Jewish Genealogy Myths
Many people believe that Jewish genealogy is not possible because no one in the
family knows anything, names were changed at Ellis Island, records were
destroyed by Hitler, towns don't exist anymore, and so forth. The reality is,
these assumptions are not entirely true, and you can probably trace your family
tree one or two generations farther than you think you can. Let's look at some
of these genealogy myths.
- No one in my family knows anything
- Have you actually asked them? You might be surprised by what people know.
Jews don't talk much about their family history, but that doesn't mean they
don't know anything. When I had to do a genealogy project for school in 4th
grade, my father told me the names of his grandparents, and I assumed that was
all he knew. As an adult, I had done quite a bit of research on my family tree
before I found out that my father knew much more: he had compiled a family tree
as a bar mitzvah project in the 1950s, while
many of the older relatives were still living. His tree included all eight of
his great-grandparents, some of his 2nd-great-grandparents and dozens of aunts
and uncles and cousins. In addition, my father's brother and cousin had done
ongoing research that I did not know about until long after I had started my
- The name was changed at Ellis Island
- This is one of the most widespread myths of genealogy, and many people
lovingly cling to their family's quirky name-change stories even when
confronted with the facts. Sorry to disappoint you, but nobody's name was
changed at Ellis Island. Lists of passengers were compiled at the port of
departure based on the name found in the ticket. The names given upon arrival
in the United States had to match the name on the passenger list and on the
ticket. But even if the name were recorded incorrectly at Ellis Island, it
wouldn't matter, because you didn't have to use the name that was recorded at
Ellis Island. In the days before social security cards, drivers' licenses,
credit cards and all the other identification we rely on today, it was
perfectly legal to change your name -- both first and last name -- any time you
wanted as long as you didn't do it to avoid payment of your debts. And that's
the bad news: your family member's name may have changed several times both
before and after Ellis Island. My great-great-grandmother was listed on
immigration records in 1883 as Babette Reich, but died in 1900 as Bertha Rich.
Her son Heinrich became Henry in America. My grandmother was identified as Lee
Moldow on her American marriage certificate, but she shows up in early census
records as Lena Moldofsky and in an Ellis Island record as Bluma Moldansky. Her
brother shows up as Irving, Isidore and Isak. Tracking down family information
when the names may have changed repeatedly can be quite challenging.
- The records were destroyed by Hitler; the towns don't exist anymore
the Holocaust, the Nazis killed people, burned synagogues and wiped out towns,
but they did not destroy records. Quite the contrary, they carefully preserved
synagogue records of births, deaths and marriages back to the 1840s... so they
could identify Jews for extermination. See this puzzling stamp, dated November
30, 1940, on my great-grandfather's 1878 Vienna Jewish birth record: Annahme
des Zusatznamens Israel-Sara angezeigt (assume of the other names that
Jew-Jewess is indicated). What is the meaning of this cryptic message? It is a
reminder to those inspecting the records that they should assume everyone
mentioned on the page is Jewish -- not just the parents and children, but also
the rabbi, mohel,
midwife, witnesses, and so forth. Many of these European records, diligently
preserved by the Nazis, are indexed by
or are available from the Family History
Library of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Both of these resources are
Setting Proper Expectations
So we see that Jewish genealogy is not as impossible as we might think. But
it's not easy either. You are not likely to simply log onto
Ancestry (or even
JewishGen) and find a comprehensive tree
listing your family back 300 years, as some gentiles do. But you should be able
to trace your family tree back to the point of immigration (usually between
1860 and 1910), and some American records may give you the names of the parents
of those immigrants. Finding records from overseas is a bit more challenging,
partly because of the language barrier (most Jews didn't come from
English-speaking countries) and partly because of the scattershot availability
of those records.
Keep in mind as you do your research that not everything you find will be
completely accurate. We live in a society today where every aspect of our lives
is so thoroughly documented that it is often hard for us to understand: our
ancestors didn't always know their own date of birth let alone their parents'.
They didn't necessarily know their mother's maiden name. Even if they knew
these things, the information may not have been recorded accurately.
Step-by-Step: Recommendations for Genealogy Research
This is the approach I have taken in researching my own family trees and also
helping other people. It works for me. If you're not as obsessive-compulsive as
I am, you may find it easier to simply throw some names into an index and see
what sticks. My approach is intended to work from the present back, although
you may find that you need to skip around and revisit some of these steps as
you go along. Some of these sources are available free on the Internet; some
require only free registration; others require subscriptions or fees. I will
identify fee sites where necessary.
I would strongly suggest that you track not just your ancestors, but also all
of their siblings. The names of siblings will help you locate and verify other
records: if the family changed names between censuses (or if the census taker
spelled the name incorrectly), you can be sure it is the right family if there
are the right number of people with the same or similar given names. In fact,
you may find it very rewarding to track down all of the descendants of your
ancestors. You'll get a lot more results, and you'll end up finding cousins you
never knew instead of European gravestones! I've been tracing one branch of my
family tree for about 10 years on and off, and I've tracked it back to a
4th-great-grandfather born in Hungary in 1785. I'm rather proud of that, but
I'm more proud of having identified more than 1000 of his descendants in
Hungary, the United States and South America!
- 1. Talk to everyone in your family
- I'm not going to belabor this rather obvious point any more than necessary,
but suffice it to say that, as I said above, your family members may know more
than you realize. It's a lot easier to find documents confirming what they know
and building on it than it is to start from scratch. Talk to them repeatedly in
the course of your research: you may find that some of what you discover
triggers their memories. I was looking at marriage indexes in New York for my
grandparents and found two possibilities. I asked my mother when her parents'
anniversary was, and she insisted that she had no idea. "October or April?" I
asked. "Oh! Yes, April, of course!"
- 2. Social Security Death Index (SSDI)
- This used to be widely available for free, but concerns about identity
theft have made this database less widely available and less useful. Most
sources no longer include deaths after March 2014. The SSDI provides valuable
information about most people who died in the United States after 1970 (and
many who died before that). If they had a social security number, they should
be in there. The SSDI gives their dates of birth and death, their last known
residence, and the place where they were living when they got their social
security number. Ancestry.com (a subscription site) now has a
Applications and Claims Index, which gives incredibly useful information
from Social Security records: date and place of birth, father's name, mother's
maiden name, and name changes (particularly useful for women who may have
- 3. Census Records
- Censuses in the United States have been taken every ten years from 1790 to
the present. Census records from 1790 to 1940 (except 1890) are available
online. Starting in 1850, they identify all members of the household (earlier
years just listed the head of household and a count of househould members in
various categories), and starting in 1880, they specify the relationship of
each household member to the head of household (wife, child, mother-in-law, or
just boarder or servant). Censuses are available for free from
FamilySearch, the LDS Church's genealogy
website, and also on subscription services like
Ancestry. Chances are, you have
information about someone who was alive in the U.S. in 1940; if you can
find them in the census (and knowing their date of birth from the SSDI will
help), you will find their parents, siblings, children, and maybe even
grandparents. Census records can give you names, family relationships, age,
place of birth, occupation, year of immigration, an approximate date of
marriage, and other things. Of course, the information is only as accurate as
the knowledge of the person interviewed and the person's ability to communicate
with the census taker, but if you get several years of census records, a
consensus will develop.
- Remember that names can change over time. You may need to use some
creativity in searching. It helps to keep track of the names and ages of
everyone in the household, siblings as well as direct ancestors. There may be
several Harry Brodskys in the census, but how many of them have twin children
named Samuel and Beatrice? If you have trouble finding someone, try assuming
that one of the facts you know is wrong. Can't find the right Harry Brodsky?
Try just searching for just Brodsky with his year and place of birth, or just
Harry with his year and place of birth. Also try assuming that part of the
surname (usually the end) may have been cut off.
- 4. Birth, Marriage and Death Records
- If your ancestors lived in New York City (and many Jewish ancestors did),
the Italian Genealogical Group has created
incredible databases indexing New York City birth, marriage and death records.
They do not have any of the actual records, but it will give you precise dates
if you don't know them (or confirm dates if you do know them). The marriage
index can also get you the bride's maiden name (search for the groom, click the
link to the bride, and it will have her maiden name).
- The index also gives you the certificate numbers, which allow you to order
a copy of the original certificate from the
York Municipal Archives. It's not free (about $15 per certificate), but I
think it's worth every penny. New York marriage records contain the names of
the parents of both bride and groom, including maiden names: four additional
names that you may not have had, a whole generation of ancestors who may never
have come to America. Death records also have parents' names, though of course
this would only be two parents, and the accuracy of the information is only as
good as the knowledge of the informant. Birth records give the mother's maiden
- You may also find useful information in birth, marriage and death notices
in the newspaper. In addition to the date of birth, marriage or death, these
notices may give you the names of relatives. The parents of the child, bride or
groom are routinely mentioned in birth and marriage notices; the names of
surviving parents, siblings or children are commonly mentioned in death
notices. The age of the decedent is also commonly mentioned in death notices,
which gives an approximate date of birth.
Legacy.com is an excellent source for
obituaries since about 2000. If your ancestors lived in a city with a large
Jewish community, the notices may be included in the local Jewish paper, like
Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent
(some of which is indexed by
JewishGen) or Columbus's
Chronicle (all issues from 1922-1994 are online and searchable for free).
If your ancestors lived in New York, these notices may be available in the New
York Times, which has an excellent
archive search tool
for anything dating back to 1851. Some other newspapers also have their B/M/D
notices searchable online. Ancestry has birth, marriage and death announcements
from the NYT and a few other newspapers from 1851 to 2003, but their index of
those notices is atrocious. Other good sources of news items are
NewspaperARCHIVE, which which have
outstanding collections of local newspapers, but they are not free. These
sources have very different collections.
- 5. Immigration and Naturalization Records
- Early immigration records (before 1900 or so) don't have much information,
but later ones can tell you a lot of useful things.
Ellis Island has a free
search tool for their records, but you may be surprised to learn that not
everybody came through Ellis Island! Ellis Island opened in 1892, so if your
ancestor came over before that time, you'll have to look elsewhere. Earlier
immigrants to New York came through
Castle Garden, which also has a free
searchable database. Other Jewish immigrants came through Philadelphia,
Baltimore or other ports that do not have comprehensive search tools freely
available. Many of these records can be found through subscription services
- Early naturalization records (before 1900 or so) do not contain much
information, but later naturalization records contain one of the most valuable
pieces of information, and one of the hardest to find: the town of birth
overseas. Most other kinds of records simply give the country of birth, which
may not be very useful because of frequent border changes. Naturalization
records are supposed to have the town of birth (though my great-uncle put his
"town" of birth as Bessarabia, a country). Many naturalization records can be
found on Ancestry.
- 5. Overseas Records
- If you've gotten this far, you may be ready to start looking for your
immigrant ancestors in their country of origin.
JewishGen has transcribed an enormous
number of specifically Jewish records, both from overseas and from the United
States. Their searches include a special Soundex (sounds like) strategy that
takes into account the longer names that are common among Jews and the
pronunciations of Jewish names. The site is organized by country of origin, but
the creators of the site are aware of the flexibility of borders, and you will
find overlap. For example, their Romanian search includes many of the same
databases as their Ukraine search, because the boundaries shifted over time. Go
to the Complete List of
Databases and find the country you are interested in, then search the
database. You will need a free registration to look at the transcribed records.
An annual donation to JewishGen will give you enhanced search capabilities.
- If your ancestors are from Vienna,
GenTeam.at (free with registration) has an
excellent and growing collection of Austrian records, most notably an index to
the Vienna Matrikel (Jewish register of births, marriages and deaths). The
information transcribed is incomplete, but most of the Vienna Matrikel is
available on microfilm from the LDS Church (see below), and this index will
help you find out what records might be on those microfilms. I found dozens of
useful records here.
- The LDS Church has an increasing number of overseas records available on
their Family Search website, so you may
want to check that out too. Many of the overseas records they have are just
browsable images, with no index.
- The LDS Church also has an enormous collection of microfilms available that
can be borrowed from their headquarters in Utah for use in your local family
history center at an LDS church. For a minimal fee ($7.50), they will ship the
microfilm to your local family history center for you to use for up to a month,
then ship it back. It is in a church, but you usually enter through the back
entrance, and nobody tries to convert you or witness to you. They're just
interested in genealogy, same as you. My local family history center is
equipped with a microfilm scanner that allows me to get high-quality scanned
images from the films instead of printouts, though I gather that not all family
history centers are so well-equipped. You can find the microfilms in their
catalog. Here is how you
find Jewish records in their catalog:
- Search by Place. Use the most specific place you know, preferably a town
name. Enter it in the original language: for example, enter Wien, not Vienna.
If you use the English name, it will cross-reference you. If you know of
multiple names for the town, check each one. Click the correct town name in the
list of matches that appears.
- If you don't find the specific town, try searching for the name of a
broader area, like the county or district
- You will see a list of topics. Ideally, you want to find the topic Jewish
Records. If there is no Jewish Records topic, look for a Civil Registration or
a Vital Records topic. In Germany and some other European countries, Jews were
included in the same registries as gentiles. Click the topic.
- If you don't find any Jewish records in the specific town, try changing to
a broader area taking out the town name, leaving only the country and district.
- You will see a list of titles that match the topic. Click the title for
- You will see some additional information about that title, including
whether the title is already available online (microfilms are being added to
the online collection every week). It will also tell you the language the
source is written in. You can probably figure out records written in Western
European languages; Russian or Hebrew will be a lot more difficult if you're
not comfortable with the alphabet. Early German records can also be difficult
because they used a slightly different alphabet.
- Scroll down to the Film Notes section to find the exact film you want. Many
titles contain several different microfilms within them. Film Notes will tell
you what film and what item on that film holds the year and type of record you
- Click the film number to order the film. You will need an account to make
an order, and you will need to know your local family history center, where the
film will be sent for your use. You can locate a family history center
here. The film may take a few
weeks to arrive.
- 6. Other Record Types
- Of course, there are many other kinds of records that may contain
interesting or useful information. For example, I have gotten a lot of useful
information from WWI and WWII draft registration and enlistment records on
Ancestry. These records tell where and
when the person was born (sometimes giving the city), whether the person was
married (which can help you narrow down the date when your ancestor married),
and have other useful information. The mere existence of a registration can
confirm that a person was still living in 1942, which is not always easy to
deetermine. The WWII draft registration on Ancestry is the "Old Man's
Registration," which has men born between 1877 and 1897, which often includes
your immigrant ancestors, and it includes the town of birth, which may be hard
to find elsewhere.
- Travel records from Ancestry's ship manifests collection can also be
helpful in determining the date a person was born or married. Older travel
records often included a person's marital status, address and date of birth.
You may even be able to find your ancestor's passport on Ancestry, which
sometimes contains a photograph.
Translation of Foreign Genealogical Terms
Here are some useful genealogical terms in German and Hungarian, which are the
languages of most of the records I have worked with. You may find these terms
as column headings in metrical books, the most commonly available source of
foreign Jewish records. For additional translations and additional languages,
try Google Translate.
Jewish and General Genealogy Resources
Here are links to some sites I have found useful for Jewish genealogy:
- JewishGen: THE site for
Jewish genealogy, with a wealth of transcribed Jewish records (both American
and European) and lots of useful advice and information
- Avotaynu: A Jewish genealogy
newsletter and publisher, creating many useful books to help with your
research. They have a weekly email for $12 per year that contains useful
information about new Jewish resources available on the Internet
- Italian Genealogy Group: Not a
specifically Jewish source, obviously, but their extensive indexes of New York
City birth, marriage, death and naturalization records, all available for free,
are extremely valuable to Jewish researchers, who often have ancestors in New
- Ellis Island and
Castle Garden: The two primary ports
of immigration have databases of their records available online for free
- FamilySearch: The LDS church is
working on putting all of their enormous collection of genealogical microfilms
online for free. For example, they have Philadelphia marriage indexes and death
records, which are not available anywhere else online. Registration is required
to view the actual records in some cases.
- LDS Church Family History
Library: If FamilySearch hasn't put the records you need online yet, and
you're willing to step away from your computer to work in a library, the LDS
Church has an enormous collection of microfilms of records from all over the
world. For a $7.50 fee, you can order them delivered to your local family
history center, where you can use them for a month. Many of these microfilms
have already been indexed and put on the
FamilySearch site for free, but some are
still only available in microfilm format.
- Ancestry: The largest genealogical
source on the web. They don't have much that is specifically of interest to
Jewish researchers (except the material that they obtained from JewishGen), but
they have an enormous amount of American material that will get you from the
present day back to your immigrant ancestors, and their immigration records.
This is a subscription service, and a rather expensive one, so you'll want to
do as much as you can for free before you try it, and you may want to start
with one of their short-term
- Stephen Morse's One Step Portal:
A wealth of tools that make it easier to locate records in many of the sources
of interest to Jews. He doesn't have any records of his own; he merely provides
enhanced searching capabilities for other websites that exist, including both
free websites and subscription sites
- Several New York area Jewish cemeteries have online interment searches,
Moriah, and Mount
Zion. This will give you an approximate date of death (assume death was
within a week before burial, unless the body was moved). You may also find
other possible family members by searching for the location of the graves:
family members may be buried together.
- Fold3, formerly known as Footnote:
This used to be a general source of American records, but was bought out by
Ancestry.com and changed its focus to military records. Its non-military
information is now available in Ancestry. I'm not sure I would recommend this
any more, unless you have a specific interest in military records.
I have also used the genealogy sites My
Heritage and Mocavo, though I didn't
find much there that wasn't available in other sources. Your experience may vary.
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