Imagine my surprise and excitement when I learned that there was an interest in getting me to speak about Jewish Genealogy at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio. When I was first getting my feet wet as a genealogist I attended several classes there that were offered in conjunction with the Franklin County (Ohio) Genealogical Society. I was quite excited to get the opportunity to help get some others started on the path with their Jewish ancestors. As part of the promotion of the workshop, the coordinators asked me to write an article with some helpful information for those interested in the topic for their print publication, Echoes. So I thought that perhaps I would share it here as well. If you are in the Columbus, Ohio area, please consider registering for the class. The more the merrier and I would love to get to know you better. Here is the article and a bit at the end about how to register for the class.
Getting Started With Jewish Genealogy
When faced with the research of a Jewish ancestor, it may seem a daunting task. We think of the Holocaust and the incredible destruction of lives, synagogues and cemeteries in Europe and wonder, “Why should I even try?” Then there’s the myth that immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island and so our Jewish ancestors are nearly impossible to research. All of these things scare off many people from researching their Jewish family and discovering that there’s actually a great deal of information out there.
There are many avenues to ﬁnd your Jewish ancestors and you don’t have to settle for just ﬁnding names and dates.
What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?
Since I began researching my own Jewish family I’ve had many people ask this question. The answer is that there are many ways to be deﬁned as a Jew. There are the religious denominations of Judaism that have developed over time and ethnic deﬁnitions based on the geographic region from which the Jewish people originated. There are also Rabbinic deﬁnitions that are based on the role a particular familial line played within the religion. Each of these deﬁnitions can serve as valuable information to assist in researching a Jewish ancestor and having a better understanding of their lives.
For those of you who are not Jewish or familiar with some of the speciﬁcs of Jewish traditions, you might ﬁnd it helpful to read some articles on the website My Jewish Learning (myjewishlearning.com).Understanding the different denominations of Judaism can help you to identify some of the traditions your ancestors might have practiced and assist you in looking at other resources. There are also ethnic classiﬁcations that are helpful in orienting yourself as to where your ancestors may have originated.
Knowing whether your Jewish ancestors were Sephardic or Ashkenazi can give valuable insight into their stories. I also recommend you sign up for JewishGen (jewishgen.org) which has wonderful tools and information and is free. JewishGen also has online classes that are offered on a regular basis.
Gather Known Information
The ﬁrst step in examining your Jewish connection is to look at home and talk to your oldest relatives for any items they may have. Are there documents, photographs, letters, postcards or family heirlooms that could provide clues? Keep an eye out for other languages as they can reveal a lot of interesting information. In my own family, we had a copy of a document from Slovakia. We really had no idea what it was about. Once translated, I learned it was a work permit for my great-grandfather Samuel Engel in Presov, Slovakia. It wasn’t a breakthrough, but it placed him in a place at a certain time which eventually led me to ﬁnding his son’s birth record in the same city.
As you begin your Jewish research, it is important to know about the speciﬁc records that are associated with the location, time period, ethnic group or religion. Understanding the lives that Jewish people led upon arriving in the United States can help you identify common records that would have been created in their life. Most people know about the common records that are used in genealogy—census records, vital records, military records—but for Jewish life, there are a few of which you may not have been aware.
Go Beyond Vital Records
Each of our Jewish ancestors left behind traces of their lives that are just waiting for researchers to unearth. Ship records, society membership, synagogue documents, school research, city directories, guilds and unions, business and tax records could all be potential resources for learning more about the lives of the Jews. Any one of these may include clues about your ancestor’s beginnings; it just takes looking down a new road.
Did you know that headstones of our Jewish ancestors often have Hebrew that could reveal their father’s name or even where they were from? You may not be able to read them yourself, but there are volunteers who would be happy to help with translation. Visit JewishGen.org, register, and upload your headstone photos through the Viewmate page to tap into this wonderful resource.
Since beginning my own family history journey, I’ve fought through the paper trail in an attempt to learn more about my Jewish ancestors. I’ve even used DNA testing as a method to supplement my research. As more and more people test their autosomal DNA, the possibilities of matching with previously unknown cousins are exploding. We are living in exciting times and sometimes those DNA tests reveal an unexpected bit of Ashkenazi Jew in the mix.
Join me on a voyage of exploration of Jewish family history. I will explain the basics of the history of the Jewish people and the many definitions of Jewish ancestry to unearth the genealogy of your ancestors. Learn how to use databases, library catalogs, and networking websites to get closer to finding your Jewish ancestors and helping you “cross the pond” to their place of origin.
Date: May 21, 2017
Time: 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Location: Ohio History Center, Arthur C. Johnson Auditorium
Cost: $15.00 Ohio History Connection or FCGHS members, $20.00 non-members, pre-registration recommended