Challenges with Jewish Research

Unique Challenges in Jewish Genealogy

If you have Jewish ancestors you have unique challenges not found in other types of research. Fortunately, there are some advantages, too.


Names - so many names!


In the old country, Jews could have as many as four types of given names


1. A formal, religious name, in Hebrew. Sometimes this name would be two given names, such as Avram Itzkhak (Abraham Isaac) or Mordekay Moshe (Mordecai Moses). Two given names should be thought of as one name for purposes of research, although in time one of the names might be forgotten. Hebrew names would be bestowed on a son shortly after birth. For women, the given name did not have religious implications because of the traditional religious role of women. Women's names at birth could have been Hebrew, Yiddish or taken from the culture in which they lived.


2. An everyday name. In much of Europe this would be a Yiddish name, usually some sort of variation or translation of a man's Hebrew name. For women, this likely would be their name given at birth or a variation of that name.


3. A familiar name. This might be a name used by family and close friends. Often, this would be some variation of the birth name or everyday name, with some spelling variation indicating affection, an endearment. For example, Rokhel becomes Rokhela or Avram becomes Avramka.


4. A name that blends in with the dominant culture. For men who traveled for business or engaged in commerce with the local, non-Jewish population, a non-Jewish name might be used. This is especially true of secularized Jews, but is not restricted to them. In Russia, for example, Boruch may go by Boris and Aron might go by Arkardi.


Variations in Last Names


In most of Europe, last names did not exist for Jews until the first decades of the 19th century. In many other parts of the world, Jews already had inheritable names, and in a few places Jews were using traditional names even after Jews in most other places had adopted surnames. Prior to the adoption of surnames, Jews would be formally named as Firstname, Son of/Daughter of Firstname-of-Father. Formally, a female might be named Rivka (Rebecca) bat (daughter of) Shimon (Simon). A male might be Eliezer ben (son of) Efroim (Ephraim).


Last names might be changed in the old country for a few reasons, but typically a surname would be inherited from one generation to the next, from father to children. But there were exceptions:


1. A woman after marriage would adopt the surname of her husband, as is commonly practiced today.


2. Around the time when many Jews adopted surnames, and shortly afterwards, men would occasionally adopt the surname of their wife's family.


3. Some families would use a hyphenated last name that combined the surname of the father and mother. This could have happened after the initial adoption of surnames.


4. A Jew who converted to another religion might adopt a new last name that reflected the change.


Different records in the old country, for different purposes and at different times and places might have all variations of the above.


Names would change after immigration from the old country


Taking the example of an immigrant to the U.S., which would be similar to immigrants to South America or Western European countries, individuals would use names that fit in with the dominant culture of their adopted country. Rokhel or Rokhella would become Rachel, Rose or Ruth; Mordecai or Motte would become Max or Morris; and Arye Leib would become Louis, Leon, Alan or Harry. Or something else. Last names would be shortened, sometimes by chopping off the ethnic ending: Abramovitz became Abrams; Braverman became Braver. Sometimes the front portion of the name would be removed, which could make it very difficult to find a person's original name: Shtaynfeld became Field; Eliasburg became Berg.


Sometimes some part of the surname would be translated, such as Kalmonovitz (literally, son of Kalmon) might become Kalmonson; Schneider (literally, tailor) might become Taylor.


Sometimes, immigrants would acquire an entirely new surname in order to immigrate. They may have escaped military conscription and/or travelled under false papers.


Researchers need to ask themselves, when they discover a name change of a new immigrant whether the new surname is actually a reversion to their original surname which they had to change for immigration or to escape conscription. Imagine a man with the surname Abramovitz in the US. It is learned from his ship's manifest that he immigrated under the name Kleinman. This is not common, but can happen.


Gravestones are an advantage for tracing Jewish roots


Traditional Jewish gravestones have the Hebrew given name (or names) of the decedent, along with the Hebrew name or names of his or her father. For those buried in the US or other new world countries the gravestone will almost always have the full name of the person. This is incredibly useful when trying to find old world origins. The Hebrew name of an individual may not be the same as the name that they used when emigrating from the old country, but will suggest variations that can be tried. If your grandfather was "Louis," he is most likely listed on a ship manifest as Leizer, Eliezer, Eliasz, Laser, Leib, Lajb, Yudel, Arye or some spelling variation of those names. "Harry" may have travelled to the US as Arye, Hirsch, Girsh, Heshel, Hanoch, Chetzkel, etc. The gravestone information will narrow down the possibilities. For example, the gravestone may say "Yehuda," so therefore Louis probably arrived under a variation of that name, and would not be a Leizer or an Eliasz. Or if, for example, the gravestone says "Yechetzkel," therefore "Harry" probably travelled under a variation of that name, such as Chetzkel. The same applies for women. Women often have the same name on their gravestone as they used when emigrating, with some less formality perhaps. Frequently, the gravestone will show a double given name in Hebrew, and she likely is listed on the ship manifest with only one of those names. Use the one that matches the name she used in everyday life. For example, if the gravestone says her name is Chai Rochel, and she used the name Rachel in the U.S., look for a manifest that uses the name Rochel. (and don't forget to also check for "Rose" because emmigrants often started to use alternate names enroute to the New World. Children very likely emigrated with their mothers, so knowing the children's Yiddish names and the mother's Yiddish name is often necessary to find the correct ship manifest.


Another advantage of doing Jewish genealogy, is the tradition amongst Ashkenazi Jews (in particular, Eastern European Jews) to name children after recently and closely-related deceased ancestors Children would not be named for a living family member. I have never seen a son with the same name as his father, although sons could be named for a father who died prior to the child's birth. If father and son with Russian or Polish origins have the same name in NY it is only because they chose the same American name, although their old-world names were different. That is, Shmuel and Shloime maybe both chose to call themselves "Sam" in the U.S. Another exception is if a son were adopted, he might have the same name as his new father. The naming tradition can be very predictable. A first-born son very well may be named for the closest ancestor along his male line who has deceased - either his paternal grandfather or that grandfather's grandfather. But if the mother's father was recently deceased, he might be named for his maternal grandfather. The first-born daughter, similarly, very well may be named for her mother's mother, or her mother's mother's mother. These are not hard and fast rules, but the naming tradition can be quite evident in some families going back several generations. This may create a situation where many cousins have the same given name. By looking at when all cousins named Allen, Albert and Arnold were born will give you an idea of when their grandfather, Abraham, died.


Lost Records


Many genealogically helpful records have been lost, even from the last 100 years. The Nazi's confiscated and apparently destroyed many registers from Jewish communities. The communists built over Jewish cemeteries, and local, native populations took gravestones to use as building materials. And yet, many records do still exist. Due to political changes, war, and mass-emigrations, vital records from the old country could be in many places. Early references to rabbinic families can be found in books at Jewish libraries and are invaluable, if you a link can be made from known ancestors to a rabbinic family. Also are available are books written about the history of Jewish towns, called Yizkor (remembrance) books. Towns that no longer exist.


I don"t think any towns were literally erased, but due to the mass murders of millions of Jews in WW II, some Jewish communities were in fact entirely wiped out. Some remnants may have escaped and now live elsewhere. The town itself, however, is still there.


The above information only addresses the basics. There are special cases, depending on time and place, and every rule has an exception.