Learning about your immigrant Jewish ancestry can be rewarding. Here are a few tips and tricks that can help you overcome common obstacles in Jewish genealogy research.
In a previous post, we covered an introduction to Jewish immigrant research, focusing on historical context, migration patterns, and determining the European hometown.
Once you’ve made the connection across the pond, however, there is still work to be done.
Maps and Gazetteers
Once you have found a record that names your Jewish immigrant’s hometown, it is important to identify all possible matches for this town. First, you should try to identify the region from the Pale of Settlement where the town was located. This usually isn’t too difficult since the region often appears on several records before you find the exact town name. Comparing the location to modern and historical maps of your choice, you should be able to see what country and region the town now lies in.
It is a good idea to start any “place search” by typing the town name and the country into a search engine to see what comes up. Sometimes it is that easy to identify the Jewish hometown. However, more often than not, the town name has been spelled phonetically in the United States record or the spelling of the town name might have changed with the controlling government or a language change.
There are several gazetteers that are useful for locating and identifying the correct Jewish hometown. The Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex system uses six characters instead of the typical four, and it soundexes the first letter as well. This is an extremely useful and often necessary tool for locating possible hometowns. The JewishGen Communities Database and the JewishGen Gazetteer both use this advanced soundex to assist in locating Jewish and Eastern European towns.
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has some excellent gazetteers that used to be hidden behind the B1 reference counter, but are now accessible to anyone. They are on the shelves near the microfilm readers. Some of these gazetteers are also available online, some free and some not. The following list includes some excellent Eastern European maps, gazetteers and other useful resources.
Poland, Galicia, Hungary & Slavic Gazetteers
When researching different ethnic groups, religions, and people from other linguistic backgrounds, there are often small things that may be unfamiliar, and which can trip up a genealogist unfamiliar with the culture. Jewish research is no different. Here are some quirks you’ll often run across, and which are important to know:
- First, the name on the passenger list might not match the census or other documents exactly. When taking on Americanized names, many Jewish immigrants have often been known to use several – as long as they all began with the same letter. Isaac, Isaak, Isador(e), Ishmael and Israel might all refer to the same man. Rachel, Risa, Rosina, and Ruth could all be the same woman. You should definitely think outside the box with your search parameters.
- Think Old Testament – a man called Jacob in one record could be called Israel in another. This has to do with the fact that Jews often had Jewish names relating to their religion as well as everyday names they used in their public and professional lives. Sometimes the Anglicized name was a variation of the Hebrew one, but not always.
- Jewish gravestones almost always include the name of the deceased’s father. This is a patronymic tradition being carried on from the times before Jews had established surnames. If you can’t read Hebrew or Yiddish, the JewishGen website has instructions to walk you through it.
- Surnames were not always consistent. After arriving in the United States, many Jews shortened their surnames for simplicity or to be less identifiable as Jews. Keep an open mind with spelling variations. As long as it was phonetically similar it could be a match. Use indexes carefully and try to find ones that use the Daitch–Mokotoff Soundex system.
Watch for the third and final installment of our Jewish genealogy posts in the coming weeks, and feel free to comment with any questions, or your own experiences!
Legacy Tree Genealogists has experts trained in Jewish and Eastern European research that would be happy to help you find your ancestry. Contact us for more information and to begin your journey.