Diverse Communities: Jewish Genealogy

By Rhoda Miller, EdD, CG®

Jewish genealogy has become increasingly popular in recent years. The reasons are multifaceted but largely relate to interest in Jewish identity. A good starting place is to dispel the major myths of Jewish genealogical research.

  • Records were all destroyed during the Holocaust; nothing is left.
  • Towns no longer exist.
  • The family name was changed, and no one knows the original name.

The information to follow will undermine these myths.

Historical and Cultural Background: A Brief Overview

History: Jews are the people of three notable geographic dispersals in modern history. The first relates to the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834) whereby Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.[1] Generally this dispersal was to Mediterranean-basin countries as well as Central and Eastern Europe. The second dispersion was the mass migration from Eastern Europe (1882–1914) due to poverty and prejudice. The majority of people emigrated to the United States but also to South Africa, England, and South America.[2] The third dispersion was during the Holocaust era (1919–1945), when Jews migrated worldwide, including settlement in Palestine. Jewish communities are found throughout the world, so it should not be surprising if a paper trail leads to an unexpected location.[3]

Ashkenazic and Sephardic: In both religious practice and cultural tradition, there is a difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazim largely emerged from Eastern Europe while Sephardim emerged from Spain and the diaspora countries of the Spanish Inquisition. One important difference relates to naming practices. The Ashkenazic tradition is to name a child after a deceased person, usually that of a grandparent. Therefore, given names tend to skip a generation. In the Sephardic naming tradition children are named after living people, and the full name can have a suffix, such as “Jr.” Sephardic surnames often sound Spanish or Portuguese and are not thought of as “Jewish.”[4] One can utilize the concept of a “Jewish name” as a clue, but it is far from definitive evidence.

Names: Jewish given names can be confounding, as they may have English, Yiddish, Hebrew, homeland language, and diminutive versions, as seen in the following example. Oral history claimed that a person’s given name was Louis. He has been found in U.S. records as Leopold and Harry. His name appears on a passenger ship manifest as Lipot. His gravestone records his Hebrew name as Asher Lev. Asher loosely translates to Harry while Lev becomes Leopold/Louis. No record has been found to date with the name Louis other than the back of a photograph.[5] Name changes, given and surname in the U.S., can be tracked using traditional sources: naturalization records, passenger ship manifests, and vital and military records. Random luck may play a role. Resources below list variations of names based upon custom and transliteration.[6]

It is difficult to trace Ashkenazim prior to the early- to mid-nineteenth century, as Jews largely did not have surnames. Then they were usually known by a patronymic—e.g., Isaac ben [son of] Abraham—or by a given name commonly associated with an occupation. For example, “Nissim the dyer” was Nissim to whom people gave their spinning to color.[7] The timeframe during which Jews were required to take surnames varied considerably among Western European countries and the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.[8] Sephardic surnames, on the other hand, existed as early as the tenth or eleventh centuries.[9]

Languages: Language complicates research. Yiddish was the vernacular of most Eastern European Jews but not all. Hebrew is the language of religious worship as well as the official language of Israel. The two languages share the same alphabet but are distinct and should not be confused as one. Many diaspora Jews were also conversant in the local language(s) of the country in which they lived; multilingualism is common among Jewish immigrants of any period. Records for any given location may be in multiple languages depending upon the time period and ruling government.[10]

Cemeteries: Burial and gravestone practices are important to Jewish genealogy. Traditional burial occurs within twenty-four hours of death with the mourning period (shiva) to follow for typically three to seven days. Jewish gravestones are formally unveiled during a ceremony one year after the death. The traditional Jewish gravestone offers the deceased’s Hebrew name as well as the Hebrew given name of the person’s father, such as Asher Lev ben [son of] Moishe. Such a practice enables genealogists to go back one generation rather easily.[11] Unfortunately, as observance declines, an increasing number of modern gravestone inscriptions do not reflect this practice. Jewish graves can be found in consecrated Jewish cemeteries, consecrated sections of non-sectarian cemeteries, and randomly in non-sectarian cemeteries.[12]

Gravestone artwork may be an important clue contributing to evidence of descent. Hands with fingers spread as in the blessing practice (also the hand sign used in Star Trek) symbolize the ancient religious patrilineal distinction of being a Kohen (priestly caste). The designation HaKohen is usually inscribed in Hebrew after the person’s or father’s name. It is a mistake to infer that the surname Cohen, or any of its variant spellings, means the same as being HaKohen. The patrilineal designation of Levite (helper to the priests) is symbolized by the image of a pitcher which was used to pour water over the priest’s hands during the traditional hand-washing ceremony. The designation HaLevi is usually inscribed in Hebrew on the gravestone. Every other male is considered an Israelite, which is typically symbolized by an image of the Star of David. Females do not have such designations, but their gravestones are commonly inscribed with candelabra, which symbolize the woman’s role in lighting the Sabbath candles.[13]

Locations: Identifying towns of origin presents a problem similar to that of personal names, as town names are often spelled differently in different languages. The identification is further compounded by the confusion of changing national borders. These towns are different today in that most (if not all) of their Jewish residents were murdered during the Holocaust.[14] Towns (shtetls) that once held major Jewish populations may still exist, but no longer “exist” in the hearts and minds of survivors.

There are a few larger cities in Eastern Europe that still have a Jewish population. The JewishGen Communities Database is extraordinarily helpful in sorting out the problem of identifying current town names.[15] For example it lists the following alternative appellations for the city with the modern name of Mukacheve, Ukraine: Mukačevo (Czech, Slovak), Munkács (Hungarian), Munkatch (Yiddish), Mukachëvo (Russian), Mukaczewo (Polish), Munkacz (Polish), Munkatsch (German), Muncaci (Romanian), Munkačevo.[16]

Holocaust: The Holocaust created unique research problems and strategies. While there was certainly loss of records, many did survive. In some cases, care was taken to hide and protect archival material during World War II. Many valuable resources for Holocaust research were produced by Nazi efforts to document transports, arrests, concentration camp inmates, ghetto inhabitants, etc. After the war, many newspapers and agencies published survivor lists and notices seeking missing persons. The Russian government undertook an extensive project, the Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed on Soviet Territory, which documented events in every town and produced extensive name lists. Yad Vashem, the prominent Israeli museum and archive of the Holocaust, has an extensive online database of Pages of Testimony. These are forms, completed by survivors and others, that document the people who disappeared or who are known to have been murdered during the Holocaust period. The database has English transcriptions of the forms as well as images of the original documents, which can be in any number of languages. The United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial (USHMM) has extensive historical information, a library and archive catalog, and a names database. The International Red Cross Tracing Service has the most complete documentation of Holocaust victims. Their database and records, which have been provided to Yad Vashem and USHMM, are searchable onsite and by written request.[17]

DNA: DNA studies may provide evidence of Jewish origins. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, for example, has an ethnicity category labeled Jewish Diaspora. Y-DNA (male-line) results may place an individual within any number of categories under study by Jewish researchers, including rabbinical lineages.[18]

Other Resources

The primary online source for Jewish genealogy is JewishGen. The FAQ and InfoFiles on a wide variety of topics are a good place to learn specific research, cultural, and location information. This site offers an extensive number of databases organized by country as well as topic. Topical databases include the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), Holocaust Database, and a bibliographic database of Yizkor Books, memorial books written about Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. There are also extensive tools such as the JewishGen Communities database and ViewMate, which provides volunteer translation assistance for brief documents. Additionally, there is a Family Finder (JGFF) and Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP) that connects the researcher with others researching the same surname or town. The site also hosts independent organizations that provide databases and other resource information. Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI-Poland) has transcribed a substantial number of vital records from Poland as well as other resources. The project has begun providing images of original records online. Litvak SIG offers a database and information about the Jewish communities of what is largely modern Lithuania.

Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step Webpages contain tools for finding immigration records, census records, vital records, and for managing calendars, maps, foreign alphabets and numerous other applications.

The Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island has an expanding series of YouTube tutorials that provides easy to understand information about general records as well as Jewish-specific topics.

Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation website includes an Archive Database which consists of a searchable town-by-town inventory of surviving Jewish and civil records in the archives of Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldova.  Also included is an image database as well as articles written by Eastern European archivists and historians.

The International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) is the umbrella organization for over seventy Jewish genealogy societies worldwide. Local groups may be contacted for resources and assistance. Every summer, IAJGS hosts a major international conference devoted to Jewish genealogy.

The Israel Genealogy Research Association has extensive information and resources for research in Israel. Its website offers a searchable database of its holdings.

The Center for Jewish History in New York City serves as home to five major Jewish organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The website offers a combined library catalog and electronic finding aids to collections. The Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History provides a wealth of genealogical resources through the partners’ collections and a variety of fact sheets for the beginner to advanced researcher.


Jewish genealogy requires unique resources and strategies. Mastering these specialized skills dispels the myths and leads to an enriched genealogical research experience.

Selected References

Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1996. Print.

———. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Revised ed. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 2008. Print.

Feldblyum, Boris. Russian-Jewish Given Names. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc, 1998. Print.

Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993

———. The Atlas of Jewish History. New York: William Morrow, 1993. Print.

Gorr, Shmuel. Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation and Diminutive Forms. Ed. Chaim Freedman. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1992. Print.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors. North Salt Lake, UT: Heritage Quest, 2001.

Kurzweil, Arthur. From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Personal History. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004 (updated edition).

Malka, Jeffrey S. Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and their World. 2nd ed. Bergenfeld, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 2009. Print.

Menk, Lars. Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames. Bergenfield, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2005.

Mokotoff, Gary. Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy: 2015 Edition. New Haven, CT. Avotaynu, Inc., 2015. Print.

Sack, Sallyann Amdur and Gary Mokotoff, eds. Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004.

Segal, Joshua L. A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery. Nahsua NH: Jewish Cemetery Publishing, LLC, 2005. Print.

Spector, Shmuel. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust. 3 vols. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem. New York: NYU Press, 2001.

Weiner, Miriam. Jewish Roots in Poland: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories. Secaucus, NJ: Routes to Roots Foundation, 1997.

———. Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories. Secaucus, NJ: Roots to Routes Foundation/YIVO, 1999.

Wynne, Suzan F. Finding Your Jewish Roots in Galicia: A Resource Guide. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1998. Print.

Rhoda Miller, EdD, CG, has been a Certified Genealogist since 1998. She is Past President of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island with whom she has co-authored Jewish Community of Long Island, a recent addition to the Arcadia Images of America series.

[1]  For detailed information regarding the historical background, locations, and naming information for Sephardic Jews, see Jeffrey S. Malka, Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and Their World, 2nd ed. (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, Inc., 2009).

[2] See Sallyann Amdur Sack, “Modern Jewish Migrations,” in Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff, eds., Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2004), 73–76.

[3] Both references for Martin Gilbert’s atlases provide geographic detail regarding Jewish dispersions.

[4] For further detail regarding Sephardic naming practices, see Jeffrey Malka, “Differences in Sephardic Ashkenazi Genealogy,” JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/differ.HTM).

[5] Miller, Rhoda (Babylon, New York), personal research file, GROSS binder.

[6] See Shmuel Gorr, Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation and Diminutive Forms, ed. Chaim Freedman (Bergenfeld, N.J.: Avotaynu, 1992). Also, Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 48.

[7] This example is derived from Gittel Pomerantz, “Orlowe, My Birthplace,” trans. Rhoda Miller, in Sefer Zoludek ve-Orlowa; galed le-zikaron [The Book of Zoludek and Orlowa; a Living Memorial], eds. A. Meyerowitz, Tel Aviv, former residents of Zoludek in Israel and the USA, 1967; digital images, JewishGen Yizkor Book Project (www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/zaludok/zhe081.html : accessed 10 April 2016).

[8] See Sallyann Amdur Sack, “Jewish Naming Practices: Family Names,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 30–34.

[9] For a primary-level overview of Jewish surnames, see “Jewish Names,” Judaism 101 (www.jewfaq.org/jnames.htm).

[10] Foreign language alphabets with descriptive guides for commonly used languages in Jewish genealogy may be found in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, “Appendix A: Alphabets,” 577–83.

[11] Considerable detail for Jewish gravestone interpretation and translations is provided on the JewishGen’s InfoFile “Reading Hebrew Tombstones” (www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/tombstones.html). The Jewish calendar, different from the Gregorian and Julian calendars, is also discussed on this page. Jewish calendar dates are used for religious purposes. There is an excellent conversion tool at Stephen P. Morse, “Jewish Calendar Conversions in One Step,” One-Step Webpages (http://www.stevemorse.org/jcal/jcal.html).

[12] For more detail see Joshua L. Segal, A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery (Nashua N.H.: Jewish Cemetery Publishing, LLC, 2005), 27-33.

[13] Ibid., 49–58.

[14] For further detail on locating towns see Gary Mokotoff, “Shtetl Geography: the Changing Face of Europe,” and Randy Daitch, “Holistic Geography,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 16–22 and 23–29, respectively.

[15] “JewishGen Communities Database,” JewishGen (http://www.jewishgen.org/Communities/Search.asp).

[16] Ibid., search for “Mukacheve.”

[17] For further information regarding Holocaust research see Gary Mokotoff, “Holocaust Research,” in Sack and Mokotoff, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, 61–67.

[18] For an overview of what FamilyTreeDNA has to offer regarding the discovery of Jewish ancestry, see “The Family Tree DNA Learning Center,” FamilyTreeDNA (www.familytreedna.com/landing/jewish-ancestry.aspx) > Expert’s Handbook > Jewish Ancestry.

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.