Course: 2024-14 -Introduction to Ashkenazic Jewish Genealogy

Coordinator: Emily H. Garber


Jewish genealogy is different. Throughout much of European history people of the Jewish faith have been on the margins culturally and strictly regulated economically and socially. They maintained their own languages, educational and internal governmental structures, and cemeteries. Jewish communities developed their own customs despite living within the greater non-Jewish community.

In most European societies records for Jewish people were kept separately from those of other religions. Laws and policies restricting Jewish people affected what we may or may not find today both in terms of records and their content. Understanding the context of past Jewish life is basic to developing one’s family history and critical for locating and understanding records (including genetic genealogy test results) that may hold information about Jewish forebearers.

This course will provide a foundation for family history research of Jewish people with a focus on Ashkenazic Jewry (those primarily living in Eastern and Central Europe). Students will learn to critically evaluate where to look for records and how to evaluate the information within them. Students will learn about the place of Jewish people within the history of Europe. They will see how the role of Jews in European societies changed with movements away from feudal economies and toward modernity. They will develop an understanding of extant records in both the United States and Europe that may shed light on the lives of members of the Jewish community. Students will also learn skills for following Jewish people through time despite variations in names, places, and occupations associated with life-changing migrations.

Other Instructors:

Lara Diamond
Janette Silverman

Student Prerequisites:

Students should have knowledge of records typically used in genealogical research (census, vital records, cemetery records, etc.) and online research tools. They should also have some familiarity with the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Students are encouraged to complete genetic genealogy (autosomal) testing and have access to results for themselves, a relative, or someone with Ashkenazi heritage. The tests should have been completed with at least one of the major testing companies. If they wish to explore a specific individual’s genetic genealogy further, they should come prepared with either a laptop computer or other device on which they can access and view their DNA results and matches.

Recommendations: None

Day Session Title Description Instructor
Monday 1 Changing Boundaries in Europe Jewish people began to appear in Europe well over 1,000 years ago. In Central and Eastern Europe, they were often invited to serve in specific economic functions by noble families who owned the land and who controlled the means and distribution of production in these feudal societies. From 1772 to 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which controlled much of the territory of Eastern Europe, was dissolved and absorbed by the empires of Prussia, Austria, and Russia. This resulted in social and economic changes that impacted all residents. Governments enacted special restrictive laws directed against Jews who lived within their jurisdictions. To understand documentation of this time period, we must understand contemporary laws. We will discuss boundary changes and some of the laws. In addition, we’ll examine the effects of these laws on Jewish communities and the Jewish response. Silverman
2 First Names: Hebrew and Vernacular Individual Jews may have been known by a variety of names. There were names used in official government records, names used with family or friends, and names reserved for ritual purposes. We will discuss some naming traditions, including differences between secular and religious names, relationships between pairs of given names, nicknames and diminutives, and the Americanization of Eastern European first names. This will provide a foundation for interpreting names in various documents and gravestones. Silverman
3 Surname Adoption The Austrian Empire required Jewish people to adopt permanent, inheritable German surnames (i.e., surnames passed down from one generation to the next) in 1788. In the Russian Empire, the requirement for Jewish people to adopt fixed surnames came after 1800. What was the process for acquiring surnames? Are there Jewish names? How do we match names in European records to those changed names in US records? How does this impact genetic genealogy strategies? Garber
4 Written in Stone: Burial Customs and Cemetery Records Gravestones in Jewish cemeteries often provide information for at least two generations: the deceased and his/her father. This session will teach basic skills for transcribing/transliterating names and dates on gravestones from Hebrew to English. We will explore tools to assist in converting dates, transliterating Hebrew text, and understanding abbreviations and acronyms on gravestones. There will be an optional homework assignment. Silverman
Extra Homework Session Silverman
Tuesday 5 Moving On: Industrialization and Migration Expulsions, invitations, mobility, pogroms, and emancipation – European Jews were often on the move. As the nineteenth century progressed, these trends solidified, and options for emigration expanded beyond European boundaries. The Jewish community itself was going through internal upheavals parallel to the Christian community’s Enlightenment. We will review economic and societal changes in Eastern Europe that were the precursors to massive migrations that started toward the end of the nineteenth century. Garber
6 It’s Hard to Say “Good-bye” – Challenges Faced by Eastern European Emigrants There were times when it was more difficult for many Jews to leave Eastern Europe than to enter the United States. What were the requirements for emigration? How did they know what to expect? Did they get help along the way? What routes might they have taken to get from their homes to their ports of departure? How and where did they acquire tickets to sail? This presentation takes emigrants from their homes to ports of departure. Garber
7 The Ocean Voyage There were times when it was more difficult for many Jews to leave Eastern Europe than to enter the United States. What were the requirements for emigration? How did they know what to expect? Did they get help along the way? What routes might they have taken to get from their homes to their ports of departure? How and where did they acquire tickets to sail? This presentation takes emigrants from their homes to ports of departure. Garber
8 Identifying Communities or Origin of the Old Country One cannot research in the old country without knowing where to start geographically. This session will address a variety of resources and tools as well as the FAN principle to identify not only community names but also their locations. There will be an optional homework assignment for those who have not yet definitively identified an ancestor’s community of origin. Garber
Extra Homework Session Silverman
Wednesday 9 Records Specific to the Jewish Community While Jewish people may be found in standard government records of their adopted countries, some records were/are created specific to Judaism. We will examine vital records (ketubot, gittin, bris milah), synagogue records, prenumeration lists, Rabbinical genealogies, Yizkor books, etc. and where they may be found. Diamond
10 Research in the Russian Empire We will discuss vital records, census and revision lists, notarial records, and other records that will place Jewish residents and help us understand their lives in the Russian Empire. We will cover where to locate these records – both in archives and online; how and why these records were created and what each teaches. We will also provide tips for non-Russian speakers to identify family members in Russian language records. Diamond
11 Research in Galicia (Austrian Empire) Why were so many Jewish babies listed as illegitimate? Austrian laws played havoc with the Jewish family structure. We’ll look at confusion generated by adverse and restrictive Austrian laws and how this makes identifying family members in records more difficult.   Nevertheless, these records place Jewish residents in context and help us understand their lives in the Austrian Empire. We’ll cover where to locate these records – both in archives and online; how and why these records were created, and what we can learn through the information that is included or not included. We will provide some tips on gleaning useful genealogical information despite the various languages used for these records. Silverman
12 Research in Subcarpathia (Zakarpattia, Ukraine) The area currently Zakarpattia, Ukraine, had a large and vibrant Jewish community, and frequently changing borders. Most Jews who emigrated from this area identified as Hungarian or Czech. Those identities are reflected in the types and languages of records that exist and where those records may be located. This area, which, like Galicia, was also part of Austria-Hungary, presents similar surname research challenges. We will look at several instances of how this is reflected in records and how it must be considered when researching. A multitude of resources for this geographic region have recently become more accessible, and we will cover the types of records that can help understand the lives of Jews living in this area. Diamond
Extra Homework Session Silverman
Thursday 13 Finding Family in the Old Country; Getting Creative When Records and Scarce For most places, there are likely alternatives when the records we want (vital records and census records) are not available. Even when some basic records are available, information in lesser-known records may add human interest to otherwise dry genealogical facts. Historic border changes can drive the types of records that may now be found and where they might be held. Diamond
14 Holocaust and Pogrom Records Yizkor books, archival records, Books of Sorrow, Yad Vashem, USHMM, and the Arolsen Archives. In many cases, violence against Jewish populations in the old country is well-documented. Pogroms (geographically isolated mob violence) took place many times in different places throughout Europe well before World War II. Regarding the Holocaust, survivors developed Yizkor books:  records of communities that once were and their devastation. Even some of the perpetrators of violence kept records that are increasingly available to researchers today. Silverman
15 Endogamy, Later Surname Adoption, And More: How Utilizing Jewish DNA for Genealogy is Different – Part 1 For countless generations, Jewish communities have practiced endogamy, primarily due to religious and societal factors, leading to a distinct genetic heritage. Consequently, when examining shared genetic material, genetic genealogy companies often predict that Jewish individuals often have much closer relationships than those from non-endogamous backgrounds. This phenomenon presents unique challenges for genetic genealogy, where conventional autosomal tools like ‘matches in common’ can frequently yield misleading results within the Jewish context. Additionally, tests focusing on the Y chromosome, although less informative for those with Jewish ancestry, still have relevance despite the late adoption of surnames. Diamond
16 Endogamy, Later Surname Adoption, and More: How Utilizing Jewish DNA for Genealogy is Different – Part 2 See the description for Part 1, above Diamond
Extra Homework Session Diamond
Friday 17 Tying it all Together In this session, we will follow eastern European immigrants in the United States back to the old country. The case study will involve problem-solving using several of the record sets introduced in previous sessions. Diamond
18 Essential Jewish Genealogy Websites There are many general, geographically, and topically specific websites that specialize in Jewish records. This session will review record indices, record access, and teamwork in various Jewish special interest groups. We will look at JewishGen, JRI-Poland, Genealogy Indexer, JewishData, FaceBook pages, as well as Jewish newspapers, and more. Garber