Tracing the Tribe: First steps in Jewish genealogy

Jewish genealogy is complex because Jewish history is complex but you can still “meet” your ancestors.

 (photo credit: PIXABAY)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
With the country locking down again, now is the time to take that deep dive into genealogy.
Yes, Jewish genealogy is complex because Jewish history is complex but the journey backward can still be navigated. With patience and determination, you can “meet” your ancestors and catch a glimpse into their world.
Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Figure out what you already know. Start with yourself and work backward. Don’t stop until you’ve written down everything. Record full names, maiden names, nicknames as well as births, deaths, marriages and immigrations. Take note of the missing information, the holes – you’ll fill these in with your research.
2. Be a scavenger. Scour old family albums, yearbooks, letters, diaries, heirlooms even tchotchkes.
Pay special attention to especially anyone who looks conspicuously different. Photo processing software can expand tiny images into visible faces .
At the recent International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference one family historian reported on that his journey began with a young man dressed in a sailor suit whom he spotted in a 1926 group wedding photo. From that picture he went onto investigate the young man’s life story and even made contact with his descendants.
3. Ask yourself who or what are you most curious about. What would you like to know? Your research will be about finding answers.
4. Interview the elders of your tribe. Come with a list of questions. Use the five W’s of journalism: Who, what, where, when and why. If your ancestors were Holocaust survivors search Shoah foundations for info and even video interviews.
5. Use online searching tools. You can find birth, death and marriage reports, immigration records, even ship and airplane manifests online. If you’re on a tight budget start with familysearch.org. It’s free but note that it’s operated by the Mormon Church, and it has been known to convert Jews posthumously. The other sites charge several hundred shekels for membership and there is a great deal of overlap but some important differences. Findmypast is based in the UK. Ancestry.com, Geni.com and familysearch.org are US-based. Geni offers historical background information and social networking with other genealogists. Ancestry works together with the not-for-profit JewishGen database (see sidebar).
Developed right here in Israel, myheritage.com allows for searching many languages, and it’s strong on European records (particularly the Scandinavian countries) and global Jewish content.
Try them all – each offers a free trial and see which site suits your needs. Once you’ve made your pick, stick to one – genealogy is confusing enough without having to navigate several sites simultaneously.
6. Consider DNA tests for yourself and your relatives – especially the oldest ones. By connecting you with others who share your genes they can be an invaluable source of information and sometimes shockers (read Dani Shapiro’s bestselling memoir Inheritance for a compelling tale of DNA testing gone wrong) 7. If your family was impacted by the Holocaust, search Yad Vashem’s digital database. It’s free and can give you information on your ancestors’ names, ages as well as birth and death locations.
8. Check out the Arolsen Archives. which has partnered with ancestry.com to create searchable records, including documents on concentration camps, forced labor and displaced persons.
9. If you know your ancestors’ surname and the name of your ancestral towns go to JewishGen.org. to access their online collection of yizkor books, memorial volumes for destroyed European communities. Written by survivors these memorial volumes are invaluable guides into the past.
10. Remember that Jewish genealogy is a team sport. Join your local Jewish genealogy society. IGRA (Israel Genealogical Research Association) sponsors monthly lectures on Zoom. JewishGen has several Facebook groups, including the Jewish Genealogy Portal Tracing the Tribe, and the Jewish Genealogy Poland Group.
11. Visit your ancestors’ graves. Tombstones will tell you their Hebrew names, the names of their parents, their tribal status – Kohen, Levi or Israel – and more. You can access graves online via JewishGen’s Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry or look on findagrave.com or billiongraves.com.
12. Write up your findings and share them with other family members. Genealogy is a wonderful way to bring people together. Happy hunting! 
The author is a prizewinning writer. Her work appears frequently in these pages, and she facilitates a memoir workshop on Zoom. ungar.carol@gmail.com

A global home for Jewish genealogy  

From its roots in the late 1980s as a virtual bulletin board, JewishGen developed into the global home for Jewish genealogy. As a nonprofit affiliated with New York’s Jewish Heritage Museum, the organization’s website provides free access to millions of records, including birth, death, marriage, census and tax records, along with historical information.

JewishGen is also a networking platform, offering family historians a chance to connect based on family or community names.

Another important JewishGen project is JOWBR – the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, which is a database of names and other identifying information from Jewish cemeteries and burial records worldwide.
In total, JOWBR consists of more than 3.81 million records and 795,000 photos from approximately 8,880 cemeteries in 134 countries. As is the case with all JewishGen projects, the work of photographing and recording the tombstones is done by a dedicated team of volunteers from all over the globe.

JewishGen has also been translating yizkor books, memorial volumes written by survivors from Yiddish or Hebrew to English.

“They provide a window into a world that, in many respects, no longer exists,” says JewishGen’s executive director, Avraham Groll. Many of the books contain histories of the town, along with biographical sketches of residents of the town, with descriptions of holiday preparations and celebrations. To date, JewishGen volunteers have translated portions of at least 850 books and completely translated at least 173 books – all of which can be found on the site.  – C.U.