Starting Your Own Search for Your Jewish Ancestors

by Alan Radack

Admit it now. You probably have wanted to know more about your Jewish ancestors but did not have sufficient time or inclination to go further. Perhaps you even made some rough scrawls about your grandparents’ brothers and sisters. Perhaps you shrewdly saved those documents about citizenship and smartly wrote down on the backs of photographs of long dead ancestors information identifying the persons in the pictures. Or maybe you didn’t and always felt a little guilty. Perhaps you have not collected anything about your family but remember some great and some not great stories about the family, their occupations, their religious practices, and the special foods they cooked.

Even if you have none of the above, do you still have a chance to find out about your antecedents? Absolutely yes! Of course, the earlier you get started, the more relatives you will have who are still available to tell their stories. Even if your intent is more limited, it would be a good idea to do as much spadework as possible about your forebears, duplicate your findings and remembrances, and turn that information over to your children. Certainly, you know that only some of your children are going to be interested enough to save it and pursue their own search at a propitious time. But let’s say you have the time and would like to do some family searching. There has probably never been a better time than the present to go after your roots. Why? Because you can now do searches of many kinds on the Internet and you can contact possible relatives using e-mail. Years ago it would have been necessary to travel thousands of miles to get to an archive and to wait weeks and months for responses from your correspondents. Now you can do your research quickly from your home, and new data is continuously added to the Internet.

If you are now inspired to begin your search, some members of the Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore have been involved in genealogical research for many years and can give advice on your searches, but they will not do the research for you. That part will be your pleasure. If there is enough interest, members of the Center are willing to provide genealogy research classes.

Sometimes you can only take your quest so far. Then there are professional genealogists with whom you can contract. They get paid for their time and can do the heavy lifting.

Every family search presents different problems but a starting point for most would be a determination of the shtetl or town in which your relatives were born. Often the citizenship papers will give you this information. The census records from 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 often give you dates of arrival and naturalization. The Boston Public Library offers in-library access to Census indices. If your family was naturalized in New England, you can use the arrival and naturalization dates to find naturalization papers at the National Archives in Waltham, MA. If they lived in New York, the National Archives in Manhattan will have that information.

Passenger Manifests for the ships that brought immigrants to America are available on line at the website for the busiest years of Jewish immigration into New York City. Indexing of Boston arrivals is now under way.

Practical steps to get started:

  • Keep a notebook to log in your searches, results, and correspondence so that you stay organized and do not duplicate your efforts.
  • Set up a simple filing system.
  • Gather all documents such as photos, birth certificates, and citizenship records
  • Write down what you know about family — family stories and legends, dates, names, and occupations.
  • Visit family grave sites; record the Hebrew and Yiddish names and dates.
  • Speak with your siblings and of course your oldest relatives and record their remembrances of names and details. You may want to use a tape recorder.
  • Write rough drafts of your family tree.
  • Determine the kinds of search you will do; i.e., if you have a very unusual name, sometimes a surname search will be very effective. Be flexible.
  • Get software for your genealogy search. There are wonderful programs that will help enormously as your collection grows.
  • Get online with Learn about Jewish genealogy by subscribing to their mailing list. It will become evident that this Web site is a gateway to learning about genealogy and connections to vast amounts of data.
    The Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston (JGSGB) is a non-profit organization based in Newton, Mass. that is dedicated to the growth, study and exchange of ideas and information among people interested in Jewish genealogy research and family history. Be sure to visit them online.
  • Go to Jewish genealogy meetings.

It is a mistaken assumption that the records of Jews from Eastern Europe were totally destroyed. Actually, many records still exist and more are becoming available.

Take your time. There is so much to find and so much to do. Good luck!


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