Book Reviews

Although computers and databases now play huge roll in genealogy, there is still a place and in fact a need for traditional books. Whether as a reference, a place for substantive reporting or simply for telling a good story, books are hard to replace.

If you have a favourite genealogy-related book, we invite you to send a brief review to webmaster@jgs-montreal.org. We also welcome suggestion on how to improve the review we already have.

If you decide to buy any of these books from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com, please use the links on this page to place the items in your cart, allowing the JGS-Montreal to receive a commission on the sale (at no additional cost to you). For other purchases from Amazon, see jgs-montreal.org/amazon.

Note: Purchasing details were correct at the time of writing, but may change quickly. Please let us know if we need to update the entry for any particular book.

How-To and Reference Books

Montreal, Quebec and Canadian Jewish History & Biography

Books about Eastern Europe and Russia

Fact and Fiction

How-To and Reference Books

Where to buy

Title: A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery
Author: Joshua L. Segal
A good basic book on deciphering Jewish tombstones. It covers all of the important aspects of a tombstone, from the artwork to epitaph, names and dates in sufficient detail to understand most stones. I use mine almost daily. Highly recommended.

For the relatively unusual stones that do not reveal their secrets based on the guidance of this book, the JewishGen Viewmate service is an effective last resort.

A useful companion resource would be an online or paper Hebrew-English dictionary to cover the epitaph words that the examples in the book do not cover.

Alan Greenberg

Amazon.ca does not carry this book. Avotaynu has the best price for this book, although the free shipping for delivery in the US at Amazon.com may make their price a few dollars lower.

Amazon.com
Title: What They Saved, Pieces of a Jewish Past
Author: Nancy K. Miller

Finding Family History in Ephemera
The book is divided into 3 sections: How I Found My Family in a Drawer, Saving the Name, and Memoirs of a Wandering Jew.

Nancy Miller is a CUNY professor of literature and a literary critic. Seven years after her mother died, her father also died.

At that time, she inherited some items they had saved, including unmarked, undated photos; a Palestine land dead from the 1920’s; a post card from Argentina; an unidentified lock of hair; a high school report card; a cousins C.V.; and miscellaneous correspondence. All these she stored in boxes with other “junk” until many years later when instead of throwing then out, she began to study them, and in the process she discovered her roots.

The book includes the genealogical truths that she discovered along the way. Some of her lessons and advice: “The hardest thing to find is what you think you are looking for.” “You don’t necessarily know what it is you’ll want to know.” “How many times have I missed what was right before my eyes?” “The truth of the past comes in pieces, but not all of the pieces fit together.” “In retrieving the past, there is no straight line.”

The book is easy to read and could bring both tears and a smile to veteran and beginner genealogist alike.

Melvyn Niederhoffer

Also available at Amazon.com.
Title: Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide
Author: Jonathan Shea & William Hoffman
Have you ever come across a document, photo or other item with a bit of writing on it in a language you don't understand? Or perhaps even in an alphabet that is not familiar to you? Following the Paper Trail is a great reference to have on hand at those times.

For each language, you will find a listing of the alphabet in both printed and hand-written forms, sample documents and a good list of vocabulary terms often used in official records, and for many languages, a list of common names.

The book covers German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian and Lithuanian.

Alan Greenberg

Following the Paper Trail

Available from Avotaynu.com

Title: A Dictionary of Ashkenasic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migration
Title: Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants
Author: Alexander Beider
I have a shelf full of large reference books that I bought because I thought (or hoped) that they would be useful. Some I never touch. Some were once used regularly but have now been largely replaced by online resources such as the JewishGen Communities Database (Town Finder). This one I use regularly and find invaluable.

It is common to come across a badly spelled name variation in a record or a Hebrew/Yiddish name on a tombstone and not have any idea what the root name is, or for the ones written in Hebrew characters, how to pronounce it. Beider exhaustively goes through the variations and the index at the back giving names in Latin, Hebrew and Cyrillic characters has never yet failed me.

For those regularly confronted with new records, tombstones and other occurrences of given name, this is a book to own and keep handy.

The "Handbook" is an abbreviated version if the "Dictionary" excluding much of the more academic aspects of the original book but preserving the valuable index and derivations. And at a much more affordable price.

Alan Greenberg

Available from Avotaynu.com

Dict of Ashkenasic Given Names

A Dictionary of Ashkenasic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migration

Handbook of Ashkenasic Given Names
Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants

Title: Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs – How to identify, interpret and preserve your family’s visual heritage
Author: Maureen A. Taylor
Most genealogists have one or even several old family photographs, some going back several generations. But do you know who is really who in them, where they were taken and when?

This book teaches the reader how to be a detective and uncover the secrets of old photos, using clues such as jewelery, hairdos, costumes, uniforms, shoes, backgrounds, toys, furniture and often the photographers themselves. One example it gives is a photograph, thought to be of one relative, but which after careful analysis, turns out to quite be another. An excellent genealogical tool.

There are two editions, 2000 and 2005

Merle Kastner

Still available new but at outrageous prices.

Used copies at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and Abebooks.com.

May also be available at some libraries.

 

Montreal, Quebec and Canadian Jewish History & Biography

Where to buy

Title: The Jew in Canada
Author: Arthur Daniel Hart (Compiler, Editor)
This is the grandfather of all Canadian Jewish history books. It includes biographies for most of the prominent Jews in Canada at the time of the book's publication in 1926, as well as many from earlier days. It also includes a capsule history of Jewish life in Canada.

Perhaps its greatest features are the larger-than-life photographs. These alone make the book worthwhile.

If you have never seen this book, find one in a library. It will be well worth your time. This book has long been out of print, but its continuing appeal lead to a recent publication of a facsimile edition (sadly in paperback and also without the capsule early history, in order to keep the price reasonable).

Alan Greenberg

Also available at Amazon.com.
Title: Heritage of a Patriarch: A fresh look at Canada's earliest Jewish families
Author: Anne Joseph
In this monumental work, Anne documents the history of the first Jewish families of Canada. The book is organized in chronological order and after a quick recap of early Jewish and New World exploration history prior to the1740s, it begins in earnest when the first Jews arrived in Canada, soon followed by Henry Joseph, the patriarch for whom the book is named.

The book started as a two-day effort to write a family history as a 70th birthday present for Anne's husband Bill Joseph. But it grew to the final published 550 page opus.

Even if you do not know (or care) anything about the Joseph family, I recommend this book. You can pick it up and open it to almost any page, and be fascinated. With all of the anecdotes and excerpts of letters, diaries, official records, deeds, wills and newspaper article, it is hard not to become addicted.

For those who don't know Anne, she is a charter member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal and of its Executive Committee.

Pun intended. Tombstones were an important source of information in the book.

Alan Greenberg

Anne may still have a small number of copies available at a modest price. Check with me if interested.

Amazon.ca does not offer this book at a reasonable price. Amazon.com does have it, although the price is a bit high.

Amazon.com

Chapters-Indigo says they can deliver it although it may take 3-5 weeks.

Title: The First Jews in North America: The Extraordinary Story of the Hart Family of Quebec
Author: Denis Vaugeois
Review coming soon.
 

Also available at Amazon.com
En français à Amazon.ca.
Title: The Gate of Heaven: The Story of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal, 1846-1996
Author: Wilfred Shuchat
The book tells the story of the Shaar Hashomayim, Canada's second synagogue, and the first on in the Ashkenasic tradition. At the time it was written, Rabbi Shuchat had just recently retired as the Shaar's rabbi, after leading it for nearly 50 years.

The story of the congregation is told in some detail, always focusing on the people involved, and the book includes many photos of the noted people and events along the way. There is an extensive and detailed index so that references to particular people and events can be easily located.

Alan Greenberg

Still available new but at outrageous prices.

Used copies at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and Abebooks.com

The Jewish Public Library and perhaps others have this book as well.

Title: Traces of the Past: Montreal's Early Synagogues
Author: Sara Ferdman Tauben
To document the movement and development of Montreal’s Jewish community from the 1880s until 1945, much like a detective, Sara Ferdman Tauben has pored over historic city maps and directories, sepia coloured photos, brittle newspaper articles and long forgotten anniversary publications to track the locations of Montreal’s early synagogues. Her quest results in a fascinating story that describes and defines the social, religious, and economic aspects of a distinct group of people through the architectural traces of its culture.

The decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth-century marked the era of mass migration of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Fleeing poverty and persecution, some came to Montreal. They left places with names like Minsk, Pinsk, Morosh, Galicia, and Dinovitz, to settle on Montreal streets with names like St. Urbain, St. Dominique and St. Laurent. To retain familiar traditions and familial connections, they established small congregations which recalled the homes they left behind. The Pinsker Shul, Anshei Morosh, Anshei Ukraina, and Anshei Ozeroff were not only places of worship but also places where friends and family from the same country, area or town could meet, exchange concerns, lend support to each other and resolve to help those left behind.

Publisher's description

Also available at Amazon.com
Title:Sacred Ground on de la Savane – Montreal’s Baron de Hirsch Cemetery
Author:Danny Kucharsky
This book outlines the history of the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, Canada’s largest Jewish cemetery, from its beginnings in 1904 to present. In addition to this, it brings Quebec’s first Jewish cemeteries into the picture. The various landsmanschaften and synagogues are listed and their dealings with the Baron de Hirsch cemetery are described. Prominent people and various rabbis in the Montreal Jewish community are mentioned as well and there is a descriptive guide for a walking tour of the very large cemetery.
Merle Kastner

Also available at Amazon.com

 

Books about Eastern Europe and Russia

Where to buy

Title: A Vanished World
Author: Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac was a biologist by training and made substantive contributions to the fields of photomicroscopy and time-lapse photography, but he is best known in the Jewish world for his remarkable photographs or the Jews of Eastern Europe. He took over 16,000 photographs, an amazing feat given that those he was photographed did not believe in having their images captured, meaning he had to use a hidden camera. Unfortunately, he managed to keep and smuggle out only 2,000. The photos were taken in the 1930's and we all know what happened to the vast majority of those whose images Vishniac captured.

This book is sadly out of print, but both new and used copies are available (new ones typically at high prices), but the book is a worthy addition to any library. If you don't want to buy a copy of your own, you must find one in a library. Don't just look at the pictures, but read the foreword by Elie Wiesel, the Preface by Roman Vishniac, and the text describing the photos. You won't be sorry.

Alan Greenberg

Also available at Amazon.com.

The Jewish Public Library and perhaps others have this book as well.

Title: Children of a Vanished World
Author: Roman Vishniac

Much of the description of A Vanished World applies to this more recent book, published after the photographer's death and edited by his daughter Mara. But it is more than that. In A Vanished World, the pictures are undeniably those of Jews. In this book, a few of the pictures bear the hallmark of a Jewish boy with payot (sidecurls), or are accompanied by someone who is recognizably Jewish. But the majority are just pictures of children, innocent, happy, sad - children. The photographs are accompanied by nursery rhymes, songs, poems and children's chants in both Yiddish and English, some with music.

The book has sadly increased in price recently, perhaps because the print run is almost sold out. It is still available for delivery in the US at quite reasonable prices.

Alan Greenberg

Also available at Amazon.com.

The Jewish Public Library and perhaps others have this book as well.

Title: Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom
Author: Edward Judge

In 1903, in a town at the edge of the Russian Empire, a young Christian boy was found murdered. Being the end of Passover, it was quickly concluded that Jews were responsible, based on the well known fact that Christian blood was need to make matzoh. The last day of Passover coincided with Easter Sunday and it was on this day in April that one of the more infamous Pogroms began.

If you have family who lived in Kishinev in what was then Bessarabia, this is a must-read book. If you had family anywhere in the Russian Empire, this is a must-read book. In ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, you owe it to yourself to learn a bit about the real life of a Russian town.

The 1903 pogrom in Kishinev made headlines around the world. With the then modern telegraph, news spread almost instantaneously, and there was a belief that barbaric things like that simply could not happen in the new 20th century. This is a short and very readable book that describes the history, the events and and analysis of this pogrom. It also gives insights into the world of prejudice and hatred fear that we all often live in.

Alan Greenberg

Also available at Amazon.com.
Title: Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia
Author: Michael Davitt

As described in the previous review, the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev made headlines around the world. William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire arranged for Michael Davitt, an Irish journalist (and an interesting man in his own right) to go to Kishinev and report on what had happened. He did so and wrote a series of letters for publication in the Hearst papers. The letters only told part of the story, and he later published this book on the event.

This is a remarkable book. In this day and age, we feel that it is the Internet and electronic communications that allow things to happen quickly. The pogrom occurred largely on April 6/7, 1903 using the Russian calendar, which corresponded to April 19/20 using the western calendar. Davitt was in Kishinev reporting in May, and his book was published at the start of July!

Although the Judge book is a far more balanced history of the event, having been written almost 90 years later, the Davitt book records the happenings and the understanding of them, not from a historical perspective, but on the ground, just shortly after the massacre. The basis of the recounting is a large number of interviews with the people who survived the pogrom, and with those who were instrumental in handling its many consequences. The book includes sometimes gruesome descriptions of how the Jews of Kishinev were ravaged and murdered.

The book will be of interest to anyone of Jewish Eastern European descent, since it will give a vivid image of what many of our ancestors went through.

Although the original edition is long out of print, it has periodically been reprinted and is now available through print-on-demand punblishers.

Alan Greenberg

Used and reprint copies at Amazon.ca , Amazon.com and Abebooks.com

 

Fact and Fiction

Where to buy

Title: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
Author: Daniel Mendelsohn
Mendelsohn begins by recounting that as a youngster, every time he entered a room, older relatives would start to cry triggered by his uncanny resemblance to a great-uncle who, along with wife and children, had been "killed by the Nazis". The book documents his physical and emotional travels to uncover more about this family, and what had happened to them.

The travels take him all over the world, from Australia to Israel to Sweden and to the ancestral home town of Bolochow in the Ukraine (Poland before the war). Along the way he meets a fascinating assortment of people and learns a great deal about the lives and ultimately the deaths of his lost family.

Intertwined with the detective work is a narrative of the Book of Genesis, linking those stories to the fate of his family.

Overall a compelling book that has convinced may people to begin researching their family history, and gives those already addicted to genealogy a powerful reason to continue.

Alan Greenberg

Also available at Amazon.com.