Jewish Family History Research
the compliments of the JEWISH GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY OF
Jewish family history does not have to be a mystery. We all leave a paper trail that can reveal the story of our families for many generations. Take the time to read the basic books on Jewish genealogy, Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors (Barbara Khait, Heritage Press), From Generation to Generation (Arthur Kurzweil, Harper-Collins) and Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy (Gary Mokotoff and Warren Blatt, Avotaynu Press). All are available at the Jewish Public Library. And read the Frequently Asked Questions about Jewish Genealogy on the Internet at the home of Jewish genealogy at www.jewishgen.org. Then, get ready for the most fascinating research experience of your life, documenting your own family and its history.
Start with what you know
Write down everything you know about your family: dates and places of births, marriages and deaths of all the members of your family starting with yourself and your siblings, and going back, generation by generation, to your parents and their siblings, your grandparents and their siblings, etc. Write down the occupations of family members; when and from where your ancestors emigrated and where the family settled and later moved to; languages they spoke; family stories (even if unverified) that have been passed down through the years.
Documenting your research - family trees and computer programs
The best way to record and share your family tree is
by using a computer program. The most popular programs are Family Tree Maker
for Windows or
Find out what others in the family know
After writing what you know, circulate the information to everyone in your family. Ask each person to check the accuracy of what you recorded, and to add as many facts as possible. Also, ask for the names of other relatives likely to know the most about the family. Consult in-laws who often had to make a commitment to meet and remember all the relatives in their son or daughter's new family.
Interview your relatives and family friends
After accumulating information from immediate family, interview people who have been recommended as being good sources for family stories including long-time family friends. Start with the oldest and/or frailest members of the family first. Fifteen minutes with an older relative asking "who, when, where, why and how" can save ten years of research. And, if that person has a sister or brother, ask them as well. All too often, you will be told "I know nothing about my ancestors" by three children in a family - only to later learn that the youngest sister, who took care of the parents in their old age, has a few shoe boxes stuffed with all the family records and photos and never said anything about it to anyone because no one asked!
Don't ask questions that force "yes" and
"no" answers. Ask open-ended
questions such as "What do remember about your family gatherings when you
were a child?" or "who came?" or "at whose home were they
celebrated?" and so on. Ask the
interviewee to describe his or her early life within the family and the
community. If the person being
interviewed was not born in
Look for documents
Searching for genealogical records can start anytime
but interviews will point to many more questions that can only be answered with
documents. The family's recollections,
plus the interviews, and your personal memory, should give you an idea of what
details are still missing and where to look for them. Birth, marriage and death records are the
bare bones of genealogy and they are usually the first documents you will want
to see. For example, the JGS of
Your family's records in the Canadian National Registration of 1940 have valuable genealogical information.
Other records are passenger ship arrival lists, U.S. Border Crossing records, naturalization papers, newspaper obituaries, probate files, cemetery and funeral home records, tombstone inscriptions, property records, voter registrations and records of religious, fraternal and union organizations.
Never overlook anything, such as a family bible with a whole genealogy written in it, along with everyone's name and birth date. Ask what's in the family safety deposit box, metal tin or shoe box; they will often be stuffed with expired passports, naturalization papers, wills, old letters, or even wedding telegrams which were typical in the first half of the 20th century.
Use the Internet
The world of genealogy and family history research has changed dramatically with the Internet. What took years before, using letters and phone calls, can be accomplished in weeks, days or even hours. Learn how to use e-mail and the Internet . If you don't have a computer, they are available at your local library.
Define your goals
Deciding to find all your ancestors, trace back all of your "lines," as well as finding all your "collateral" relatives (descendants of your ancestors' siblings) and all your living cousins is noble; but, unless you have unlimited time and resources, it is unrealistic. Set smaller, more reasonable goals. Do you want to do both your mother's and father's families? Can you start with just one? Can you enlist a sibling or cousin to do the "other side?" Are you hoping to help plan a family reunion with all your extended family? Do you want to write the official family history book?
It is admirable to find everyone to whom you are related, both living and dead. But it's easier to get to your ultimate objective by beginning with smaller segments. Of course, there are times that you have to gather information when it's available, even if you then have to set it aside until you are ready to utilize it more fully; just understand, you can't do it all at once. It took thousands of years for you to be born into your family - don't expect to unravel this complex puzzle in six months!
Enjoy the experience. It will be exhilarating and educational and it will give you a sense of achievement and the opportunity to pass something on to future generations, while making new friends along the way.
Initially prepared and
distributed by the Jewish Genealogical Society of
Revised April 2012