Jewish Family History Research


Tips on starting a project to research your family's history




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 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 Reunion for Apple Mac.  If you don't have a computer, hand-made sketches are very useful for studying and showing your work.


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 Canada or the U.S.,  try to get him/her to recall life in the "old" country, as well as the transatlantic journey.


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 Montreal has indexed the Jewish births and marriages from 1841 to 1942. They are a great starting point.  However, it isn't always possible to find the exact records your are looking for; you may need other sources to guide you.


Canada and the U.S. take a census every ten years.  The 1831 to 1911 Canadian censuses are available ( lists all of the sources, both free and fee-based). The The first US census was 1790.  The most recent census open to researchers is 1940 and it can be searched on the Internet.  New York State, where many immigrants first landed and lived, took censuses from 1825 to 1925. 


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 New York.

Revised April 2012