Jewish Genealogy: What is Possible?

When I was a kid, I loved hearing stories about my Jewish ancestors. But given the Holocaust and other purposeful attempts to erase Jews and Jewish history over centuries, I worried that oral history might be the only information I could ever find about them. When I got into genealogy, I was skeptical that I could make any discoveries at all.

Boy, was I wrong. This is one of the reasons why I specialize in Jewish genealogy: I want to help others with Jewish ancestry reconstruct stories that have been lost.

It isn’t easy

Let’s be honest about the challenges facing Jewish genealogy. Here are just a few:

  • There are limited records, particularly in some parts of the world

  • Some records exist, but are difficult to access from the United States due to access restrictions

  • Digitization efforts are underway, but move slowly

  • Because virtually all Jews are at least distantly related, DNA can be less effective for identifying common Jewish ancestors shared by DNA matches. Matches’ family trees may also be limited due to a lack of records available (see bullet points 1-3)

These challenges are not insignificant. However even with these restrictions, those with Jewish ancestry might be surprised how much it is possible to learn.

There are more records than you think

Allow me one brief tangent: I do a great deal of work with early 19th-century New York City genealogy. One of the greatest challenges is the limited number of vital records (births, marriages, deaths). If an ancestor—typically Christian—did not belong to a church where their baptism or marriage was recorded, I’m left with limited options. I have even fewer paths forward if the person was female.

By contrast, many Jewish communities were lousy with vital records (as in, there were tons). Thanks to incredible digitization efforts, it may be possible to access digital images of your ancestors’ birth/bris record, marriage record, and/or death records… right from your computer.

In addition to vital records, census records from many localities have survived to the present day. As we know with domestic research, censuses can be critical to connecting one generation of family members to the next. Census records can take a European Jewish family back to before surnames existed for Jews in their locality.

These are just a few of the record types available.

Don’t overlook domestic resources

Did your Jewish immigrant ancestors become U.S. citizens? Did they get married or die in the United States? Were they buried in U.S. cemeteries?

If any of these apply, you have already jump-started your research. The first step to tracing ancestors overseas is always to exhaust domestic records, whether your ancestors were Jewish or not. Jumping into international collections too quickly can lead to false positives, dead ends, and ultimately disappointment. Clues to many of our Jewish ancestors’ origins can be found on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Your Jewish ancestors may have arrived earlier

Did you know that Jews lived in New York as early as the 1600s? The majority were Sephardic Jews, but their community also included Ashkenazic Jews. Similarly, some German Jews arrived in the United States decades and even centuries before the wave of immigration in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Many records of those early synagogues exist today.

Dive in!

Think back to those challenges that I mentioned. Are they significant? You bet. But are they insurmountable? Not necessarily. The fact is, everyone hits brick walls in their research:

  • A family tree with white, Christian ancestors in the American South might dead-end around the early 1800s or late 1700s, with few or zero clues to the family’s European origins.

  • Trees with South Asian ancestors, particularly the female lines, can hit walls in the 1800s due to lack of records or record restrictions

  • Americans with enslaved African-American ancestors frequently hit the “1870” wall, because enslaved people were not listed by name on federal censuses in 1860 and earlier.

That’s not to say that Jewish genealogy walls aren’t awful. They’re a reminder that Jewish genealogy is difficult in part because of purposeful attempts to exterminate us. I only bring up these other groups because I think, sometimes, it can feel like hitting walls is a uniquely Jewish problem, and it isn’t. By understanding the genealogical challenges faced by other families, it’s possible to gain a new appreciation for what it is possible to find. My friends with ancestors in the American South can tell me the land their ancestors lived on, but not their ancestral towns abroad. By contrast, I have that information because my ancestors were Jewish.

I hope this has given you some good ideas for what is possible with Jewish genealogy research!