You Can Trace Your Jewish Heritage, Part 1


There is a common credence that researching Jewish heritage is near impossible. Many believe that the Jewish records have been destroyed.[1] However, this information is a myth. The truth is you can trace your Jewish Genealogy. It is not always easy to do, and the process requires patience, but it is possible.

First, like all genealogical projects, start with what you know.[2] Record the names of your family members such as your parents, siblings and grandparents. Include the dates of important events like birth, marriage and death.,,, among others, are genealogical websites that allow you to create an account for free and build your own family tree.

Once you have recorded the information you personally know, talk to family members.[3] This is a great way to learn interesting facts about your family. Ask specific and direct questions. For example, “When did grandfather die?” or “When were your grandparents married?”  Also, ask if they have any photographs or documents. Family members may have copies of obituaries, newspaper clippings, wedding, or anniversary announcements.

After you have collected all of the information from your family members, and recorded it in your tree, it will be time to search for records to confirm what you have learned and to fill in the gaps. When you begin researching your family you will need some specific information like a name, location, and a date of an event.[4] This should help when locating specific collections of records to search. Many are surprised to learn that they are not searching in Jewish records but rather in the state and county records where their family members lived. For example, if your grandparents lived in New York, you would look in the archives of New York. If they lived in France, you would look in French archives.

However, another myth needs to be addressed that many believe about genealogy, including Jewish genealogy. It is the idea that “our ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island.”  This is not necessarily true.[5] Lists of passengers were compiled at the port of departure based on the name found on the ticket. The names given upon arrival in the United States had to match the name on the passenger list and on the ticket.[6] That is not to say that immigrants did not change their name at some point after leaving Ellis Island. The documentation of name changing was not a requirement until 1906.[7] Jewish families did change their names and a few reasons include:

  • Illiteracy: Many people did not know how to spell their name but could only pronounce it. They repeated their names to clerks, census enumerators, or clergy, and that person wrote the name the way it sounded to them.
  • Simplification: Some Jewish immigrants found their name was too difficult to spell so they changed it to better fit in. For example, the Jewish surname Nemirovsky often became Nemer.
  • Mispronunciation: Some people had very heavy accents and this caused letters within their name to be confused. For example, the Jewish surname Cohen was often changed to Cohn.
  • Fear of Discrimination: Spelling changes to names can sometimes be attributed to a desire to conceal nationality or religious orientation in fear of reprisal or discrimination. This motive constantly appears among the Jews, who often faced anti-Semitism.[8] For example, the Jewish surname Gerstenfeld was often shortened to Gersten.

With name changes and variations common in Jewish Genealogy, it is easy to miss a record. A trick is to search using different spellings of the name. Try saying the name out loud. Could it have a silent letter. Bare could have been Behr. Goldschmidt could have been changed to Goldsmith or Gold. Think of ways your family name could have been changed and then look under those spellings.

Jewish Naming Patterns

Every Jew has a religious given name as well as a secular name. The religious name is used in baby naming ceremonies, religious services, and on tombstones. Ashkenazic Jews—the Jews who came from Central and Eastern Europe—invariably give their children the religious name of a deceased relative. Sephardic Jews—whose origins are primarily the Iberian Peninsula, but whose diaspora spread in many directions from there—name their children in the following manner: the first son is named after the paternal grandfather; the first daughter after the maternal grandmother; the second son after the maternal grandfather; the second daughter after the paternal grandmother. These rules are often the first clue to the names of ancestors for whom there is yet no documentation.[9]

When you have the Jewish name, location, and an event date, you are ready to begin your research in the records. There are many different record collections in the United States that hold Jewish ancestral names. The top four most helpful types of records are:

Naturalization records

  • Collections can be found online at or Be sure to browse a couple of pages forward and backward. You may find more than you thought!
  • Post-1906 naturalization records usually included the name of the immigrant, their hometown, the date of arrival in the United States, and the name of the ship.
  • Post-1906 immigration files are available from the National Archives, from websites like and, as well as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These files often contain names of some immediate family members, the name of their town of origin, one or more addresses of family in their homeland, photocopies of documents submitted as evidence, photographs of the immigrant, and other useful information. The later files are often more detailed.
  • Post-1922 naturalization records also included female immigrants who were now required to establish citizenship independent of their husband. Prior to this date, a woman’s citizenship status changed automatically according to her husband’s status.

Passenger lists

  • Many passenger lists from the 1890s forward include the name of the hometown or the nearest relative in their place of origin.
  • You can search for free at,, and

Vital records

  • Marriage license applications in some jurisdictions are the most informative vital records available, listing parents of both the bride and groom, as well as sometimes their places of birth. Death certificates often include the parental names, exact birth location of the deceased, and sometimes the birth location of the parents. Less commonly, birth certificates of the immigrant’s children may give their parent’s town of birth.
  • Collections can be found online for free at or at subscription websites like, or

Cemetery records

  • Jews in the United States often named their father on their headstone, as well as their own Jewish name that differs from their Americanized name.
  • The information typically appears in Hebrew, so researchers unaware of this often overlook the information even when it may be readily available.
  • Jewish cemeteries buried people through burial societies, and usually the section of the cemetery they are buried in indicates the burial society. Sometimes these societies served populations from specific areas of Europe, so researching the society may provide the evidence needed to determine the place of origin of the ancestral family.

The top three websites for Jewish Genealogy are:

Avotaynu has the Jewish Surname Index that is free to use.  This index is searchable by surname. If your surname appears on the list you will also see the soundex code for that name. In addition, there is a brief description that will lead you to searchable databases. Many books to help with your research are suggested. In addition, for $12 a year, they will send a newsletter and a weekly email with information and updates about new Jewish record collections.


One of the many reasons this website is so helpful is they have a complete list of databases for Jewish research that cover about forty countries. It should be noted that you must complete the free registration to use this site, and a small donation will get you enhanced search capabilities.

B&F Jewish Compendium of Genealogy

15,000 Jewish genealogy resources for over 200 countries, 80 provinces, and over 1200 towns in Poland are found here.

In part two, some unique record collections will be discussed that may hold information on your ancestors, their naming patterns, gravestone inscriptions, and more places to find records, including overseas collections and tips on how to search them.

Billie and Michael

[1] Tracey R. Rich, “Debunking Jewish Genealogy Myths,” Judaism101 ( : accessed 22 January 2019).

[2] "Begin Your Genealogy Quest," Wiki, FamilySearch ( : accessed January 22, 2019).

[3] "Gather Family Information," Wiki, FamilySearch ( : accessed January 22, 2019).

[4] "How to Begin a Search for Your Ancestor," Wiki, FamilySearch ( : accessed January 22, 2019).

[5] “Don’t Believe Everything You Read or Hear,” The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation ( : accessed 22 January 2019).

[6] “The Immigrant Journey,” Oh Ranger ( : accessed 22 January 2019).

[7] Kimberly Powell, "My Ancestor's Name Was Changed at Ellis Island." ThoughtCo. ( : accessed January 23, 2019).

[8] Kristen Fermaglich, “Too Long, Too Foreign … Too Jewish: Jews, Name Changing, and Family Mobility in New York City, 1917-1942,” Volume 34 Number 3 (Spring 2015) pp34-57, University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Immigration & Ethnic History Society, ( : accessed 23 January 2019).

[9] “Jewish Family History Collection,” Ancestry ( : accessed 23 December 2019).