January 27, 2011
Trace your Tribe
Despite what your zayde or bubbe told you, your family name was not changed at Ellis Island.
“The last names had to match the manifest when people arrived in the United States,” says Jan Meisels Allen, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Conejo Valley and Ventura County (JGSCV).
Name changes are just one of many roadblocks an amateur Jewish genealogist might encounter while researching a family’s past. Political upheavals, border changes and the Holocaust all contribute to the difficulties American Jews often encounter when trying to research their family histories.
When it comes to surnames, Allen says, families typically changed them after they arrived in the United States so they would sound more American.
This is not to say, however, that the name on the manifest was the exact name given in Europe.
“Your grandparents [or great-grandparents] were speaking with the accent from wherever they came from,” Allen says, “so it’s entirely possible that the name on the manifest wasn’t exactly correct — the person writing the manifest may not have understood the pronunciation provided by your relative.”
In addition to family names being changed, many of the towns from which Eastern European Jews migrated have been subjected to name changes.
So, with all of these discrepancies, how can you get started tracking down your own family’s history?
Allen recommends interviewing family members.
“One of the biggest bubbe meises [grandmother’s story] out there is that no one in the family remembers anything,” Allen says. “You just have to know how to ask the right questions.”
To begin your Jewish genealogical research, Allen says:
• Interview family members. Begin conversations asking about their recollections of stories, people, etc.
After you’ve done all of the above, Allen recommends investigating Ancestry.com. Although this is a paid site, it offers a wealth of information. She also notes that several public libraries have editions of Ancestry.com that can be accessed for free.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon church), maintains what is regarded as the best worldwide genealogy database. The Los Angeles Family History Library, at its Los Angeles temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, is open to the public (membership in the church is neither required nor expected). The library offers classes and experts to help you — all free. The facility boasts online research opportunities, plus access to the Family History Library’s extensive microfilm/microfiche collection. For more information, visit lafhl.org.
JGSCV (jgscv.org) meets at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, though members live in all of the valleys. Many members have been involved in genealogical research for years and are great resources for beginners. Allen also says that monthly meetings often include expert speakers and authors. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles (jgsla.org), also offers meetings and resources at locations across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
So, why bother researching your Jewish genealogy?
“You meet wonderful people who turn out to be your relatives,” Allen says.