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Jewish Religious Personnel in the Russian Empire, 1853-1854

Index to Genrich M. Deych's Sinagogi, Molitvenne Doma i Sostoyashchie pri nikh Dolzhnostne Litsa v Cherte Evreiskoi Osedlosti i Guberniyakh Kurlyandskoi i Liflyandskoi Rossiiskoi Imperii 1853-1854

Compiled by Herbert I. Lazerow
Professor of Law, University of San Diego

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This is an index to Prof. Genrich Markovich Deych's extremely useful book, Sinagogi, Molitvenne Doma i Sostoyashchie pri nikh Dolzhnostne Litsa v Cherte Evreiskoi Osedlosti i Guberniyakh Kurlyandskoi i Liflyandskoi Rossiiskoi Imperii 1853-1854   [Synagogues, Prayer Houses and their Employees in the Pale of Settlement and Kurland and Livonia provinces of the Russian Empire, 1853-1854], a 219-page Russian-language book printed privately in New York in 1992.

The book was drawn to my attention by Anatoli Chayesh's descriptive article (pages 25-27) and Zachary Baker's review (page 59) in Avotaynu, Volume IX, Number 2 (Summer 1993).

Copies of this book can be found at YIVO, the New York Public Library [*PXW 93-1103], Harvard University [Circ. HWMSWV], and at the library of the University of California at Berkeley, among others.

This book should be in the collection of every library that is serious about Jewish genealogy or about 19th century Russian social history.  It results from a request from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in St. Petersburg to the governors of provinces (gubernias) that had substantial Jewish populations to identify synagogues and prayer meetings, the names, titles, and compensation of their leaders, and send this information to the Ministry.  Each responded, but we have no listings for Volhynia Gubernia.

More than 4,000 individuals are listed in more than 900 communities.

Examination of Professor Deych's product leads me to express admiration at the valuable and time-consuming service he has provided us.  The material he found in Russian archives was not neatly typed and prepared for the researcher.  It was taken from the reports of the governors to St. Petersburg.  It was prepared almost 150 years ago in a variety of scripts, many difficult to decipher.  Where possible, Professor Deych has provided alternate possible spellings, which I have indexed separately.  Sometimes he has made his best guess of the name, which he indicates by following the name with a question mark.  Sometimes the writing is indecipherable, in which case he leaves the space with only a question mark.  Sometimes, Professor Deych notes, the words are difficult to decipher because the paper is damaged.

Professor Deych reports that titles are given in Cyrillic script, sometimes using a Russian word, but sometimes in Yiddish, Ukranian, or Hebrew.  While none of the listings in the book include patronymics (fathers' given names), about 10% of the listings in the original documents do.

Name patterns

Some preliminary conclusions may be drawn from the work, even though this small a sample (less than 5,000 names) should not receive too much weight.

  • First, this work reinforces Alexander Beider's observations in his A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames in the Russian Empire that Jewish surnames were not evenly distributed.  Some names concentrate more heavily in some geographic areas, and are almost unknown in others.  In addition, the surnames probably do not follow the pattern for the Jewish population as a whole.  The most common surname in the book is Rabinovich (30+), meaning "son of the rabbi", followed by Levin and Gurvich (30), Kagan-Kogan and Shapiro-Shapira (23), Epshtein (19), Lerner (17), Feldman, Reznik and Kaplan (13), Bernshtein and Kats (11).  Fridman, the most common surname reported by Beider, appears only 10 times.

  • Second, the same is true of given names — they are also not evenly distributed.  For instance Benyamin, with all its biblical lineage, does not appear a single time in Bessarabia, Vilna, or Vitebsk, but occurs with some frequency in other guberniyas.  The largest number of given names appear neither in their Hebrew nor Russian versions, but in the Yiddish equivalent.  The following "name families"; appear more than 200 times: Abram-Avrum, Gersh-Gershko-Gershl, Leib-Leiba, Moishe-Moshka-Movsha, and Yankel, while Ios-Iosel and Itsek-Itsko appear almost as frequently.  Khaim, Shmul, David and Berko are a bit above 100.

  • Third, there is some variation in the spelling of given names between provinces.  Shmuel is sometimes Shmuil, and in Grodno becomes Shmuilo.  This may represent genuine pronunciation differences, or simply the idiosyncratic orthography of the compiler of the report for each guberniya.

  • Fourth, of the few religious personnel listed for each organization, it is frequent that more than one has the same name.  This may be coincidence, but I suspect that religious occupations may have been kept in families, or that shuls and schools were sometimes family businesses.

Users of this index will be aided by a description of the method of producing this index.  First, I went through Deych's volume and transliterated the Russian names (Cyrillic) to English (Latin) characters as best I could.  This transliteration was done by assigning normal fixed equivalents in English letters to each Russian letter.  No attempt was made to indicate soft signs, or to show the changes in pronunciation that occur in Russian to vowels that are stressed, as opposed to unstressed, or to show the variant pronunciations of final consonants.  So this transliteration permits the reader to reconstruct the Russian spelling, rather than the true Russian pronunciation.  The result was then compared with a guberniya-by-guberniya, anonymously-produced list in the possession of the San Diego Jewish Genealogical Society.  Discrepancies were resolved by comparing with the original Russian.  Where names were uncertain, both possible listings are indexed.  I then added to the names I could identify names on the anonymous list that did not appear in my list.  These names are indicated with the symbol for the guberniya plus the phrase "Ind", i.e., "besInd".

JewishGen'er Vitaly Charney suggested that from his close study of Minsk, certain names and town listings did not appear correct.  His corrections were added to the index, though the original versions were also retained.

Database Fields

This index contains four data fields:

  • Surname: There is an alphabetical list of persons mentioned in the book by surname.

  • Given Name: Where available, the individual's given name is stated.

  • Guberniya: Reference is made to the guberniya (Russian Empire province) by a three-letter abbreviation for the guberniya (see below) followed by the listing number at which the name is found (nomer).  If the name is not found at a listing number, its page number is indicated with the letter "p" followed by the page number.

  • Town: The town where the synagogue was situated.

Readers of the index should then refer to Professor Deych's book to find:

  • The year at which the individual took up his duties (c kakogo goda v dolzhnosti).

  • Further detail of the reporting town or congregation (mestanakhozhde nie sinagogi ili molitvennogo doma).

  • The office held by the individual (imya dolzhnostnykh lits).

  • The size of the congregation (chislo prikhozhan), which I assume refers to only males over the age of 13.

  • The individual's compensation (razmer zhalova nia), which is frequently omitted.

Users of the index should be aware that the boundaries of gubernyi were occassionaly shifted over time.  I was astonished to discover that my great-grandfather's town, Kreuzburg [Krustpils], Latvia, was not listed in Kurland, nor in the Kovno guberniya, but in the Vitebsk guberniya.

The guberniya codes used by this index are as follows:
  • bes   =   Bessarabia
  • che   =   Chernigov
  • eka   =   Ekaterinaslav
  • grd   =   Grodno
  • khr   =   Kherson
  • kiv   =   Kiev
  • kvn   =   Kovno
  • krl   =   Kurland & Lifland
  • mns   =   Minsk
  • mgl   =   Mogilev
  • pdl   =   Podolsk
  • plt   =   Poltava
  • tav   =   Tavrich
  • vln   =   Vilna
  • vtb   =   Vitebsk


As with any genealogical work, it is wise to disregard vowels (Katz, Ketz, Kits, Kots and Kuts likely being the same name), and to look under soundex alternatives.  In addition, Professor Deych's Cyrillic typescript provides only a shade of difference between "l" and "p", and between "z" and one of the Russian "e"s (eh), so these alternatives should be added to the letters close to each other in sound, which are

  • "g", "k" and "kh" (which is used here to mean the guttural "ch", as in khaim, meaning "life")
  • "ch", "sh", and "shch"
  • "f", "j", "s", "z" and "zh"
  • "m" and "n"
  • "b", "d", "p", "t" and "v"


Do not conclude that because an ancestor is not listed, they were not in fact officials.  The listings vary widely.  Some list only one officer, who may either be rabbi, treasurer, or gabai (usually translated sexton, but listed so frequently that I believe it is a more important official, perhaps equivalent to today's executive director).  In some areas, it was common to list cantors or khazn; in others it was not.  The most common three offices listed were rabbi, treasurer, and gabai.  But some communities listed up to eight or ten.  In addition, congregations may have been omitted for any number of reasons.

When a town is listed but no individuals, I believe it means that it was reported to the Ministry that there was a synagogue there, but the guberniya official making out the report was unable to discover the names of the officials of the synagogue.

Bert Lazerow
December 1997

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