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JewishGen FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

Revision 16.3 – January 20, 2015

This document, the JewishGen Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), attempts to answer some of the basic questions about Jewish genealogy.

Table of Contents:

  1. Getting Started
  2. Publications
  3. JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF)
  4. Books
  5. Vendors
  6. Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGSs)
  7. Conferences on Jewish Genealogy
  8. National Archives
  9. U.S. Vital Records (Births, Marriages & Deaths)
  10. Passenger Lists
  1. Finding Your Ancestral Town
  2. Naturalization Records
  3. LDS (Mormon) Family History Centers
  4. Other Archives
  5. Holocaust Research
  6. Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP)
  7. Jewish Names
  8. JewishGen Discussion Group
  9. Computers and Genealogy
  10. Glossary, Abbreviations

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If you're just getting started researching your Jewish family history, you should definitely begin by reading either of the following books:

  • Kurzweil, Arthur.  From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Personal History. Updated Edition.  (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).  367 pages.  ($24.95 hardcover).  ISBN 0-7879-7051-4.
    [First edition was: (New York: William Morrow, 1980). 353 pages. ISBN 0-8052-0706-6.  Second revised edition was: (New York: Harper Collins, 1994). 388 pages. ISBN 0-06-270097-9].

  • Rottenberg, Dan.  Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy.  (New York: Random House, 1977).  401 pages. ($20).  [Reprints: Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986, 1995, 1998. ISBN 0-8063-1151-7].

These two were the pioneering works that helped inspire the modern Jewish genealogical movement, in the late 1970s.  Both books are a great inspiration for beginners.  However, some of their sources are out-of-date.  Jewish genealogy has advanced a great deal in the last generation, with the advent of the Internet, regional Special Interest Groups, etc.  These more recent sources are described throughout this FAQ document.

More recent guides to beginning Jewish genealogy include:

  • Mokotoff, Gary.  Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy.  (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu).  Annual editions since 2010.  2013 Edition: 96 pages. ($14.50).  ISBN 9780983697510. [Table of Contents].
    [Original 1999 edition by Gary Mokotoff and Warren Blatt.  (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 1999).  74 pages. ISBN 1-886223-10-6.]

  • Krasner-Khait, Barbara.  Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors.  (North Salt Lake, UT: Heritage Quest, 2001).  287 pages. ($24.95). ISBN 0-944931-85-5.

Start with what you know.  Work from the known to the unknown, one small step at a time.  Work backwards, from the present to the past, gathering facts as you go.

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Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy is a quarterly publication, founded in 1985, devoted to Jewish genealogical issues: new record sources, tips on research, travel experiences, book reviews, "Ask the Experts" column, summaries of articles in other sources, and more.  It is the premier publication documenting the field today.

Avotaynu subscriptions are $32 (North America) or $40 (overseas) per year, and back issues ($10 each) are available from the publisher:

Avotaynu, Inc.
P.O. Box 99
Bergenfield, NJ 07621
Tel. (201) 387-7200 or 1-(800)-AVOTAYNU
FAX: (201) 387-2855

An index of articles appearing in the first 24 volumes of Avotaynu, arranged alphabetically by country, is available at their web site.  The contents of the first 18 volumes (1985-2002) are also available for sale on CD-ROM.

Many Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGSs) and regional Special Interest Groups (SIGs) also publish a journal or newsletter.  Some of the better JGS newsletters include Dorot (New York), ZichronNote (San Francisco), and Shemot (Great Britain).

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The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) is a computer-indexed compilation of surnames and towns currently being researched by nearly 100,000 Jewish genealogists worldwide.  It contains more than half a million entries: 125,000 ancestral surnames and 18,000 town names, and is indexed and cross-referenced by both surname and town name.  The JGFF was created by Gary Mokotoff, and is maintained by JewishGen, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation.

Researchers should check the JGFF for genealogists with similar research interests, and can then contact them for exchange of information. The JGFF is a great networking tool, which is updated daily online.

Searching: You can search the JGFF online at

Contributing your entries: Anyone may submit their ancestral surnames/towns for inclusion in the JGFF, free of charge.  All Jewish genealogists are encouraged to participate. To add your ancestral surnames and towns to the JGFF, go to

For complete information about the JGFF, see the JGFF FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about the JGFF.

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4.   BOOKS

Useful resources for Jewish genealogy include:

  • Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy.  Edited by Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff.  (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004).  608 pages.  ($85).  ISBN 1-866223-17-3.

  • Where Once We Walked: A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust.  By Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack, with Alexander Sharon.  Revised Edition. (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2002).  736 pages.  ISBN 0-886223-15-7.  {A gazetteer of over 23,500 Central and Eastern European localities, arranged alphabetically and phonetically, with references for each locality}.  ($85).  [First Edition was 1991, 514 pages, ISBN 0-9626373-1-9].

  • Genealogical Resources in the New York.  Revised and Edited by Estelle M. Guzik. (New York: Jewish Genealogical Society, 2003). 425 pages.  {A detailed guide to every agency in New York City and environs that could provide data useful to Jewish genealogical research}.  ($50). ISBN 0-9621863-1-7.  Previous edition was Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area, 1989. 404 pages. ISBN 0-9621863-0-9.]

  • A Guide to Jewish Genealogical Research in Israel.  By Sallyann Amdur Sack and the Israel Genealogical Society. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1995).  256 pages. ($35). ISBN 0-9626373-7-8.

  • Sourcebook for Jewish Genealogies and Family Histories.  By David S. Zubatsky and Irwin M. Berent. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1996).  480 pages.  {A guide to over 22,000 published and manuscript genealogies in archives and libraries worldwide, arranged by surname}.  ($69.50). ISBN 0-886223-033.  [Earlier editions: (New York: Garland, 1984, 1991). Two volumes: 422 pages, 452 pages. ISBN 0-8240-9028-4].

  • The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, Volume I: Sources in the United States and Canada.  Edited by Arthur Kurzweil and Miriam Weiner. (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991).  226 pages.  {A summary of North American record repositories and their holdings, with some useful appendices}.  ($40). ISBN 0-87668-835-0.

  • Do People Grow on Family Trees? Genealogy for Kids and Other Beginners.  By Ira Wolfman. (New York: Workman Publishing, 1991).  179 pages.  {"The Official Ellis Island Handbook".  A good introduction for people of all ages}.  ($10). ISBN 0-89480-348-4.

American-oriented genealogical guides are available at any public library.  Beware that these works usually focus strictly on Anglo-American ancestry, concentrating on such topics as Revolutionary and Civil War records, land records, pioneer trails, church and town records, the Colonial period, etc.  They usually ignore sources important for Jewish researchers such as immigration and naturalization records, but are useful for their methodology.

Some recommended books are:

  • Greenwood, Val D.  The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd edition. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000).  676 pages. ($30). ISBN 0-8063-1621-7.
    [2nd edition (1990) was 623 pages, ISBN 0-8062-1267-X].

  • Doane, Gilbert H. and James B. Bell.  Searching for Your Ancestors: The How and Why of Genealogy. 6th edition. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).  352 pages. ($20). ISBN 0-8166-6990-5.

  • The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.  Edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. Third Edition. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1984, 1996, 2006).  965 pages. ($50). ISBN 1593312776.

  • Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. Third Edition.  Edited by Alice Eichholz. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 2004).  900 pages. ($50). ISBN 1593311664.
    [2nd edition (1992) was 858 pages, ISBN 0-916489-47-7].

  • Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Third Edition. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2001).  420 pages. ($25 / $39). ISBN 0-911333-00-2.
    [2nd edition (1985) was 304 pages, ISBN 0-911333-01-0].

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The following firms sell genealogical books and supplies:

All of the books mentioned in this FAQ list are available from one or more of the above vendors.

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There are over 70 Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGSs) world-wide, in 50 U.S. and Canadian cities, plus Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Jamaica, Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and Venezuela.

Your local JGS is your best source for learning how to trace your roots, discovering sources, meeting other genealogists, and sharing research ideas.  Most JGSs hold Beginners' Workshops, have monthly meetings, and publish a newsletter.

To locate the JGS nearest you, see the list of IAJGS Member Societies.

Here are addresses of some of the larger JGSs:

Special Interest Groups (SIGs):

In addition to local JGSs, there are also several "Special Interest Groups" (SIGs), whose interest is a geographic region of origin.  Some SIGs issue printed publications, some are primarily a web site, and some maintain discussion group mailing lists.

Currently formed SIGs are:

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Previous conferences:
  • 1990 Los Angeles
  • 1991 Salt Lake City
  • 1992 New York
  • 1993 Toronto
  • 1994 Jerusalem
  • 1995 Washington
  • 1996 Boston
  • 1997 Paris
  • 1998 Los Angeles
  • 1999 New York
  • 2000 Salt Lake City
  • 2001 London
  • 2002 Toronto

Since 1981, an annual “Conference on Jewish Genealogy” has been held, in a different city each year.  Upcoming conferences are:

2015: July 6 - 10 Jerusalem, Israel
2016: August 7 - 12 Seattle, Washington
2017: July 23 - 28 Orlando, Florida
2018:   Eastern Europe (tentative)
2019:   To be determined

The 35th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy will be held July 6 - 10, 2015 in Jerusalem.  For more information, see the conference website

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The U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. is the primary source for U.S. Federal Census Records, Passenger Lists, Military Records, and some Naturalization records.  The Archives is located at 8th and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20408-0001. (202) 501-5400.

The best overview is the book Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (see Books).  Also, the National Archives in Washington sells some publications which are useful.  They are described in the free booklet Aids for Genealogical Research (29 pages), available from:

National Archives and Records Administration
Product Sales Staff (NWPS)
Room G-7
700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001
Tel (800) 234-8861, Fax (301) 713-6169

Among the publications offered are a series subtitled A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications, which list the reel-by-reel contents of many of the National Archives microfilmed records.  These inexpensive catalogs ($3.50, 100-200 pages each) are very useful for locating the correct reel of microfilm on which to find a record of your ancestor.  These catalogs are also available on the Web, at


Census Records are the most valuable genealogical resource, and are very easy to use.  The U.S. Federal Census has been taken every ten years, since 1790.  The 1940 Census is the most recent publicly available.

Most census records have been indexed:

Privately compiled published indexes for most states.

Partial index for all states. Includes only households with children age 10 and under. Soundex index for each state.

Over 99.99% of census was destroyed in a fire.

Complete soundex index for each state.  [NARA Catalog].

Soundex index for only 21 states (most in the south and west): AL, AR, CA, FL, GA, IL, KS, KY, LA, MI, MS, MO, NC, OH, OK, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV.  [NARA Catalog].

Complete soundex index for each state.  [NARA Catalog].

Soundex index for only 12 southern states: (AL, AK, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV).  [Detailed Information].

Indexing in progress (beginning April 2012).  [Detailed Information].

There is a 72-year privacy rule for federal census records.  The 1950 Census will be released to the public on April 1, 2022.  Records of 1950 and later are currently restricted to the persons in the record or their heirs.  Write to:

Bureau of the Census
Personal Census Service Branch
P.O. Box 1545
Jeffersonville, IN 47130
(812) 288-3300

Requires a death certificate, or a signature if living.  Fee is $65 per person per year searched.


In addition to the main archive in Washington, the National Archives maintains thirteen Regional Archives across the country.  Each Regional Archives has the complete U.S. Census on microfilm (All states, 1790-1940); selected microfilmed records (such as Military records and Passenger Lists); and local Federal records (including Federal court naturalizations) for that region.  The twelve branches and the areas they serve are:

  • New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)
    380 Trapelo Rd., Waltham, MA 02452-6399
    (781) 647-8104

  • Northeast (NJ, NY, PR, VI)
    201 Varick St., New York, NY 10014-4811
    (212) 337-1300

  • Mid-Atlantic (DE, PA, MD, VA, WV)
    9th & Market Sts., Room 1350, Philadelphia, PA 19107-4292
    (215) 597-3000

  • Southeast (AL, GA, FL, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN)
    1557 St. Joseph Ave., East Point, GA 30344-2593
    (404) 763-7477

  • Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI)
    7358 South Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60629-5898
    (773) 581-7816

  • Central Plains (IA, KS, MO, NE)
    2312 East Bannister Road, Kansas City, MO 64131-3011
    (816) 926-6272

  • Southwest (AR, LA, NM, OK, TX)
    510 W. Felix St., P.O. Box 6216, Ft. Worth, TX 76115-0216
    (817) 334-5525

  • Rocky Mountain (CO, MT, ND, SD, UT, WY)
    17101 Huron Street, Broomfield, CO 80023
    (303) 604-4740

  • Pacific Sierra (CA North, NV, HI, Pacific Islands):
    1000 Commodore Drive, San Bruno, CA 94066-2350
    (650) 876-9009

  • Pacific Southwest (CA South, AZ)
    23123 Cajalco Road, Perris, CA 92570-7298
    (951) 956-2000

  • Pacific Northwest (ID, OR, WA)
    6125 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115-7999
    (206) 526-6507

  • Alaska (AK)
    654 West Third Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501-2145
    (907) 271-2443

The National Archives and its branches are open to the public and available for use free of charge.  Microfilms are in open cabinets, and the staff is helpful and knowledgeable.

Note that nearly all National Archives microfilms are also available through all LDS (Mormon) Family History Centers.

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In the U.S., vital records are maintained by the individual states, not by the Federal government.  There is no nationwide registry of births, marriages or deaths.

The complete listing of addresses and fees for each state is provided in the government publication Where to Write for Vital Records (Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces).   This information is also provided in guidebooks such as Ancestry's Red Book (see Books) and Thomas J. Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook (4th ed., 2000).

Some older U.S. vital records and/or indexes (e.g. New York City, Mass., Ill., Calif.) have been microfilmed, and are thus available through the LDS Family History Centers.  Look in the FHLC Locality section under the headings "[State] - VITAL RECORDS" and "[State] - VITAL RECORDS - INDEXES".

Social Security Death Index

A source which may serve as a substitute for a nationwide index of deaths is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).  It is an index of more than 90 million U.S. residents who had Social Security Numbers, and whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration between 1962 and the present.

The SSDI can be searched on the internet at:,, and other locations. 

The SSDI will tell you the date and place of death, so you can then write to the state for a death certificate.  It also provides the Social Security Number, which you can use to send for a copy of that person's original Social Security application (Form SS-5).  Write to:

Freedom of Information Officer
4H8 Annex Building
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235
Tel. (410) 965-8882

Or you can use the on-line electronic form "Request for Deceased Individual's Social Security Record" (Form SSA-711).  The cost for a copy of the SS-5 form is usually $27.00 if you provide a Social Security Number (SSN), or $29.00 if the SSN is unknown.  The original application contains the date and place of birth, as well as both parents' full names.

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Lists of passengers arriving at U.S. ports have been maintained by the Federal government since 1820.  U.S. Passenger Arrival Lists generally provide the name, age, and country of origin for each arriving person.  Relatively few U.S. lists prior to 1890 show the town or city of origin; later lists provide the specific place of last residence and/or birthplace, and much more.

Passenger lists are arranged by port, and then chronologically by date of arrival. The National Archives in Washington has custody of these lists, which have been microfilmed.  Indexes to most ports were prepared by the WPA, but they are not complete.  The following chart shows the five major U.S. ports of entry on the Atlantic coast:

Port Passengers Lists Indexes
New York 24.0 M 1820-1957 1820-1846, 1897-1948
Boston 2.0 M 1820-1943 1848-1891, 1902-1920
Baltimore 1.5 M 1820-1948 1820-1952
Philadelphia 1.2 M 1800-1945 1800-1948
New Orleans 0.7 M 1820-1945 1853-1952

The second column shows the number of passengers, in millions, that arrived at each port between 1820 and 1920.  There are also lists for several minor ports, as well as the Canadian border.  As you can see, the large majority of passengers (but not all) arrived at New York, and there are large gaps in the indexes, especially for periods of major Jewish immigration.

The following books are helpful for immigration research:

Because passenger lists are arranged by port and then chronologically, it's important to know when and where your ancestor arrived. This information can usually be found on Naturalization Records.  The U.S. Federal Census (see National Archives) for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 lists the year of immigration, and 1920 lists the year of Naturalization.

If you know the exact date and port of arrival, you can order a copy of the ship passenger list directly from the National Archives.  Submit National Archives Form NATF-81, Order for Copies of Ship Passenger Arrival Records, available from the:

General Reference Branch
National Archives
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20408

The search is free, and you will be billed $17.25 if you wish to receive a copy of the passenger list.  These are large full-size copies, 18" x 24", providing much information, especially for 20th century immigrants.

The National Archives staff will also search the available indexes for you, if you provide the passenger's full name, port of entry, and approximate date of arrival.  However, always be aware that no one can do your genealogy as well as you can — no one else will be as thorough, and check alternate spellings of names, broader ranges of dates, etc.  It's always best to search the original records yourself.  Use John Colletta's book as a guide.  Searching passenger lists and indexes can be challenging and time-consuming, but it pays off in the end.  You can find your immigrant ancestor on a ship manifest, if you work at it.

These passenger lists were filled out at the port of embarkation by the ship's purser, and checked by U.S. customs or immigration authorities upon arrival.  Thus the names on these lists are the European, pre-Americanized versions of names.  The names were written down the way that they sounded.  Do not expect to find your ancestor's name spelled as it is today — realize that your immigrant ancestor wouldn't be able to recognize the written name even if it were shown to him/her, if they read only Russian and/or Yiddish/Hebrew.

If you know the name of the ship upon which your ancestor arrived, you can find the dates on which that ship arrived in the Morton Allan Directory of European Passenger Steamship Arrivals (1931, reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987, 1998, 268 pages, $20, ISBN 0-8063-0830-3).  It lists names of vessels arriving by year, steamship company and date of arrival at the ports of New York, 1890-1930, and of Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia, 1904-1926.  This can help narrow down your search.

If your ancestor arrived during a period for which the port is unindexed, you have no choice but to search every list, line by line, for that year.  The passenger list microfilms are available at the National Archives in Washington, and portions are available at the various Regional Archives.  The microfilms of the passenger lists and indexes may also be borrowed through all LDS Family History Centers — [click here for FHL microfilm numbers].


There are some published indexes to passenger lists, most covering Colonial immigrants, or a particular ethnic group for a small set of years.  See the bibliographies in Colletta or Tepper for a complete list.  An important work for Jewish research is Germans to America, edited by Ira Glazier (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1988-2002), which covers arrivals of German passengers for Jan 1850 - Jun 1897.  This ongoing series (67 volumes thus far) is available for $75 per volume, and at major libraries.

A published index for Russian Empire immigrants is now in progress, covering Russian (and Polish and Finnish) arrivals at U.S. ports: Migration from the Russian Empire: Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, edited by Ira Glazier, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1995-1998).  The first six volumes contain arrivals for Jan 1875 - Jun 1891, and include 300,000 names (of the 2.3 million Russians who arrived 1871-1910).  About half are Jewish.  The indexing is being done by the Temple-Balch Center for Immigration Research in Philadelphia.  This ongoing series is planned to continue through to 1910, in about 50 volumes.  Subsequent volumes will probably be issued on CD-ROM.  Available at major libraries, or $30-$60 each from GPC (see Vendors).


The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation and the LDS have indexed all the passenger names in the New York arrival lists of 1892-1924.  This project began in 1993, and the database was made public on the internet in April 2001.  This database of 22 million passengers may be searched at


The National Archives of Canada has microfilm copies of passenger manifests for ships arriving at six Canadian ports, including Quebec (from 1865) and Halifax (from 1881) up to 1935.  These lists are arranged chronologically; there is no name index.  There is an online index to the 500,000 arrival records for 1925-1935.  For details see the National Archives of Canada web site.
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington St.
Ottawa K1A 0N4
(613) 996-7458

Records after 1936 are subject to restrictions of the Privacy Act.  Inquiries on these later records may be addressed to:

Query Response Centre
Citizenship and Immigration Canada
300 Slater Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1L1
(613) 957-7667

Canadian Border Crossing lists.   The U.S. government maintained lists of people crossing the border from Canada.  These Canadian Border Crossing lists, also known as the "St. Albans Lists", cover 1895-1954.  They contain information similar to ship passenger manifests, and are indexed.  For more information, read the article "By Way of Canada".  These lists and indexes are available at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, several of the Regional Branches, and via the LDS.  [NARA microfilm catalog].  [FHL microfilm numbers].


The port of Hamburg, Germany, maintained lists of emigrating passengers for 1850-1934.  About 40% of Eastern European Jewish immigrants (Polish, Russian, Hungarian, etc.) left via Hamburg.  These lists contain the emigrant's town of origin.  They are indexed by year and the first letter of each passenger's surname, so some searching is required.  The lists and indexes have been microfilmed, and are available through LDS Family History Centers.  See the article by Daniel M. Schlyter in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy (see Books), pages 9-12, and the list of microfilm reel numbers on pages 163-167.  See the LDS Research Outline and LDS microfilm numbers, or

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One of the most important challenges of your genealogical search will be finding your ancestors' town of origin.  Knowing the exact location is very important in furthering your search, because records in Europe were kept on a local, municipal basis.  Your best source, as always, are home sources — your relatives, family papers, citizenship documents, passports, etc.

After home sources, the best source for finding town of origin is Naturalization Records.

U.S. Passenger Arrival Lists after 1893 contain a column for "Last Residence", which might be town, province, or country, depending upon the ship.  Lists after 1906 always contain a "Birthplace" column, city and country.  For earlier immigrants, the Hamburg emigration lists contain town of origin.


Be aware that when someone says their family was from, for example, “Vilna” or “Minsk”, this probably means that they were from a small town in Vilna or Minsk guberniya (province), and not the city itself (just as someone from “New York” is not necessarily from New York City).

Also note that many sources will refer to a place of origin in “Russia”.  This does not refer to the modern nation of Russia — it refers to the pre-WWI Czarist Russian Empire.  Before WWI, there were very few Jews living in the area that is Russia today.  Nearly all Jews in the Russian Empire lived in the “Pale of Settlement” — outer provinces of the Empire — areas that today are in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.

The same is true for “Austria”.  Jews in the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire predominantly lived in the outer provinces — places that today are in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, or Ukraine.

Other potential sources for determining town of origin include:

  • U.S. Vital Records (Birth, marriage and death certificates).  Some contain precise place of origin, depending upon the state, town, clerk, etc.

  • Cemetery.  Many immigrants belonged to “landsmanshaftn”, organizations of people from the same ancestral town.  Synagogues were often comprised of members from the same area of origin.  Check where your immigrant ancestor is buried — many used congregational or landsmanshaft plots.  Tombstones might also yield clues.

  • Social Security Application.  Began 1937.  See Vital Records for more info.  Application Form SS-5 asks for "Birthplace" — often the town name is filled in.

  • World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.  For men born between 1886 and 1897 (whether citizens or aliens), gives the exact place of birth: city/town, state/province, country.  See FHLC under heading "UNITED STATES - MILITARY RECORDS - WORLD WAR, 1914-1918"; or write to the National Archives Southeast branch.  For large cities, a street address must be known.  A detailed article on WWI Draft Registration Cards is available.

  • Passport Applications.  For U.S. citizens traveling abroad.  Optional until 1941, except during wartime.  Records through 1925 at the U.S. National Archives (click here for details), and also on microfilm at LDS (see the FHLC under "UNITED STATES - EMIGRATION AND IMMIGRATION").  Records after 1925 are at:

    U.S. State Department, Passport Office
    Bureau of Consular Affairs
    FAIM/RS, Room 1239
    22nd and C Streets NW
    Washington, DC 20520.

  • Obituary notices.  Items published in local secular and Jewish newspapers often contain more accurate details than official death certificates.

  • Probate Records.  Wills and administrations can contain clues.  Filed on the county level.  Addresses of all U.S. county courthouses can be found in Ancestry's Red Book (see Books) or E. P. Bentley's County Courthouse Book (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2nd ed., 1995, ISBN 0-8063-1485-0).

  • Alien Registration.  Required of all non-citizens after 1940.  Write to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Freedom of Information, Room 5304, 425 I Street NW, Washington, DC 20536. (202) 514-1554.

  • Surname clues.  If your surname is very unusual, consult Alexander Beider's dictionaries of Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Poland, and Galicia. (See Jewish Names).  Some surnames are found only in a particular locality in Eastern Europe.


Once you've determined your ancestral town, check Where Once We Walked (See Books).  This gazetteer of Eastern and Central Europe will help you pinpoint the town's exact location, and will tell you what sources of information are available for that town.  WOWW contains a phonetic soundex index of 40,000 place names and alternate names, so even if you're unsure of the correct spelling, you can find the town.

Other sources include the JewishGen Gazetteer, a database of one million places in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, based on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names;  and the JewishGen Communities Database, which contains information on 6,000 Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

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U.S. Naturalization Records (citizenship papers) are usually the best source for determining an immigrant ancestor's town of origin.  All U.S. Naturalization papers after 1906 contain the new citizen's exact town of origin; papers before 1906 may or may not, depending upon the court.

The 1920 U.S. Federal Census (see National Archives) lists the year of Naturalization.  The 1900 thru 1930 Censuses contain citizenship status for all foreign-born:

  • "Na" = Naturalized citizen
  • "Pa" = First papers filed (see below)
  • "Al" = Alien
The column is left blank for native-born, who are all automatically U.S. citizens.

Before 1906, naturalizations could be performed in any court: federal, state, county, or local.  There were no uniform procedures; the information contained in these records varies greatly from court to court.  There are no centralized indexes to these pre-1906 records — you need to know which court (but see WPA indexes, below).

In 1906, the U.S. government set up the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which established standard forms and procedures.  The INS was re-organized and became the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2003.  All naturalization records after September 27, 1906 have duplicate copies filed at:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
USCIS Genealogy Program
P. O. Box 805925
Chicago, IL 60680-4120

However, it can take a year or more to receive a response from the USCIS, using Form G-639.  Use the USCIS only as a last resort — try to find the original papers at the courthouse (or the archive which inherited that court's old records).  The USCIS has an index to all 1906-1956 naturalizations, but the index is not public.

Naturalization records from most Federal courts are now located at the respective National Archives regional branches.  Start your search at the regional branch in the area where your ancestor lived.  By mail, they will search their records, and charge you $10.00 if a record is found.  If not found, they can recommend which courts or archives in the region are likely to have naturalization records.

You can also search and view these records in person at the National Archives branches.  Most of the indexes and pre-1930 records have been microfilmed, and are available through all LDS Family History Centers, and some public libraries.

For a few regions of the country, comprehensive indexes to pre-1906 naturalization records were prepared by the WPA in the 1930s:

These card indexes are at the National Archives, and are also available on microfilm through all LDS Family History Centers.

The LDS have microfilmed naturalization papers (up thru 1929) at many county courthouses.  To find them, look in the FHLC Locality section under the heading: "[State], [County] - NATURALIZATION AND CITIZENSHIP".

There are three basic types of naturalization documents:

Declaration of Intention ("First Papers")
Filed soon after immigrant's arrival.
Petition for Naturalization ("Final Papers")
Filed after required waiting period (usually 5 years).  These papers contain the most information.
Certificate of Citizenship
Given to new citizen to take home.  Does not provide much genealogical information, but useful for locating the other court documents.

Naturalization laws are very complicated, and have been changed hundreds of times over the years.  For the best summary, see John J. Newman's book below.

Some basic laws:

  • Between 1855 and 1922, wives and children became citizens when the husband/father did.  A woman became a citizen automatically if she married a native-born or naturalized citizen.  After 1922, women had to file their own papers.  For more information, click here.

Books on naturalization records:

  • Newman, John J. American Naturalization Records 1790-1990: What They Are and How to Use Them. (Bountiful, UT: Heritage Quest, 1998). 127 pages. ($12.95). ISBN 1-877677-91-4. [Previous edition was: American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985. (Indiana Historical Society, 1985). 43 pages].

  • Schaefer, Christina K. Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). 394 pages. ($25). ISBN 0-8063-1532-6.

  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins. (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1998). 294 pages. ($19.95). ISBN 0-916489-71-X.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormon Church, operates the Family History Library (FHL), the largest genealogical library in the world.  Located in Salt Lake City, Utah, their collection contains over 2.5 million reels of microfilm, 720,000 microfiche and 350,000 books.

The Church also operates over 4,500 Family History Centers™ (FHCs) in 100 countries worldwide.  Records on microfilm can be lent from Salt Lake City to any Family History Center for a small fee.  For the addresses of the Family History Centers in your area, click here, or call or write:

Family History Library
50 East North Temple St.
Salt Lake City, UT 84150
Tel. (800) 346-6044

Family History Centers, located in church meetinghouses and staffed by volunteers, are open to all.  Over 90% of their patrons are non-Mormons.

The Mormons' interest in genealogy stems from their religious beliefs.  Their goal is to determine the genealogy of everyone in the world, for posthumous conversion.  However, patrons at their library facilities are not objects of their proselytizing efforts.

The Church has made a systematic effort to microfilm any records that have genealogical value from all over the world, including Jewish records.  They have microfilmed an extensive collection of 19th-century Jewish records from Poland, Germany and Hungary.  Listings of these records (over 5,000 reels microfilmed as of 1985) were published in Avotaynu and The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy.  New records are microfilmed and added to the collection every year.  Five to six thousand reels of microfilm are added to the collection each month, so you should re-check their catalog each year.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have begun microfilming in the former republics (see details below), and these microfilms are now becoming available.

The key to finding records in the FHL collection is the Family History Library Catalog™ (FHLC), the card catalog of the holdings of the library in Salt Lake City, available online at The most important part of the FHLC is the Locality section, where records are organized by jurisdiction: By Country, then State, then County/Province, then City/Town.

Research guides are available.  These can be viewed online.

FamilySearch® is a set of computer databases on CD-ROM available at most Family History Centers, and also online at  Most of the databases are not useful for Jewish researchers — don't bother with the International Genealogical Index® (IGI) or Ancestral File™.  However, one database, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), is extremely useful. It is an index of 90 million U.S. residents who died between 1962 and the present and had Social Security Numbers (see Vital Records for more info).  Despite the availability of these computer resources, realize that over 99% of the LDS Library collection are original handwritten records on microfilm.

Nearly all U.S. National Archives microfilms (Federal Census, Passenger Lists, Naturalization records, Military records); many U.S. state, county, and city records; as well as records from nearly every country on earth, are also available through the LDS.

Status of current LDS microfilming projects in Eastern Europe:

  • Belarus: Filming began in Minsk 1993, Grodno in 1994. Some Jewish records available beginning in 1995.  There is an InfoFile with information on the towns and microfilm numbers available: by-rec.
  • Bulgaria: Civil registrations being filmed since 1991.
  • Czech Republic: No contract.
  • Estonia: All Jewish vital records were filmed in 1992-1994, and are now available.
  • Germany: Over 2,100 microfilms of Jewish records, through 1880s.  Ongoing filming in Leipzig and Berlin.
  • Hungary: Over 800 microfilms of Jewish records, through 1910s.  Ongoing filming.
  • Latvia: No contract.
  • Lithuania: Filming of Protestant vital records began in May 1994; Filming of Jewish vital records in Vilnius took place Jan 2000 to Oct 2002, and are now complete.  See the Microfilm Inventory of all 229 reels.
  • Moldova: Filming began 1995.
  • Poland: Over 2,000 microfilms of Jewish vital records thru the 1890s, but no Jewish records filmed since 1992.  An InfoFile with detailed information is available: polandv.  Also note the Jewish Records Indexing - Poland project.
  • Romania: No contract.
  • Russia: Filming began 1992 (in St. Petersburg and interior areas outside the Pale).  Some Jewish records for Tomsk and Tula have been filmed.
  • Slovakia: Ongoing filming since 1991 (Levoča, Prešov, Košice, Bytča, Banská Bystrica).  Jewish records from eastern areas are available in 1995.
  • Ukraine: Filming began April 1994.  Projects in progress in Kiev and L'viv.  Some Jewish records from Crimea available 1996.

Bear in mind that it usually takes about two to three years for microfilms to become available after filming, due to the transportation, developing, quality control, cataloguing, and distribution processes.

In the meantime, some records in archives in the former Soviet Union can be searched by private researchers for hire, with varying fees and reputations.  See their ads in issues of Avotaynu.  This does not constitute an endorsement.

For information about research in Eastern European countries, see the "Eastern Europe FAQ".

Information about the Family History Library can be found on the LDS web site.

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The following organizations preserve documents, letters, local histories, manuscripts, etc. pertaining to Jewish communities and organizations.  Most of their material is arranged by locality and organization.  They cannot do research for you, but can tell you whether they have records for a specific organization or locality.

There are many other local Jewish Historical Societies and Archives, which focus on a particular city, state or region (e.g.: Chicago, Philadelphia, Rhode Island).  A list of these organizations in the U.S. and Canada appears in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy (see Books), Appendix B, pages 153-156; as well as in Kurzweil (see Getting Started), pages 205-215.  On the Web:

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The Holocaust has been called the most documented event of the 20th century.  Tens of thousands of books and resources exist.  However, the overabundance of material is not conveniently organized for genealogical research: there are few general indexes, and most material is not in English.  The most complete book on Holocaust research is:

  • Mokotoff, Gary. How to Document Victims and Locate Survivors of the Holocaust. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1995). 194 pages. ($25). ISBN 0-9626373-8-6.  Selections available online.

Yad Vashem is the principal repository of information about the Holocaust. Located in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem has a museum, a library, an archive, and a special memorial called the "Hall of Names".  The library of 100,000 volumes includes over 1,000 yizkor books (see below), and the archives contains original source material, much of which is organized by town.  See Guide to Unpublished Material of the Holocaust, Volumes 3-6.

The "Hall of Names" houses the "Pages of Testimony", a manuscript collection of information about victims.  More than two million Pages of Testimony have been filled out by relatives of Holocaust victims.  Each Page of Testimony contains names of parents, spouse and children; birth and death dates and places; and name, address and relationship of person submitting.  For more information see the InfoFile "Genealogical Research at Yad Vashem", or write to:

Yad Vashem
P.O. Box 3477
91034 Jerusalem
Tel. (02) 675-1611
WWW site:

Some books which contain information about Holocaust victims:

  • Gedenkbuch (Koblenz, 1986) 1,823 pages in 2 volumes. Lists 128,000 German Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Includes birth date, place deported from, deported to, and sometimes death date. ISBN 3-89192-00302. {Covers former West Germany only}. For more information see the InfoFile "DE-gednk".

  • Memorial to the Jews Deported from France. (Serge Klarsfeld, 1983). 663 pages. Lists 70,000 Jews deported from France to concentration camps. Gives name, birth date and place. InfoFile "FR-klars". (Index also available on 1 microfiche from Avotaynu for $5.00).

YIZKOR BOOKS (Memorial books)

Yizkor Books are published histories of individual Eastern European Jewish communities, memorializing the town and its Holocaust victims.  There is usually a narrative section on the town's history, culture, institutions and rabbis, and sometimes a list of Holocaust victims, survivors, or emigrants.  Most memorial books are entirely in Hebrew and/or Yiddish, though some do have small sections in English or other languages. Yizkor books have been published for over 1,000 towns.

The most complete bibliography appears in Estelle Guzik's Genealogical Resources in the New York (2003), pages 302-361 (see Books).  This list also contains call numbers at five libraries in New York.  You can also search the comprehensive bibliographic database of JewishGen's Yizkor Book Project, which contains call numbers for over 50 libraries worldwide.  Earlier bibliographies appear in From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry (Indiana University Press, 1998), pages 273-339; Kurzweil 1994 (see Getting Started), pages 136-202; and A Guide to Jewish Genealogical Research in Israel 1995 (see Books).

Most Yizkor books were published in the 1950s and 1960s in very limited quantities, and are therefore usually difficult to find and expensive to purchase.  Most books currently sell for $40 to $100.  The following establishments sell yizkor books:

  • J. Robinson & Co., 31 Nachlat Benjamin St., P.O. Box 4308, Tel Aviv 65162, Israel
  • Moshe Schreiber, Mea Sharim St. 16, Jerusalem, Israel
  • Pinat Ha-Sefer, P.O. Box 46646, Haifa 31464, Israel
  • For additional information on Yizkor book retailers, see the InfoFile "Retail establishments with Yizkor Book Holdings".

Major collections of yizkor books are housed at Yad Vashem (Jerusalem); Library of Congress (Washington); YIVO, New York Public Library, Jewish Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University (New York); UCLA (Los Angeles); Holocaust Center of Northern California (San Francisco); Harvard and Brandeis Universities (near Boston); Price Library of Judaica (University of Florida, Gainesville); and the Jewish Public Library of Montreal.  For more library information, see the InfoFile "Libraries and Archives with Yizkor Book Holdings".

For more information about Yizkor Books, see JewishGen's Yizkor Book Project, at

Information on Holocaust survivors:

  • Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (formerly American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors).  A list of over 170,000 survivors and their children in the U.S. and Canada, maintained by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (see below).

  • HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), 333 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10001-5004. (212) 967-4100.  HIAS assisted more than 70,000 Holocaust families in the 1940s and 1950s.  They maintain case files on these persons, and will search for a $25 fee.  E-mail:

  • International Tracing Service (ITS), Große Allee 5-9, 34454 Arolsen, Germany.  Set up by the International Red Cross after the war. Maintains 40 million index cards, mostly of survivors.  They are not inclined to answer genealogical requests — very slow in responding (1-2 years).  Yad Vashem has copies of these records on microfilm, for personal searching.

  • Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center, American Red Cross, 4700 Mount Hope Drive, Baltimore, MD 21215-3231. (410) 764-5311.  Liaison for U.S. residents forwarding search requests to the ITS (see above).  See InfoFile arc.

The U.S. National Archives Military Archives Division, has microfilms of many captured German records from World War II, including some concentration camp records.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (opened 1993) has a library and archives of Holocaust research material, including documents recently microfilmed in the former Soviet bloc.  They also have a cooperative agreement with Yad Vashem.  Contact the Museum at: 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Washington, DC 20024-2150. Tel. (202) 488-0400.

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The FTJP is a database of individuals on family trees submitted by Jewish genealogists.  While the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) contains only surnames and town names, the FTJP contains data on individual people: birth date and place, death date and place, marriage date and place, with links to parents, spouse(s) and children.

Family trees in GEDCOM format can be submitted for inclusion in the FTJP without charge.  All Jewish genealogists are encouraged to participate. You can upload your GEDCOM file to the JewishGen FTJP, at

The FTJP is available on the web at

The FTJP began in 1992 as the "Jewish Genealogical People Finder" (JGPF), which was published on microfiche.

The JewishGen online FTJP currently contains information on over five million individuals, submitted by over 4,500 Jewish genealogists.

Another place which is collecting Jewish family trees is the Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center at Bet Hatefutsot (Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv.  The Center (formerly known as "Dorot") opened in 1985, and as of 1998, it reported having 750,000 individuals on more than 1,500 family trees listed in its database.  This database can be accessed in person at the museum in Israel, or by sending written enquiries with a $5 check to the address below.  The Center accepts family trees on diskette in GEDCOM format.  Send your diskettes to: Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center, P.O. Box 39359, Tel Aviv 61392 ISRAEL. Telephone (03) 646-2062. Fax (03) 646-2134. WWW site:

The FTJP and Bet Hatefutsot databases are similar, and indeed overlap, because many genealogists have submitted their trees to both.  There are current agreements in place to exchange data between the two databases, and if the individual submitters agree, make them accessible via the JewishGen website.

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This is a very complex subject.  It is difficult and hazardous to generalize, because of all of the languages and regions involved, so only some brief pointers and references will be given here.

Reference books:

  • Kaganoff, Benzion C.  A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History. (New York: Schocken Books, 1977). 250 pages. ($12). ISBN 0-8052-0643-4. {Highly readable layman's view, but error prone and no references given}.

  • Beider, Alexander.

    {The most comprehensive scholarly studies of Jewish surnames in Eastern Europe}.

  • Singerman, Robert.  Jewish Given Names and Family Names: A New Bibliography. Edited by David L. Gold. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2001). 245 pages. ISBN 9004121897.  {A subject-organized list of over 3,000 books and articles on Jewish given names and family names throughout history.  Earlier edition was: Jewish and Hebrew Onomastics: A Bibliography. (New York and London: Garland, 1977). 132 pages. ISBN 0824098811.}

  • Guggenheimer, Heinrich W. and Eva H.  Jewish Family Names and their Origins: An Etymological Dictionary. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992). xliii+882 pages. ($125). ISBN 0-88125-297-2.


Most Jews did not have fixed hereditary surnames until the early 19th century.  Before that, people were known only by their first name and a patronymic, i.e. their father's given name, e.g. "Yaacov ben Shmuel", meaning "Yaacov the son of Shmuel".

Jews were required to take surnames at various times: Austrian Empire (1787), Russian Pale of Settlement (1804, not enforced until 1835/1845), Russian Kingdom of Poland (1821), West Galicia (1805), France (1808), various German states: Frankfurt (1807), Baden (1809), Westphalia (1812), Prussia (1812), Bavaria (1813), Württemberg (1828), Posen (1833), Saxony (1834).


  • Patronymics / Matronymics: Based on a parent's given name:
    • Slavic suffixes "-owicz", "-ovitch", "-off", "-kin",
    • Germanic suffix "-son".
      • "Abramowitz" = son of Abram,
      • "Mendelsohn" = son of Mendel

  • Toponyms: Based on a geographic place name:
    • Slavic suffix "-ski", Germanic suffix "-er".
      • "Warshawski" = one from Warsaw,
      • "Berliner" = one from Berlin, "Wilner" = one from Vilna.

  • Occupational: Based on vocation:
      • "Reznik" [Polish/Yiddish], "Shochet" [Hebrew] = butcher.
      • "Shnyder" [German/Yiddish], "Kravits" [Polish/Ukrainian], "Portnoy" [Russian] = tailor.

  • Personal description or characteristics:
      • "Schwartz" = black, "Weiss" = white, "Klein" = small...

  • Religious:
      • "Cohen" ("Kahn", etc.), "Levine", "Segal", "Katz"...

  • Artificial: Fanciful or ornamental names:
    • Many names ending in "-berg", "-stein", "-feld"...
      • "Rosenberg" = mountain of roses,
      • "Finkelstein" = glittering stone.

Spelling is irrelevant.  The consistent spelling of names is a 20th-century invention and obsession.  Names were almost never spelled in a standard way in earlier records.  For example, it is not unusual for the same person's name to be spelled Meyerson, Meirzon, Majersohn, etc. — they're all the same name.  Always check all possible spelling variations when doing research.  Transliteration from one language to another creates infinite spelling variances, e.g. Yiddish "H" became Russian "G"; Polish/German "W" became English "V", etc.

Only a few families had surnames before 1800. (Rabbinical families: Rapaport, Auerbach, Rothschild, Katzenellenbogen, Horowitz, etc). See The Unbroken Chain: Biographical Sketches and the Genealogy of Illustrious Jewish Families from the 15th-20th Century, by Neil Rosenstein. (Elizabeth, New Jersey: Computer Center for Jewish Genealogy, 1990). Revised edition. 2 volumes: 1,323 pages total. ($70). ISBN 0-9610578-4-X.

Just because two people have the same surname, it does not necessarily mean that they are related.  Very few Jewish surnames are monogenetic, i.e. there was more than one progenitor with that surname.  Many Jewish surnames (e.g. Cohen, Levine, Katz, Kaplan, Weiss, Klein, Feldman, Greenberg, Freidman, Finkelstein, Epstein, most patronymics) are extremely common, each having tens of thousands of bearers.  Common names sprang up in many non-related families throughout Eastern Europe.  So doing surname matches alone is not always productive.  Geography matches are often more important than the surname matches.


  • Beider, Alexander.  A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migrations. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 2001). 728 pages. ($85). ISBN 1-886223-12-2. {The most comprehensive work on East European Jewish given names}.

  • Gorr, Shmuel.  Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation, and Diminutive Forms. Edited by Chaim Freedman. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1992). 112 pages. ($15). ISBN 0-9626373-2-7.

  • Kolatch, Alfred J.  The New Name Dictionary: Modern English and Hebrew Names. (New York: Jonathan David, 1989). 328 pages. ($25). ISBN 0824603311. {A revision of the author's earlier works These are the Names (1948) and The Name Dictionary (1967)}.

  • Feldblyum, Boris.  Russian-Jewish Given Names. (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc., 1998). 144 pages. ($35). ISBN 1-886223-07-6. {Based on a 1911 work on Jewish given names used in Czarist Russia}.

  • "Jewish Given Names in Eastern Europe and the U.S.", by Warren Blatt, in Avotaynu XIV:3 (Fall 1998), pages 9-15.

  • Additional bibliography on Jewish given names.

Ashkenazic naming patterns: East European Jews would typically name a child after a deceased ancestor or relative, to keep the name alive.  This custom gives clues as to when someone died. (More info).

Name changing after immigration — most immigrants changed their first names, usually to something with the same initial letter or sound, e.g. Someone named "Moshe" or "Mendel" or "Mordcha" or "Mayer" might take the American name "Max" or "Morris" or "Milton" or "Murray" or "Mel".  There are no rules regarding these transformations; the names don't "translate" or "mean" anything.  People were free to choose whatever name seemed fashionable. (More info).  The best way to determine an immigrant ancestor's European given name is to check the Hebrew inscription on their tombstone.

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The JewishGen® Discussion Group is a computer-based forum devoted to Jewish genealogy.  Users can request help with genealogical problems, post information about new sources for research, and network with other Jewish genealogists globally.

The JewishGen Discussion Group is accessible in two different ways: An Internet usenet newsgroup, and an Internet mailing list.

  1. The Internet usenet newsgroup is soc.genealogy.jewish.

  2. The Internet mailing list is accessible to anyone who has Internet e-mail access.

    • To subscribe to the JewishGen mailing list on Internet, use the web subscription form at

      You can choose to subscribe in either "mail mode", where you will receive up to 50 email messages per day; or in "digest mode", where you will receive only one message per day, a "digest" of all of the day's JewishGen messages.

    • To unsubscribe from the Internet list, use the web subscription form.

    • To submit a message to the JewishGen Discussion Group, address it to .

      All subscribers will receive your message.  All messages sent to JewishGen from any access method (usenet or mailing list) will appear in both networks.

For assistance, see the JewishGen Support Center.

For more information about the JewishGen mailing list, see the InfoFile "Introduction to the JewishGen Discussion Group".

For a description of the JewishGen Discussion Group's rules and posting guidelines, see the "JewishGen Discussion Group Rules and Guidelines" InfoFile.

There are currently over 3,000 subscribers to the JewishGen Discussion Group mailing list, plus many usenet readers.

An archive of all 100,000+ previous message postings to the JewishGen Discussion Group since 1993 may be searched on the Web.

While JewishGen is completely free of cost to users, there are costs borne by the administrator of the gateway.  We ask those that are benefiting and using JewishGen for their research needs to send a $25 annual donation, to help offset some of these expenses.  Please make checks payable to: JewishGen Inc., Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York, NY 10280.  JewishGen is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, a division of the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

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Computers can be used in several ways to enhance your genealogical research:


There are many computer software programs available to help you organize your family records, print charts and trees, etc.  There is an Internet usenet newsgroup devoted to genealogical software issues, soc.genealogy.computing, so software issues should generally not be discussed in the JewishGen Discussion Group.  Most genealogy programs can be easily adapted for use by Jewish genealogists, by adding custom fields such as Hebrew name, namesake (whom someone is named after), Yahrzeit date, immigration date, etc.

Up-to-date information about computers and genealogy can be found in:

  • Genealogical Computing, a quarterly, $25 annually.
    Ancestry, Inc., P.O. Box 476, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.
  • Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, a weekly online newsletter.

There are dozens of programs on the market.  Whichever you choose, be sure that the program includes a GEDCOM capability.  GEDCOM is a file format that allows information to be exchanged between programs and shared with others.  You also need GEDCOM in order to submit your data to the Family Tree of the Jewish People.

My personal recommendations are:

  • Family Tree Maker.   2012 Version, for Windows.  $39.95.
    Available at most software stores.  Very easy to use.  Highly recommended for beginners.

  • Reunion (for Macintosh).   Version 9.0b: $99 from various vendors.
    Best genealogy program for the Macintosh.  Very powerful program, with incredible chart-making capabilities.
    Leister Productions, P.O. Box 289, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
    (717) 697-1378

  • Brother's Keeper.   Version 6.5, for Windows.  $45 shareware fee.
    Popular shareware program. May be intimidating to computer novices. Available for downloading from the Internet.
    John Steed, 6907 Chilsdale Rd., Rockford, MI 49341
    (616) 364-5503

  • Personal Ancestral File (PAF).   Version 5.2, for Windows, downloadable freeware.
    The official genealogy software of the Mormon Church.  A bit outdated and not entirely appropriate for Jewish genealogy, but inexpensive and was widely used.
    Salt Lake Distribution Center, 1999 West 1700 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84104-4233
    (801) 240-2584

Other sophisticated programs include:

A program specifically designed for Jewish genealogy is:

  • DoroTree.   Version 2.1, for Windows. $59.
    The only software built from scratch for Jewish genealogy, with many special features for Jewish genealogy.  Enables both English and Hebrew text, with user interface in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
    DoroTree Technologies Ltd., Manachat Technology Park, Bld 1/22, 96951 Jerusalem, Israel
    Telephone: In the US: (212) 656-1959   In the UK: (020) 7504 8381   In France: (01) 5301 4600   In Israel: +972 2 679 7490



JewishGen has dozens of searchable databases on its web site, at  Among the more popular databases are the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), the Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP), the JewishGen Gazetteer, the JewishGen Discussion Group message archives, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), and the "All Country" databases.

Another major database is the Avotaynu Consolidated Jewish Surname Index (CJSI), an index to 500,000 Jewish surnames from 34 sources. The CJSI is available online at:

JewishGen InfoFiles:

Over 200 JewishGen "InfoFiles", containing information about various aspects of Jewish genealogy, are available on the JewishGen web site. There are InfoFiles about New York City vital records, research in Eastern Europe, microfilms from Belarus, research in Poland, and dozens of other topics.  For an index of all InfoFiles see

Library Catalogs:

Most public and university library card catalogs around the world can be accessed via the Internet.  Some of the larger catalogs include the Library of Congress, Harvard University, and the New York Public Library.

World Wide Web (WWW):

There are many guides to genealogical resources on the Internet, both in print and on-line.  They are all quickly outdated.  Among the on-line guides are:

Here are a few World Wide Web (WWW) starting points for genealogical resources:

JewishGen Home Page:
U.S. National Archives:
Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet:
Genealogy Home Page:
Genealogy Toolbox:
Yahoo Genealogy Index:

With diligent research, it is possible to trace a Jewish family back many generations, even in Eastern Europe.  Your genealogical search will be a very rewarding experience.

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brit, bris
[Heb] = circumcision ceremony.
chevra kadisha
[Heb] = burial society.
[Rus] = province of the Russian Empire, pre-1917.  There were 15 guberniyas in the Pale of Settlement, plus 10 guberniyas in the Polish provinces (Kingdom of Poland).  Click here for list.
kehilla (pl. kehillot)
[Heb] = Jewish community.
ketuba (pl. ketubot)
[Heb] = marriage contract, document usually written in Aramaic.
landsman (pl. landslayt)
[Yid] = townsman, someone from the same town.
landsmanshaft (pl. landsmanshaftn)
[Yid] = township society; organization of people from the same ancestral town/village.
[Heb/Yid] = family.
shtetl (pl. shtetlach)
[Yid] = town, village.
[Yid] = anniversary of death, using the Hebrew calendar.
[Heb] = genealogy; pedigree; family background
[Yid] = family status/prestige.
[Heb] = memorial.

For additional definitions of Yiddish and Hebrew words, see the InfoFile "dict".


American Jewish Historical Society
Family History Centers™, LDS branch library
Family History Library, in Salt Lake City (see LDS Family History Centers)
Family History Library Catalog™ (see LDS Family History Centers)
Family Tree of the Jewish People
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (see Holocaust Research)
International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS)
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS))
JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF)
Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGSs)
Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church (see LDS Family History Centers)
Library of Congress
U. S. National Archives and Records Administration
Special Interest Group (see Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGSs))
U. S. Social Security Death Index (see Vital Records, LDS Family History Centers)
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (see Naturalization Records)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC (see Holocaust Research)
Where Once We Walked, the gazetteer (see Books)

This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document is available on the web at

Suggestions, additions and corrections to the FAQ are encouraged.
Copyright © 1993, 2015 Warren Blatt. All Rights Reserved.

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