Overview of Jewish American Research

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Jewish American Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Jewish American Research
Jewish Migration to the United States
Holocaust Research
Finding Jewish Records
List of Useful Jewish Research Resources

This article originally appeared in "Jewish American Research" by Gary Mokotoff in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

After the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Jews were dispersed throughout their known world. This dispersion became known as the Diaspora (Greek for dispersion). Although Jews had the common bond of their ancestry and religion, they developed separate cultures in different geographic areas.

Jews of the Diaspora

Those Jews who migrated to medieval France and Germany became known as Ashkenazic Jews (ashkenaz is the Hebrew word for Germany). They subsequently spread south and east to today's Austria, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Hungary, and Romania and then eastward to Poland and Russia, dominating the indigenous Jews of these areas and bringing their language, Yiddish, to the entire region. Most Jewish Americans are descended from the Ashkenazic Jews of central and eastern Europe. Those settling in the medieval Iberian Peninsula became known as Sephardic Jews (sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain). Their culture thrived from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries but came to an abrupt end in Spain with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. They fled throughout the Mediterranean rim, Holland, and other countries. Almost all Jewish Americans are either Ashkenazic or Sephardic Jews.

Jews who settled in the Middle East in what are now Yemen, Iraq, and Iran are also categorized as Sephardic Jews, though they originally belonged to a separate group known as Oriental Jews. The influence of the Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain dominated the culture of the Oriental Jews. As the Far East was opened to Western civilization in the fourteenth century, Jews traveled eastward to settle in India and China. There are no longer Chinese Jews, though they existed into the late-nineteenth century in Kaifeng, China. The Ethiopian Jews comprise another group that developed independently. Their origins are unknown; they claim to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Anthropologists state that they are black Africans who converted to Judaism some fifteen hundred years ago. DNA research supports this theory. Most live in Israel today, having been rescued from religious persecution in the 1980s.

Naming Patterns

A cultural factor of interest to genealogists is the way children of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews acquire given names. Ashkenazic Jews normally name their children after deceased relatives'usually recently deceased relatives. This rule is often the first clue as to the names of ancestors for whom there is no documentation. For example, if several male children within an extended family born in the same year were given the name Abraham, it usually shows that some common relative with the given name Abraham died shortly before the birth of the children. Two Ashkenazic Jewish genealogists who suspect they might be related will often go through the ritual of comparing given names in their families, looking for a pattern of similar given names.

Jews who follow the Sephardic tradition name their children according to the following pattern: the firstborn son is named after the father's father; the firstborn daughter is named after the father's mother; second son after the mother's father; and the second daughter after the mother's mother.

Origin of Surnames

To this day, Jewish culture has not required hereditary surnames. In the Jewish religion, a person is known by his or her religious given name followed by 'son' or 'daughter' of the father's given name'for example, Gad son of Jacob or Sarah Malka daughter of Jacob. Consequently, before the nineteenth century, most Ashkenazic Jews did not have hereditary surnames. Through a series of edicts, surnames were forced upon them by Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary'the three major empires of the period'which wanted a unique way of identifying their Jewish citizens. Jews chose occupation names or the names of towns or kept to patronymics. There are some distinguished rabbinic surnames that predate this era of surname acquisition. They include such names as Auerbach, Epstein, Horowitz, Isserles, Lurie, and Rapaport. Most Sephardic surnames had an equally undistinguished origin. They date from the fifteenth century, when Jews were voluntarily or forcibly baptized as Roman Catholics and assumed the surnames of their sponsors. Many Jews who did not convert but had dealings with Christians assumed surnames to disguise their Jewishness. A few Sephardic surnames predate this era, including Abensur, Malka, Sasson, and Shaltiel.

Customs that are particularly useful when looked at together are...

The custom of naming a person after a relative who had already passed away. A researcher might find that as different branches are traced backwards in time you might notice the commonality of a given name (i.e. Mendel) within a generation.

The patronymic naming custom allows the Jewish researcher who knows a person's Hebrew name to trace two generations at a time. Finding a record for Sarah Malka, for example, leads you to her Hebrew name of Sarah Malka bat Jacob.

The third particularly useful custom is that Jewish tombstones are usually engraved with the full Hebrew name as well as any established surname. So a little sleuthing in a cemetery would yield the Hebrew "Sarah Malka bat Yaakov". This allows the researcher to quickly add generations to their tree.

Record Keeping

Historically, Jews have kept notoriously poor records of vital events. This has been because there is no requirement in the religion to keep such records and because such records, if kept accurately, were used as the basis for discrimination by the Christian governments under which the Jews were ruled. The major exception, however, concerns rabbinic dynasties. To be descended from a famous rabbi is considered a mark of honor, and famous rabbis have documented their pedigrees (yichus in Hebrew) to show their Jewish 'blue blood.' There are even alleged ascents of famous rabbis back to King David.


The Jewish religion has a significant caste system that sometimes helps in tracing ancestry. It is a hereditary, paternal caste passed down from father to sons. There are three castes: Cohanim, Leviim, and Israelites. Members of the highest caste, Cohanim, are the descendants of biblical Aaron. (This has recently been demonstrated through DNA evidence.) Members of this caste were the high priests of the temples when the temples existed. Persons with the surnames Cohen, Kagan, Kogan, Kahn, Kahan, Katz, Kaplan, and Rapoport are invariably Cohanim. Members of the middle caste, Leviim, are descendants of the biblical Levi. They served as the keepers of the temples. Persons with the surnames Levy, Levin, Segal, Landau, Horowitz, and Epstein are invariably Leviim. Most Jews belong to the lowest caste, the Israelites. These hereditary titles can be used as evidence that two men are not related. For example, a man born to the Cohanim caste cannot be related through paternal lines to a man born to the Leviim or Israelite castes. They could be related, however, through maternal lines. It is not possible for modern-day Jews to determine from which of the twelve tribes of Israel they are descended, except the Cohanim and Leviim (those descended from the tribe of Levi).


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