5 ways to find out about your Jewish roots
We do a great deal of research into Jewish families, and encounter a lot of people who think they have Jewish ancestry but don’t know where or how to find out more. Given that the vast majority of Jews in England are descended from late nineteenth and early twentieth century Eastern European immigrants, it is amazing how quickly that heritage has been lost. In many cases, in just a 3 or 4 generations, only the sketchiest details of a family’s ‘Jewishness’ survive.
Curiously, the pressure on British Jews to assimilate seems to have been at the expense of their Jewish identity in a way that it was not amongst their cousins in the US. While one of the challenges of researching Jewish families all over the world is the habitual translation and adoption of new names, American Jews seem to have maintained closer ties to their previous identities. Within a few years of my great-grandparents’ arrival in the UK, they cut ties with the past by calling themselves ‘Leon’, whereas siblings in New York held onto the family name of ‘Lefkowitz’. Indeed, it was only through researching American records that I was able to access details about my Lewkowicz great-great-grandparents back in Poland. Having researched a great many other families subsequently, this is a familiar story amongst Anglo-Jews.
I’ve previously posted some golden rules for researching your Jewish roots. The best way to start is usually by asking your relatives. However, if you are still not sure whether you have Jewish ancestry or would like more detail than your relatives can provide, it can be quite straightforward to find out, if you know where to look and how to read the signs.
1. What’s in a name?
The rigour of British Jews’ assimilation can often obscure the clues that lead us back to our roots. My surname leads most people to suspect I’m Spanish rather than a mischling Jew. Even if your name is not Cohen or Levy or a variation thereof, bear in mind that many Jews chose English surnames that alluded to their tribal identities: Lewis/ Louis, Daniel(s), Benjamin, Jacob(s), Simon(s), Isaac(s), Nathan, for example. It’s also worth noting that names that were chosen for their similar sounds – Cohen to Coleman for instance, Pollak to Pollock, Warszawski to Warshaw – or simply shortened Vallinsky to Vallin, Zuchowitsky to Suchoff. It’s helpful to pay attention to the sounds of names.
In other cases, the reasoning is not so clear and names seem to have been selected arbitrarily, which can make families difficult to trace – just this week I’m researching a family called Michalowski who became Foster! Sometimes surnames were derived from personal names, as in another current research project: three brothers became Isaac Isaacs, Simon Simons and Jack Jacobs. Whatever the scenario, chances are that there will be a name change somewhere along the line if you are dealing with a Jewish family. Search indexes of vital records and look out for announcements in the index of the London Gazette.
2. Jewish trades and occupations
At the risk of oversimplifying, and to paraphrase Bernard Kops’ wonderful memoir The World is a Wedding, “Jews were not dockers, they were furriers and tailors”. Census records (available up to 1911 and often for free) are a great place to look for clues about your Jewish ancestry. Of course Jewish people carried out a wide variety of occupations in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Britain, but they were especially strongly represented in the garment trade, and as tobacconists, cabinet makers, shopkeepers and merchants. Many Sephardi families especially were associated with international trade and export. Jews are often listed as ‘journeymen’ in censuses and other official documents – less because of any association with a professional company guild, but more literally to indicate their migrant status. As well as looking for clues in occupations, scrutinise census records for details of where your family lived and who their neighbours were.
3. Order a marriage certificate
If members of your family were married in a synagogue, they were Jewish! Marriage authorisation certificates were required in Britain from the mid-eighteenth century to satisfy the rabbi and the synagogue authorities that both parties were halachically Jewish or that they had an acceptable certificate of conversion. These certificates can in themselves be a rich source of genealogical information. Yet, even if your relatives married in church, it doesn’t mean that they were not Jewish. Anglican churches did not require the same burden of proof. Of course, registry office marriages do not indicate anything one way or another, but sometimes certificates indicate that the marriage was conducted under the auspices of the Jewish religion. If your direct ancestors did not marry in church, look into marriages of their siblings. Often you find inconsistencies within families.
4. Find burial records
Again, for your relatives to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, the authorities would have to be satisfied that they were halachically Jewish. Jewish cemeteries, especially the large London metropolitan ones such as Edmonton, Bushey and Rainham (all Ashkenazi), tend to be well maintained and indexed. Cemetery caretakers are usually helpful and knowledgable. Again, bear in mind that being buried in a non-Jewish cemetery is no proof that your relatives were not Jewish – you may simply need to look for other clues. See here for more information about researching graves.
5. Explore Jewish sources
Here are some suggestions of free sources which may help you find out more about your Jewish roots.
Expect that you may need to employ a combination of tactics to uncover your Jewish roots. Jewish genealogy demands a high level of creativity and much tenacity.