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Most of us have been lucky enough to spend time with our grandparents. Some of us might even have had living great-grandparents. It is not likely that anyone reading this had living great-great-grandparents.
However, we can find their names and learn about their lives. This research is genealogy. Finding Jewish ancestors is a little different from doing the traditional American genealogy, but it is possible. Even if your Jewish ancestors died in Europe or perished in the Holocaust, you can find information about them.
Many non-Jews in the United States can research their genealogy using sources such as printed family histories, information from groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution or lineage societies and church records. These sources may help you as well, but not necessarily with research into the Jewish side of your family. There are many other sources that can help you find your Jewish immigrant ancestors. Some information is available now on the Internet. Not all information is available on the Internet, but the number of websites devoted to Jewish genealogy is increasing.
If you want to begin to research your family, first interview the oldest living relatives. Ask for names and dates of any ancestors they can name. Ask if the family name has changed, and what it was before. Ask if they know where the family originated, when they came to the United States and through which port they entered.
Write all that data down. Make a note of who told you each piece of information. Later you might find proof, or you might find that the information is a family story, but not a fact. You might want to go back to that person to ask more questions.
Next, download a pedigree chart from genealogy.about.com. This will help you keep the information you find organized.
Do not be surprised to find that what you thought was the family name is relatively recent. Also, it is not unusual for some family members to have shortened the family name, or for brothers to have assumed different last names. Family names were not commonly used by Eastern European Jews until the mid-1800s. German Jews and Sephardic Jews (from Spain or the Middle East) have family names that go back farther.
What you do next depends on where you live. If your state allows access to marriage license applications, you can find the names of the parents (including the maiden name of the mother), and the birth dates, birth places, occupations and residences of the bridal couple, as reported by the couple. The date and location of the marriage and the name of the officiant will also be listed. If the bridal couple's parents might have been married in the same locality, you can check for their marriage information and go back one more generation.
The website www.cyndislist.com has information on "U.S. Marriages by State." Just go to "marriages" from the main page to find where to locate the license.
There is also another way to find a father's first name. It is a Jewish custom to inscribe the Hebrew name of the deceased and of his/her father on the tombstone. The name will appear in the format of "deceased person, son of/daughter of father," usually right above the English name of the person. This will help you go back one more generation, especially if the marriage records mentioned above are not to be found. If you cannot read Hebrew, take a photo of the tombstone so it can be translated later.
Very often Jewish immigrants used more than one first name, so do not be surprised that someone you might have known as "Jack," for instance, turns up as Yaakov, Yankel or Jacob.
Once you have an idea of the names of the ancestors, you can look for them in the U.S. Census. The latest census that is available to the public is the 1930 form. The 1920, 1910 and 1900 censuses will also be helpful. The 1890 census is not available, except for a few fragments.
The census is a "snapshot" of your family at one point in time. The questions asked varied from census to census. There was much more information on some old censuses than on the 2010 form. From that information you might find a relative you did not know existed, or the relationship between relatives.
You can view the census forms on microfilm at a library, or see them online at a library that subscribes to the www.ancestry.com website. The microfilms are organized by state, then county, then city. There are indexes available. The online version is searchable by name; you do not need to know the location.
Search the census backwards in time to get an idea of when the ancestor came to the United States. Then you can look for the passenger arrival form to find out exactly when the ancestor arrived, and where he/she came from. The passenger forms were filled out by the shipping companies before the person boarded the ship, and that is the form that was checked when the person entered the U.S. Some of the forms tell what relative the person left behind, and to which relative or person the immigrant was traveling.
The passenger arrival forms are available on microfilm at some libraries, on loan on microfilm from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and online at www.ancestry.com. To find where you can order microfilms for passenger arrivals, go to www.familysearch.org/eng and click on "Find a Family History Center," which will tell you about locations, hours and services available. On the same homepage, you will see "Free Online Classes." Those classes are for general genealogy research. There is also a listing of "Jewish Family History Resources" that are available through the church.
For specifically Jewish research, www.JewishGen.org is a free website with many databases, research aids and other information. The website offers a JewishGen Basic Genealogy Course which will help with techniques specific to Jewish research. Also, there is the JewishGen Family Finder, where you can look for people researching the same surname or the same town or shtetl (small village) that your ancestors came from.
For local help where you live, you can find a local chapter of the Jewish Genealogical Society by referring to www.iajgs.org. Click on "Membership" at the left, and then "Member Societies."