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16 Tammuz 5766 - July 12, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








All in the Family — Three Jewish Genealogists Discuss the Recent Upsurge of Interest in Searching for Jewish Roots

by S. Fried

Introduction: Sons of Kings?

Were all the eligible participants in the gathering that is being planned in Israel in the not-too-distant future to actually attend, no hall would be large enough to hold them. Although it is to be a gathering of one family's members, there's no way that they all know each other, or ever will know each other. What they have in common is a feeling of importance — nobility in fact, because this conference is for people who have a family tradition of descent from Dovid Hamelech. It's interesting to note that although only one of Dovid's many sons inherited his crown, for some reason Dovid, not Shlomo Hamelech, is always claimed as the ancestor.

The chances of anyone producing a complete record of descent from Dovid Hamelech and laying claim to his throne are very slim indeed. To qualify for admission to the conference, a record going back a thousand years to a known ancestor who was reputed in his day to have been descended from Dovid will suffice.

The real question is though, how does each descendant conduct himself today? Is he also a spiritual heir or is his only connection some DNA? Would his illustrious ancestor view him with pride as a bearer of his heritage or would he sadly exclaim, "See what the latter generations have done to our spiritual riches!"

The gathering is taking place on the initiative of a well- known lady philanthropist, who has her own reasons for what she is doing. Her goals are neither nostalgia nor history — there seems to be a fairly obvious political end to holding the conference. If it actually takes place, it's clear that there will be many participants; it can be expected to have a profound effect upon them at least.

Chaim Friedman is the conference's genealogical advisor and this means that there's a good chance that a fair proportion of the participants will possess established traditions of illustrious ancestry. A professional genealogist who takes his work seriously, Chaim Friedman is sure to examine every claim thoroughly.

Roots and Responsibility

In the academic world, genealogy has not yet become a separate discipline — no university has a Department of Genealogy, much less of Jewish Genealogy. Yet several serious researchers — whose standard of scholarship equals that of other historical researchers, are working to have their subject recognized.

Around the world, in gentile society, recent decades have seen searching for roots or building a family tree become increasingly fashionable. It's easy to understand the interest that the pastime holds for an immigrant society like America. None of the results of their researches impose any obligations on Americans — certainly not to return to the countries that their ancestors left behind.

No few Jews have also been infected by the craze and many, mostly in North America and Israel, have also tried their hand at piecing together a family tree.

By contrast, preserving a record of one's family's lineage is an old-established custom among Jews. Among the gentiles this was only done by the nobility (who kept both their own records and those of their thoroughbred dogs and horses) in order to document their title to property and privilege. We Yidden however, are all of noble descent and must preserve the purity of our lineage. How can one complete a shidduch without knowing about the other side's yichus? Were it not for all the pogroms, expulsions and wanderings that our ancestors underwent, every Jew would possess a complete record of his own lineage. One consequence of our long and bitter history is that very few families possess such records.

"For us as Yidden" says Chaim Friedman, "yichus means responsibility rather than honor. Family connections are important when they have some spiritual dimension. To be descended from a godol is a responsibility. This is why I concentrate on rabbinical families."

Chaim Friedman himself is an eighth generation descendant of the Vilna Gaon — a claim based on solid documentation. It is no surprise to find out that he has made a thorough study of all the Gaon's descendants, publishing his findings in a thick volume entitled Anfei Eliyahu.

Links with the Past

Chaim Guesli, Director of the Computerized Information Bank at Israel's Diaspora Museum, is witness to the recent growth of interest in searching for roots.

"A week ago," he says, "we had a visitor from Bulgaria, a man in his forties. [Bulgarian Jews are virtually all estranged from Judaism.] He was looking for material on his family's origins and discovered that his grandfather had been oleh to Eretz Yisroel from Bulgaria. He suddenly made the connection — Grandfather settled in the Holy Land because that's where his own ancestors lived. My forefathers lived here! That's just one step away from investigating Jewish history and identifying with it.

"A generation ago, there were those who said, `I'm an Israeli!' dissociating themselves from Jewish history, as it were. The moment someone starts taking an interest in his family's history though, he encounters the world of tradition, because earlier generations all observed the mitzvos and were faithful to tradition. Just seeing pictures of ancestors three or four generations ago is enough to establish a positive, emotional bond."

Guesli adds that the popular Heritage trips to Eastern Europe have the same effect. Israelis tour Eastern Europe, Morocco, Tunis and Egypt. Seeing the places where Jewish communities used to exist transforms their outlook. They begin to see themselves as part of the Jewish nation.

The Diaspora Museum encourages students to put together family trees, in accordance with the Ministry of Education's Roots Program. This program is actually the antithesis of the one-time Zionist goal of severing all connection with the past. Building a family tree stimulates contact between family members of differing generations that did not usually take place beforehand. Children ask parents, grandparents and other relatives questions about the past and the subsequent discussions forge new emotional bonds. Suddenly a child learns about a grandfather's past life and about past events; he absorbs history without being aware of it. The program also encourages investigating any special family traditions, or objects that have a story behind them. The conclusions to which these contacts lead can surface years later.

New Attitudes

Dr. Yosef Lamdan recently founded the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, in Yerushalayim. Dr. Lamdan's doctorate is in history and he arrived at the subject as a result of his work in Israel's Foreign Service. He points out the moral dynamics of the growing involvement in Jewish genealogy. "The interest in [discovering one's] roots has been growing steadily among North American Jewry over the past twenty years. This is partly because it has become fashionable and thanks to [the opportunities provided by] affluence and the freedom from worrying about one's daily bread. Mainly though, it is owing to the major public debate that has been taking place about continuity (since population surveys show very high percentages of intermarriage). Suddenly, Jews realize that in order to ensure their continuity they must establish some link with their past and their roots — Past for the Sake of Future — in order to remain Jewish."

In Israel, Dr. Lamdan says, for years the Zionists adopted a deliberate policy of turning their backs on the Diaspora, severing any links to their roots and establishing a completely new reality. Today this attitude is being reevaluated. People understand that the Diaspora is part of us and that we cannot cut ourselves off from Judaism. There are Jews living in the Diaspora even today and all of us belong to the same nation. This attitude is present, says Dr. Lamdan, even if it is not articulated quite in those words.

Getting Started

It took Chaim Friedman thirty years to put the Gaon's family tree together. He's been investigating his own family's history for forty-five years at least, ever since he was a youngster taking an interest in whatever his grandmother could tell him about the family. The starting point for his researches on the Gaon's family was a book published seventy years ago by Eliezer Rivlin wherein he discovered his own family's relationship to the Gaon.

Back then Rivlin found two-hundred-and-fifty descendants of the Gaon. Friedman had found twenty thousand — and another ten thousand have come to light since the publication of his book. Innumerable families claim descent from the Gaon and his relatives — that is, they claim to be descendants of the Gaon's father. Here is a partial, random list of such families: Scharansky, Ben Ami, Zohnstein, Wolpe, Sternbuch, Fried, Friedman, Schatz, Shach, Carmel, Romm, Cohen Epstein, Krechemer and many more.

Friedman's research encompassed numerous seforim, archives, introductions to rabbinical works and other resources. A tremendous amount of new material has become available in recent years, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening of archives across Eastern Europe to the public, coupled with the advances in information technology. Advanced computer techniques enabled Friedman to achieve a high level of consistency and accuracy in his book.

Chaim Guesli: "Anyone can put a family tree together that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century at least, that is, five or six generations at least. Information can be gathered from older family members. This stage alone can yield a list of between seventy and a hundred relatives. Then one can look further afield and search for records of the family's lineage."

Such records are more common among Sephardi families, Guesli says, because of the phenomenon of the [Spanish] Conversos who wanted to have documented proof of their Jewish descent.

The Diaspora Museum has approximately seven thousand family trees, containing two million names altogether. Such trees are submitted in complete form by the families; they were not put together by museum staff. This is the form in which amateur researchers like to preserve their own private histories. Jews from abroad attach special importance to having these records kept in Israel.

Then there are the people who come searching for their family roots. Nobody is happier than they are when they find a ready- made family tree. The Diaspora Museum's information bank can be accessed from afar, or by applying by mail or by phone call, for just a nominal fee.

Only the Diaspora Museum's family tree archive is so easily accessed. A much larger but much harder to use information bank can be accessed from the Genealogical Society's Website. The Society for Jewish Genealogy provides advice on building a family tree and obtaining information about one's family (see box).

Looking Forward

Dr. Lamdan hopes to establish Jewish genealogy as an academic discipline. To this end he recently founded, with funding from abroad, the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, which is currently housed in the National Library in Jerusalem, as one of its research institutes. The institute has two principal aims: first, research and teaching of Jewish genealogy and second, turning genealogy into a recognized branch of Jewish Studies. He is aware that there is still a very long way to go before that happens and concedes that in the meantime, it remains something of a hobby.

The Institute is a recognized fellowship and has an international board composed of well-known Jewish genealogists. Among its goals is the establishment of contact with large stores of information, such as Yad Vashem which has huge collections primarily of recent generations. In the near future the Institute plans to hold a closed, private international symposium on a professional level to chart its activities and methods of operation.

The Institute has already launched a monumental project: the indexing of the huge amount of material relating to Jewish genealogy that was collected by Paul Yaakobi, who served as legal advisor to the Keren Kayemet Leyisrael. Yaakobi worked for fifty years on amassing vast amounts of material about Jewish families — principally Ashkenazi rabbinical families. He also authored approximately four hundred pamphlets and left a collection of twelve thousand books on the subject. But without an index the material is virtually unusable.

Another of the institute's projects in indexing is the archives that have recently come to light in Eastern Europe. Project JRI Jewish Indexing, has recently been launched in Poland, where records exist going back many generations. Although the huge task of copying the documents is underway, without an orderly and methodical index the material is hard to access. There are also huge archives in St. Petersburg, Kiev, Grodno and other places. The YIVO institute in New York also has a large archive.

So, if you still haven't managed to find out who your great- great-grandfather's grandfather was, don't lose hope. You might still do it before you become a great-grandfather yourself!

Genealogy: Micro, Macro and DNA

What is the difference between genealogy and history?

Chaim Friedman refers to the first as the "micro" and the second as the "macro." He explains that genealogy focuses on the individual and views the past through his ancestry. History, on the other hand, takes a broad, all-encompassing view of events, of communities, institutions, wars etc., without descending to a personal level.

Dr. Lamdan on the other hand, argues that genealogy — as a scientific study, rather than a hobby — is more than micro and deals with broader issues than a single individual's family tree. "Genealogists aim to put together family trees that merge with one another," he says, "in particular those of rabbinical families. When researching families, one sees how rabbinical families married into each other. Ultimately, we may arrive at the family tree of the entire Jewish people. Lineage has always been very important to Jews; we are interested in pursuing this on a very broad scale.

"This type of research," adds Dr. Lamdan, "enables us to investigate where these rabbonim came from and how they attained their positions in the various communities. What became of their offspring? Did they follow their ancestral traditions or did they take a different path? There are also subtopics such as the development of first names and family names.

"From our point of view," says Dr. Lamdan, "Jewish genealogy is one more lens through which Jewish history can be viewed and analyzed. Alongside economic, political and social history we now have genealogical history. It's a very special kind of history. It reflects history from a human, personal angle."

Other scholars have been studying the genome, that is, the Jewish nation's physical genes. In recent years, several studies have been made in an attempt to trace Jewish history through DNA. The leading researcher in this field is Professor Karl Skorecki, a researcher at the University of Toronto, Director of the Rappaport Research Institute and also Director of Nephrology at the Haifa Technion's Rambam Medical center. Dr. Skorecki examined the DNA of families of cohanim and, together with other scientists, isolated a "genetic signature," a distinct grouping of DNA markers, that appear in cohanim. The markers were found in 98.5 percent of the 188 people who identified themselves as cohanim who participated in the initial study, while in others the markers were much less common. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite cohanim all have the markers, which shows, according to the researchers, that cohen status was carefully preserved.

Furthermore, the results of this and further tests indicate that all cohanim share a common ancestor who lived a hundred and six generations ago, i.e. approximately 3100 years ago, in a range of years into which the lifetime of Aharon Hacohen fits comfortably.

Dr. Doron Behar, one of Prof. Skorecki's pupils, also conducted genetic studies and found that all of Ashkenazi Jewry are descended from four "matriarchs" — that is four women — who lived during the last 1300 years in Europe. These individuals did not necessarily live at the same time or in the same place but the Ashkenazi Jews are their descendants.

We cannot comment on the relevance of these results to us. At the moment, there are no known halachic consequences of any of these findings. They are just interesting in themselves.

Further research is to examine the question of whether the ancient Hebrews were dark-skinned or light and what this might prove.

Genealogy DIY

The Jewish Genealogical Society provides a list of twelve points to guide those interested in researching their own family histories.

One: Consult family members. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Record the older family members speaking. Don't forget in-laws and other relations by marriage. Look for family archival material such as pictures and letters. You will need to know:

i) your family's present and past name(s), its source and different ways of spelling it;

ii) your family's place of origin and any different names by which it might have been known;

iii) the approximate year that the family emigrated to the USA, Eretz Yisroel or elsewhere, the name of the vessel and its port of dock if available.

Two: Check National Insurance documents for dates of deaths; find the records of the cemeteries.

Three: Check gravestones. Most of them carry some family details. Photograph the inscriptions several times, to ensure you obtain a clear copy.

Four: Check population registers and censuses. You can find details about your ancestor's occupations, neighbors and more.

Five: Check old municipal guides. They can be found in libraries.

Six: Check immigration records. Fifty five million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1820-1990, most of them from Eastern Europe. There was also large-scale immigration to Eretz Yisroel at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century.

Seven: Check atlases and geographical guides in order to corroborate sources of places where people lived.

Eight: Get acquainted with local records, such as births, deaths, wills and the land register.

Nine: Check source materials like Jewish Gen and other computerized sources.

Ten: Visit large, central archives.

Eleven: Get to know books and periodicals on the subject.

Twelve: Last, a word of warning: you can become addicted! Try to get your nose out of old documents and away from computer resources from time to time. There are plenty of other things to do besides tracing your ancestors, of blessed memory!

What's in a Name?

Did you ever imagine that there's any connection between the names Resnick, Metzger, Shechter, Fleischer and Shochet?

Well, Resnick is Slovene for butcher. Shechter and Shochet are Yiddish and Russian derivations of the Hebrew shochet (the first of which should therefore really be spelt in Hebrew with a ches instead of the usual chof), while in French the name is Boucher and in German, Fleischer, Fleischmann or Metzger. For some reason, no Jew has adopted the English equivalent, butcher, as a surname.

Many books — some more scholarly and some less so — have been written about the meaning and different renditions of various surnames. Only the Diaspora Museum has an organized collection of family names with their sources, meanings, translations into other languages and examples of well-known Jews who bore them.

Chaim Guesli is Director of the Diaspora Museum's Computerized Information Bank. "For over twenty years we've had researchers, many of them volunteers, investigating family names. Unlike family trees, which anyone can put together, finding the meaning of a name requires a lot of background information," Guesli says. As a result, their information is as authoritative as can be.

The introduction that the museum provides to its collection of family names contains all that is known about the topic. Here is a summary of the general information.

The first known instances of Jews taking family names are found in tenth century France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. In Central and Eastern Europe, surnames were used primarily by the upper classes. Most Jewish families only adopted surnames in the eighteenth century, either at the behest of the authorities for the population register, army service or taxation, or in order to maintain connection between family members living far away from one another.

The main distinction is made between names that Jews gave themselves and names that they were given by their environment or the authorities. Names are arranged into types, such as names of town or region of origin (e.g. Berlin, Mainzer — German cities), occupation (e.g. Shuster, Portnoy — Yiddish for shoemaker and Russian for tailor, respectively), physical description (e.g. Roth, Weiss, Klein — Yiddish for red, white and little), or special status (e.g. Cohen, Levi). However, even after great effort it is not always possible to discover the meaning of every name.

In an article in the journal Etmol, Chanan Rappaport discusses the origins of his family name, which has some derivatives, such as Rapport, Rafa and others. The first possible explanation is that the name originated with Spanish or Portuguese exiles as the result of a marriage between the distinguished Rafa family from Spain and the Porto family from the town of Porto in Portugal.

Another possibility is that the name derives from the title "Rav [of the town] of Oporto," the beis of Rav having been lost, possibly in the troubles of the exile.

More recent ideas are that the Rappaports are one hundred percent Ashkenazi, their ancestors having hailed from the town of Rafa, which is near Regensburg in Germany. When the Jews of Regensburg were expelled in 1420 the family moved to Mainz, where they were still known as Rafa. When they were expelled from Mainz they moved to Italy, with one of the branches settling in Porto (this time in Italy, not Portugal) where he became rov. In order to distinguish him from another Rafa who was also a rov he was known as "Rafa from Porto."

Others claim that the name Rafa comes from the German word for raven, the proof being that several members of the family referred to themselves as being "from the ravens" and included a picture of a raven on their family emblem. The raven's relevance to Jews is that it symbolizes constant wandering, like the raven that Noach sent after the flood who found nowhere to rest.

One member of the family wrote his name on his family emblem together with a picture of a raven: Avraham Menachem bar Yaakov Hacohen Rafa del MiPorto. Or, it could be that the name derives from the town of Portobofola, where members of the Rafa family lived.

The family later spread across Europe, North Africa and Eretz Yisroel. If a family gathering is ever held, the number of ideas for explaining the name will probably be close to the number of participants.

Most explanations of family names are far simpler. It is interesting to follow different variations of the same names. Have you heard of the name Pekta (accented on the first syllable)? It has a distinctly Hungarian ring; indeed, a Pekta family is known to have lived in Budapest in 1381. They might have had particularly black hair or dark complexions because the name means black.

Interestingly, black is a name that many Jewish families in different countries have adopted. Possibly it was originally intended as a slur, or to ward off ayin hora, or it might have been conferred upon individuals whose skin or hair coloring stood out from the fairness of the surrounding population. The name Schwartz occurs in Strasbourg (on the border between France and Germany) in 1387 and in Budapest in 1509, while there was a Schwartzschild family in Frankfurt in 1560. Schild means shield, which was a symbol of the nobility. In French this name became Sarceil and the German Schwartzshtein became Chastin. At any rate, Pekta in Hungarian, Schwartzmann in German, Black in English and Shachor in Hebrew, all have the same meaning.

What is the meaning of your family's name? If you're interested in knowing, you can try and discover it by writing to the Bank of Names at the Diaspora Museum, enclosing twenty- five shekels or, for seven shekels (not including the museum's entrance fee) you can go there and look it up yourself.


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