Starting your journey into researching your Jewish ancestors is just like searching any ancestor…you start with what you know. The only problem is that sometimes you have only a name. Maybe that name is in its original form, but more than likely it has changed a few times over the years. How in the world do you figure out what a name should (or shouldn’t) be?!
Let’s go back with starting with what you already know. Maybe you have a name of some siblings, but have no idea what their parents and/or grandparents names might be. The good news is that like other ethnic naming patterns, Jewish names usually followed the same sequence. When naming their sons, parents usually named the first son after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father, and so on. The same pattern was used when naming daughters; the first daughter was named after the father’s mother, the second after the mother’s mother, and so on. While not always a perfect system, it may give you something to go on when trying to find the names of grandparents.
When looking at naming patterns there is an important pattern to keep in mind. Ashkenazi Jews would name their children after a recently deceased ancestor. Sephardic Jews did just the opposite. They would name their children after a living ancestor.
Another stumbling block when it comes to Jewish names, is the fact that surnames were not used until the 1800s! This makes things a bit tricky. Before the 1800s, Jewish names usually consisted of their given name and their father’s name. While this may help you to figure out what someone’s father’s name is, it’s not very useful when trying to decided if one person is your ancestor over another. When surnames were adopted, there was usually a reason for the choice. Some surnames were assigned by the government. Other surnames represented a particular person’s occupation or the town where they originated. One thing to keep in mind, is that as Jews moved around to different countries, the spelling and pronunciation tended to match their new home. It was one way of acclimating to their new surroundings.
The D-M Soundex
If all else fails, there is one more trick you can use. The Daitch-Mokotoff (D-M) Soundex was developed to help in this situation. Jewish genealogists developed algorithms to address the unique letter/language combination there were common to Jewish naming patterns. Most Jewish specific genealogy website, such as https://www.jewishgen.org/ have this Soundex on their site. The Soundex will give you examples of whatever the current name you have might have been.
Now that you have some names, its time to starting find some people! Check back next Monday for tips on researching Jewish immigration records!