08 February 2017


Rumors of Jewishness?  Maybe you're pretty sure this cannot be true because you were not raised in Judaism and you don't know of a living relative who is. 

Some time ago I met a woman who told me a heartbreaking story.  She had become ill.  She had two children.  Her marriage wasn't working out.  She was forced to put her children in foster care.  She was telling me this because she wanted me to know that she had been diagnosed and if she ever collapsed onto the floor, I should not hesitate to call 911.  She said if she collapsed there was a very limited period of time in which she could be saved.  Eventually, her children were adopted.  She felt bad about this but had no choice. Her illness had remained both documented and a mystery for two long for her to get well enough to care for them.  She had endured a lot of medical tests, a lot of questions, long term hospitalization and nursing care.  And she was in her twenties!   She explained to me that she had been raised Presbyterian.  Her aunt was a major donor to a wealthy Presbyterian church.  It wasn't until she was near death that this aunt showed up at the hospital and revealed to the doctors that actually their family was Jewish.  This was the clue that lead them to a diagnosis.  She could have died!  When I looked at this women I never thought, "Oh she looks Jewish!"

There is a special kind of genealogy myopia that happens when an American is looking to prove or disprove rumors of Jewishness in the family.  That is that Americans tend to think that Jews have "Jewish surnames."  That they mean is commonly known names, like Cohen or Levi, or the German Jewish names, like Rothschild!  But, in fact, Jewish people have changed their names to fit the culture they are living in, or shortened them, or made them into an English equivalent, like an associate I had whose family turned Zukor to Sugar.

So don't get hung up on the surname.  Or the given name.

As for given names, as I understand it, observant Jews have their special Jewish names, but their legal names may or may not seem Jewish.  Again we need to be careful not to assume that names like Rebecca or Noah, mean the person is Jewish.  In fact, names that appear in the Bible - New and Old Testament - have long been used by Christians and Jews alike.  For instance, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, are names rooted in Hebrew.   Any name of an apostle of Jesus Christ, including John and Phillip and Peter, could be Jewish. 

At one point I was researching a family in the south who seemed to have one possibly given name that could be Jewish in every family.  There was a Sarah among women called Dixie on the census.  They had Jewish rumors, but I went back generations and never found anyone buried in a Jewish cemetery, or any other evidence.  Some of the surnames in this family fit into some of those considered to be Melungion.  Some of the given names were those of Greek or Roman gods.  Of course, there's the question of How Jewish?  Seems to me that for some people, ten generations ago is as good as now, for others, not so much.

There are families who kept their conversions a secret, or who are many generations away from a single, clearly Jewish ancestor.  So what a researcher needs to do is start looking at burials.  There used to be rather strict rules about who gets buried in a cemetery, and looking at burials, as well as death certificates, is a good clue.  You might want to look at obituaries.  Mention of a temple or rabbi officiating is a clue.  Likewise, marriages, and birth records reveal those who were recognized to be Jewish at birth or united in marriage in Jewish tradition.  There are also so many converts to Judaism,  Ivanka Trump being a noteworthy individual who did so before marrying her husband, Jared Kushner.  As I understand it, in America there are a great many marriages between Jewish and Not Jewish individuals.

Today there are many secular or non-practicing Jews, people who do not belong to a temple, follow special dietary laws, or respect the tradition of Sabbath.  So DNA testing may help you get to meet some Jewish relations, or you may just have to realize that being Jewish is also sometimes a choice.

Check with your local Jewish Genealogy Society for information that may be more particular to your quest!

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