Monthly Archives: May 2011

Genealogy Basics: Up, Down and Sideways

Genealogy humor: “Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress”. While amusing, it also points to an interesting issue faced by many people interested in genealogy.

Many people who research their family are very focused on going back as far as they can. Perhaps the thought is that if you go back far enough you’re bound to find someone famous (or infamous) you’re related to, some royal blood, family that lived in a famous town, or lived through famous events in history.

There are actually a few different directions you can research your family. You can, as mentioned, research up your tree. You can also research down your tree, taking your oldest known ancestor in one line and researching all of their children, grandchildren, etc. (not just the line that leads to you). You can also research sideways, researching collateral ancestors, like the siblings and spouses of your known ancestors. Each of these techniques is useful, and indeed you will likely need to try all of them when doing your research if you want to be successful.

Let me give a good example of why researching your non-direct lines is important. Let’s say you’ve tracked back to your great-grandfather who lived in Poland or Russia in the 19th century before moving to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. That fits the profile of a large percentage of American Jews. Now if you’ve been able to find out about the great-grandfather but haven’t been able to get back further than that, we call that a brick-wall.

Maybe you only have information on your great-grandfather from after he arrived in the US, and you haven’t been able to find the name of the town where he was born in Poland.

Maybe you know which town he was from, but it’s a large city and he has a common last name, which makes research nearly impossible.

In this case you’ve researched up your tree to your great-grandfather. The next step is to research down your tree from your great-grandfather to find all of his descendants, your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Even if your goal wasn’t to document these branches of your family, you need to realize that just like you have certain information on your family and where they came from, your extended family likely has different information, some small piece which might help you in your search. Mapping out all of the descendants of your most-distant-known-ancestor can frequently lead you to additional information about that ancestor.

Section of birth record of my grandfather’s
aunt, showing the birthplace of her father,
my great-great-grandfather – Kanczuga.

In my own family research I was looking for records in the wrong town for many years because that’s where my grandfather said our family was from originally. It was partially true. His siblings had been born in that town, as had some of his father’s siblings. It was, in fact, one of his father’s siblings’ records which led me to the town my gg-grandfather was from originally. If I had only been searching directly up my tree, I would never have discovered this fact, since my great-grandfather’s birth record (which took much longer to find in any case) did not name the town where his father was born. Even though it might seem a waste to look for records on all the siblings of the people whom you are primarily searching for (you can think of this as searching sideways), remember that they share the same parents and grandparents, and thus any information you find will help your search.

An important point is that it turns out that cousins of mine knew the town my gg-grandfather was born in long before I discovered it. Had I been in touch with these distant cousins earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pointless research.

Another way to search sideways is to contact cousins that you may not have figured out quite where they fit in your tree. In the case above, it was actually a cousin whom I knew was related, but wasn’t sure how they were related. If I had in fact pursued the question of how we were related and asked where their branch was from, it would have led me straight to the town from which my branch also originated.

Also, if you find references to relatives in family letters and don’t think it’s worth figuring out who those distant relatives mentioned are, think again. If you’ve hit a brick wall, those distant cousins, or their descendants, may be the ones that can help you knock down that wall.

Those distant relatives may also have photographs of your common ancestors. Another example from my own family concerns family photographs. I received portrait photographs of ancestors of mine, but without labels showing me who they were. After contacting a distant cousin and having him send me family photographs in his possession for me to copy, I found other copies of the same portraits with the names labeled on the back. They were, in fact, my ggg-grandparents, the in-laws of the gg-grandfather mentioned above. Many years later, someone contacted me through the JewishGen Family Finder (read my earlier article on JGFF if you’re not familiar with this amazing resource for Jewish researchers) and he turned out to be a 4th cousin of mine, descended from the same ggg-grandparents. Now, because I had received the portraits, and another cousin had labeled alternate versions of the same pictures, and this cousin from the other side of my family (he was a descendant of the sister of my gg-grandmother) had found me through JGFF, he now had photographs of his ggg-grandparents. This is why it’s so important to seek out your distant cousins, because you never know who has what information (or what photo).

So when searching for your relatives, even your direct ancestors, always remember to look for other descendants, some of which may know much more (sometimes just that one tiny important detail more) about your ancestors than you. Feel free to share your stories on finding information from distant cousins in the comments.

Hebrew Ethical Wills from JPS 70% off – for three days

I have been meaning to write something about the topic of Ethical Wills, a very fascinating topic in my opinion. Ethical Wills have a long tradition in the Jewish community, and essentially outline one’s moral and ethic code for your children and other descendants (separate from a monetary will). The first ethical will might, ironically, be the same chapter in Genesis that I described in my last article where Jacob was blessing his sons and compared some of them to various animals. Those comparisons were in the context of what today we would probably consider an ethical will (although I don’t suggest comparing your children to animals in your will).

In any case, I haven’t had time to write about this topic yet, but I just saw that JPS is having an overstock sale for the next three days, and that their important work Hebrew Ethical Wills is one of the books that is on sale for 70% off. That puts the cost at $10.50 for a new copy from the publisher. I think that’s a pretty good deal for an important work on this topic. I’ve embedded the discount code into the link so it should get added automatically, but if for some reason it doesn’t show up the code is OS2011 and just add it once you add the book to your shopping cart. If you want to see the other books on sale, go to the sale page. Note that the sale ends in three days on May 20, 2011. Presumably that’s the end of the day Eastern time in the US, since JPS is based in Philadelphia, PA. The book itself contains excerpts of various forms of ethical wills that date back almost a millennium, including texts by Nachmanides (Ramban), Maimonides (Rambam) and the Vilna Gaon, but also lesser-known individuals as well. It is certainly interesting that the moral code shown in these documents over hundreds of years is essentially very similar, as they are derived from the same religious and historical Jewish sources. If one wanted to show that religion can dictate morality, then these documents would certainly make a very good case-study.

I’ll warn you that the book is a facsimile edition of a book originally published in 1926. As such is it not the easiest book to read. A new introduction was written in 1976, and some new material including excerpts of Gluckl of Hameln were added in 2006 to add a female perspective to what is otherwise all writings by male authors. If you follow the link to the book on Amazon (in a box to the left) you can use their ‘Look Inside’ feature to see what the book looks like, or if you prefer there is a Google Preview of the book as well on the JPS page on the book. Of course, if you’re reading this post after May 20, 2011, then the Amazon link is probably your best bet to find a deal on the book.

[The sale is now over, but you can get it from JPS or from Amazon if you’re interested in reading it.]

Animals and Name Pairs in Jewish Given Names

This article is a brief look at two common historic Jewish naming patterns, and how they intersect. The first naming pattern is the use of animal names from Hebrew and/or Yiddish. The second pattern is giving two related names to a child.

Illustration from

In some cases when given two names the names constituted a shem kodesh (holy name, used in religious functions) and a kinui (secular name, used in the world at large). When doing genealogical research on your family, you may sometimes run across the shem kodesh (i.e. on an all-Hebrew gravestone) and at another time run into the person’s kinui (i.e. in a newspaper article) and not realize that they are in fact the same person. Some records will, if you’re lucky, record the both names as first and middle names for a person, but sometimes there is only one. Knowing how names are sometimes paired together can help you connect the dots in your research. Another important point is that if you do run across a document that lists both a first and middle name for a Jewish ancestor, they might have only publicly been know by the middle name (which could have been their kinui). Thus if you find a reference to someone whose first name doesn’t match the person you’re looking for, but their middle name does, then you should be taking a closer look at that reference to see if it’s the same person.

Animal associations with Jewish given names probably originate with the blessings given in the Bible by Jacob to his sons before he died. While some sons were associated with other things in the blessings (such as the seashore), five were given animal associations. Let’s stop for a moment to look at the names and their associated animals as they show up in naming patterns even today. These are all listed in Chapter 49 of Genesis:

Yehuda (Judah) Lion Judah is a lion’s whelp
Issachar Donkey Issachar is a large-boned ass
Dan Snake Dan shall be a serpent in the way
Naftali Deer “Naftali is a hind (female deer) let loose”
Binyamin (Benjamin) Wolf Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth

* Bible quotes from the JPS 1917 Edition online edition from Mechon Mamre

Now, it’s not surprising that Dan and Issachar do not have naming patterns that follow the animals they are associated with, as no one wants to name their child after a snake or a donkey. However, the remaining three are common name associations. Some variations:

Yehuda Aryeh/Leib/Leyb/Loeb (Aryeh is Hebrew and Leib is Yiddish for lion)
Naftali Hirsch/Tzvi (Hirsch is Yiddish and Tzvi Hebrew for deer )
Binyamin Ze’ev/Wolf/Wulf/Volf (Ze’ev is Hebrew and Volf is Yiddish for wolf)

Other animal name pairings exist that do not come directly from the bible. Some common examples include:

Aryeh Leib/Leyb/Loeb (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of lion)
Ze’ev Wolf (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of wolf)
Dov Ber (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of bear)
Tziporah Feiga (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of bird, a woman’s name)
Tzvi Hirsch (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of deer or gazelle)

In addition to these name pairings, there are also other animal names that are used, which include:

Ayelet/Ayala (modern female names based on Hebrew word for a deer)
Deborah (Hebrew for bee)
Rachel (Hebrew for young lamb)
Yael (modern female name based on Hebrew word for an ibex)
Yonah (Hebrew for dove, generally a male name)

It’s also worth noting that many name pairs existed that had nothing to do with animals. Some examples include:

Asher Anshel (Anshel is Yiddish form of Asher, derived from Hebrew word for happy and blessed)
Esther Malka (Queen Esther, Malka being the Hebrew word for a queen)
Menachem Mendel (Hebrew and Yiddish words meaning comfort)
Shlomo Zalman (Zalman is Yiddish form of Shlomo, derived from Hebrew word for peace, Shalom)

You might recognize that the name pair Menachem Mendel is still commonly used among Lubavitcher chassidim, as that was the name of the seventh (and as of now, last) Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994.

Name on Polish birth certificate from 1888

Of course, just because you find one side of these pairs does not mean the other side will be the same. This is not a rule, just a common pattern. In my own tree there is a Binyamin Mendel, for example, which in many references shows up as just Mendel. If you only used the above you might think his first name was Menachem, which would be wrong. If you only knew his first name was Binyamin you might thing his kinui was Wolf, but you would also be wrong. At the very least recognize when you hear a name of someone you are researching, especially when used in a casual framework, that the name may legally have been their middle name and not their first name.