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Deciphering Jewish Gravestones

My 2011 article on Jewish gravestone symbols has long been one of the most popular posts on this web site. In that article, I discuss the symbols found on Jewish gravestones, but not the text. I wrote in the first paragraph that I will likely write about the text at some point in the future. Unfortunately, I waited nine years to do so, but here’s a look at some of the Hebrew text you might find on a Jewish gravestone, and how to decipher it.

We should get some terminology out the way. We’re talking about Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones. In Hebrew we call the grave a קבר kever, and the gravestone itself a מצבה matseva (lit. monument). There isn’t a particularly good Hebrew word for epitaph (the inscription), it’s just הכתובת על המצבה the writing on the gravestone. We do use the word הספד hesped for eulogy, and you can think of some of the inscription to be a eulogy. As this is intended as an introduction to this topic, I’ll simply use the English terms most of the time.

For those who want to print this out, I’ve created a parallel version that will print nicely, and you can download it as a PDF.

As this is a long article with lots of sections, I’ve added a table of contents below that will let you jump to a particular section if you want. The sections generally follow the order that these items would show up in the inscription.

Continue reading Deciphering Jewish Gravestones

Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy

I get asked by a lot of people how to get started in researching their family. This entire site is dedicated to helping people do just that, but after eight years of writing articles and creating resources like my forms, and the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy, it’s still hard for someone completely new to genealogy to know what to do first. My goal here is to guide someone completely new on what to do first, what is useful on my site, as well as what other sites are useful. So if you’re new to genealogy, this will help you get started.

What do you already know?

It seems obvious, but the first thing you need to do is figure out what you know, which will help you figure out what you don’t know. You start this process by asking whoever in your family may know information. Depending on your age, this might be your parents, or grandparents, or whoever are the oldest relatives in the line you are researching. When reaching out to these relatives, you want to not only ask for information, but if they or another relative might have documents that show this information. Always ask if they know of a relative that has already researched the family history. Many families have a cousin that has already done research, and already collected documents and photographs. They may remember a cousin or an uncle that has collected information on the family, and even if that person is not alive now, you may still be able to find information from that relatives’ descendants.

When getting started I always suggest starting with paper forms. There are many great computer programs and web sites for organizing your genealogy, and I do recommend using them but especially when meeting with older relatives, working with a piece of paper is usually easier, and it has the advantage of making it very clear which fields in the form you have not filled in yet (and thus need to ask about/research). On my site you can download several different forms, in English and in Hebrew.

I suggest starting with the Ancestor Form with yourself as the source person at the bottom, and adding in the details on your parents and grandparents. Are you able to fill in all the fields on the form? Do you know where all of your grandparents were born? What their exact birth dates were? Do you have documentation for any of the information, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, ketubahs, passports, etc.?

Once you’ve filled out the form, add Sibling Forms for each of your parents and grandparents, or Family Forms for their parents (which will provide similar information but include the parents, and will show their siblings as children of the parents). As you work your way out further, you’ll see that you probably know less information. That’s okay – this is just the first step in building out your family tree.

When you’ve built out several of these sheets, and you see what information you’re missing, you will have a good idea at least for what information to starting looking for. Continue reading Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy

The challenges of online cemetery research

I’ve fielded many questions about the Okopowa St. Project I announced yesterday. Many of the questions have centered on the need for doing this, considering there is an existing database of photos from this cemetery, with tens of thousands of photos. While the goal of this project is not primarily to document the Okopowa St. Cemetery, but to experiment and learn from the process, I do think addressing the broader issue of doing cemetery research online is worth tackling.

Cemetery research is an important part of any genealogy search, even more so for Jewish genealogy, where Jewish gravestones usually provide the first name of the father of the person buried. That ability to jump a generation back can be very important when researching Jewish families.

There are many resources for doing cemetery research, but on a global scale for Jewish genealogists, there are only a few.

FDJCP Warsaw DatabaseIn the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, the primary resource is the aforementioned database, which is published by the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (FDJCP). This database has 82,325 entries. I’ll get to the photos in this database in a moment, but one downside to this database is a lack of phonetic searching. If you search for ‘Cohen’ you will get no results. Search for Kohen and get results. That’s an obvious one, but considering many of the graves were in Hebrew and transcribed to English, there is no way to know if the spelling guessed by a transcriber was the same one known by a relative.

The largest database of Jewish burials is the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) which has information on over 3 million burials worldwide. JOWBR is an amazing project, but like any volunteer effort is dependent on what its volunteers can produce. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cememtery, it has information on less than 200 burials, and no photographs.

There are two large burial databases that are not specific to Jewish burials. The first one is FindAGrave.com, which was originally an independent project, but is now owned by Ancestry. FindAGrave originally had a focus of documenting celebrity graves, and built a community of people to photograph and manage profiles of buried people. FindAGrave says they have information on 480,840 cemeteries in 240 countries. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, however, they only have profiles of 121 burials, of which only 47 have associated photos. Of those 47 burials, many of the photographs are not actually of the gravestones, but photos of the people themselves that have been submitted by people online.

The second and more recent online database was created by the company BillionGraves. BillionGraves took advantage of the fact that the new smartphones coming into the market had cameras, built-in GPS, and Internet access. That allowed them to write an app that could capture photos of gravestones with their exact location, and upload them straight to their web site without needing to document anything about the graves. The information could be transcribed later on the web site. This allowed volunteers to rapidly build databases of entire cemeteries. Not long ago MyHeritage, the commercial genealogy company, partnered with BillionGraves to use their technology to collect photographs of all the gravestones in Israel (something IGRA also participated in by proving volunteers to take the photographs). BillionGraves flipped FindAGraves’ model on its head, as instead of creating a profile of a person and then adding photographs of their grave (which needed to be located), BillionGraves starts with the photographs and adds the information later. Concerning the Okopowa St. Cemetery, BillionGraves only has 216 burials documented.

I think it’s useful to take a look at the varying quality of photos across these sites, but as you may have figured out by now, that’s almost impossible. JOWBR has no photographs of this cemetery, and FindAGrave has only about 20-30 gravestone photos. What are the chances that among those 20-30 photos, the same graves were documented on BillionGraves? It turns out there is at least one.

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig died about ten years ago. Here are three photos of the her grave site from the three databases that have photos:

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FindAGrave Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on BillionGraves Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FDJCP

Now, this gravestone is not the best example, because unlike many graves in the cemetery, it is not densely covered in text. It’s also relatively recent, so the text is not worn down. What we can see, is that even with that being true, the FindAGrave photo of the gravestone is hard to read, as it’s perhaps taken too far away. I always like a wide shot of a gravestone to give some context, but that shouldn’t be the only photo. There should always be a close-up photo of the text of the stone.

BillionGrave’s photo is actually closer up, and easy to read. Unfortunately, you can’t see the spouse’s information, and you can see there is some text on the surface closer to the photographer, but it’s cut off. It’s worth noting that in the FindAGrave photo this text was covered in fallen leaves, so it can’t be seen at all.

The FDJCP photo is wide like the first one, but still closer and of better quality. It’s still difficult to read the text facing up on the stone, but overall this is probably the best image.

Let’s take another example. In this example, the grave is only on two sites, BillionGraves and the FDJCP site:

Izrael Frenkel BillionGraves Izrael Frenkel FDJCP

At first glance, the BillionGraves photo is superb. It’s well framed, the text is clear, and the lighting is even. Of course, looking at the second image, one realizes that the Polish text in the BillionGraves photo is only one side of the gravestone with text, and there’s a whole different side with text in Hebrew. However, looking at the FDJCP image, the angle for both sides makes it much harder to read. The Polish is readable, but the angle, the uneven lighting on the Hebrew side, and the small size of the Hebrew text relative to the whole image, makes it very difficult to read. Better than not including it at all, but difficult to be sure what you’re reading. The photographers working for the FDJCP may have photographed the text closer up for indexing purposes, but FDJCP only includes one photo, and in this case that makes it hard to read. I wonder what they do in the case where text is on opposite sides of the stone?

When I photograph gravestones, I like to take at least three photographs, and in some case more, per gravestone. These photos include a wide photo showing it in the context of its location, a photo of the entire gravestone without the wider area, and a close-up of the text on the stone. If I need more than one photo to capture all of the text, such as when it is on different sides, I always take extra photos getting all the text. For those who have read my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols, you also know I like to take photographs of the symbols on gravestones. The Okopowa St. Cemetery is particularly rich in these symbols.

For the above gravestone of Izrael Frenkel, for example, I would have taken one wide shot of the entire gravestone, probably showing both sides of text. I might take a closer image showing both sides as well, but I definitely would have taken one straight in front of each side of text, and cropped to include only the text. Probably then I would have four photos of this gravestone.

Let’s take one last example that is only on the FDJCP site:

Gavriel Horowic FDJCP

I have no way of knowing why the above photo is angled the way it is, or why the bottom is completely cut off. Maybe there’s something out of the frame that blocked the photographer from taking a picture straight in front of the gravestone. Maybe the bottom part of the gravestone is blocked by something and photographing the bottom wasn’t possible. While these things are possible, I don’t know if any of those are true since there is no photo to provide context. Even if all of that was true, it seems from what you can see that it should have been possible to get a photo of the text closer up.

So to be clear, while the primary goal of the Okopowa St. Project is more about experimentation and learning than it is about photographing gravestones, it will still be nice to have new high-resolution photos of many of the graves.

טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין

Hebrew Genealogy Forms

As I mentioned in my post Hebrew family and genealogy terms, I have wanted to translate my English genealogy forms into Hebrew for some time. I’m happy to announce the first version of my Hebrew genealogy forms are now available.

There are currently three forms in Hebrew:

טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין
טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין

טֹפֶס אַחַאי
טֹפֶס אַחַאי

טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה
טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה

These forms are designed to work together. You could start, for example, by filling out an Ancestor Form (טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין), and then filling out similar forms for each of the grandparents, using them as source persons at the bottom of the forms. You could also add a sibling form (טֹפֶס אַחַאי) for each of the parents, and then for each sibling on those forms you could add a family form (טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה) showing their spouse and children.

The forms are PDF format and can be printed out and filled out by hand. At a later date I will be updating them to allow them to be filled out on the computer. The reason they do not currently support editing on the computer (like the existing English forms) is that the software I am using to make the forms editable has a problem using the Hebrew font I used in the form. The company that makes the software is aware of the problem and is looking into it. Hopefully they will resolve the issue soon, and I will be able to update the forms at that time.

I welcome comments and constructive criticism in the comments below. There has been some debate with people I showed these forms to as to exactly what words and phrases to use in each case. I’m sure not everyone will agree with what I have chosen, and I’m willing to revise some of the terms in the future if I’m convinced they need to be changed. Once thing that is clear from putting these together, and in putting together my earlier Hebrew family and genealogy terms list, is that not all genealogy terms that exist in English have been set in Hebrew, and it is my hope that by starting the conversation on these terms, and using them in forms like this, we can come to a consensus on what terms to use in Hebrew. So if you might find Hebrew genealogy forms useful, then check out the Hebrew Forms page, and download them.

101 Most Common Surnames in Israel (in 2016)

I’ve been posting the 101 most common Israeli given names for both boys and girls for the last few years, as the data has been released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Recently the data for 2016 was released, and I posted the lists for girls and boys. While going through the data, however, I noticed something I had not noticed in previous years – a link to information on Israeli surnames.

The data consists of over 50,000 surnames, and the number of people with that name in Israel. The smallest number of people with a name is 9, so the least common surnames do not appear (including mine – I guess I need a few more kids to break through, or get my cousins to make aliyah). In theory this data is current as of 2016, although I suspect the top 101 names out of over 50,000 probably don’t change significantly from year to year.

Something significant worth noting is that the list is only in Hebrew, and like any other government data, has no nikudot (diacritical marks used as vowels in Hebrew), so many times names that would be considered different in English are spelled the same in Hebrew.

Sometimes those names have a common origin, such as פלד which could be Feld or Peled. Peled is actually a Hebraization of Feld, so that’s not such a big deal, although many times changes in spelling are useful in genealogy research in detecting different branches of the same family. Sometimes the same family uses different spellings, but many times different families used the same spelling for many years, and this merging of names can be frustrating when researching one’s family history. Consider the most common name כהן which in English could be spelled Cohen, Kohen, Cohain, Cohn, Kohn, Cahan, etc.

When I publish my lists of given names, I add nikudot to the names, since even those fluent in Hebrew might not be able to decipher the name if they’re not familiar with it. Reading without nikudot requires some familiarity with the words you’re reading. If the name is not familiar, it’s not possible in some cases to figure it out. Some given names also use the same spelling, such as אורי which can be Uri or Ori. The problem is significantly worse for surnames, however, where many more variations exist.

As officially names in Israel are written without nikudot, it creates a genealogical problem that documents with names don’t actually reflect what a person called themselves. If you are researching someone whose name is recorded as אורי פלד, is their name Ori Peled, Uri Feld, Ori Feld, or Uri Peled? That’s not a problem I can solve, but what I’ve done with the following list of the 101 most common Jewish Israeli surnames is added nikudot for one common pronunciation, added a few possible English spellings, and linked to all the surname articles at Beit Hatfutsot (in English this was formerly called the Diaspora Museum, but is now called the Museum of the Jewish People) that are for names that use the Hebrew spelling, as well as the English versions of those articles.
Continue reading 101 Most Common Surnames in Israel (in 2016)