Tag Archives: jewish genealogy

New Memorial Plaque Database

In the the run up to next week’s IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Boston, expect various groups to be releasing new databases to help Jewish genealogists. One new database that was just released is JewishGen’s Memorial Plaque Database. Organized by Nolan Altman, the database is an attempt to gather all the information on memorial plaques found in synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Many synagogues plague a plaque on their wall for each member who dies, to record their yahrzeit date (the day a family member says kaddish for them). These plaques contain very important information for Jewish genealogists, including the person’s name (in the US usually in English and Hebrew), and in most cases the name of the father of the deceased (at least in Hebrew).

When synagogues close, these plaques with their unique information are frequently thrown out, although sometimes are put up in other synagogues or institutes. Collecting the information from these plaques now is a great effort, and something whose time has come. There has been discussion for years about collecting this information from various people involved in Jewish genealogy, so kudos to JewishGen for taking up the gauntlet and getting the project started.

Section of a memorial wall from Lowell, MA

For the launch of the database, there are nearly 30,000 names listed. These come from the US, Israel and Canada. About half of the names collected so far come from the Boston area, whose local Jewish genealogy group made an effort to collect the names in the run up to the conference, and collected 16,000 names from 30 different institutions.

If you’re interested in photographing and indexing the memorial plaques in your local synagogue, you can do so and contribute the data to this effort. Synagogues who want to contribute this information to the database can add information about their synagogue to the memorial plaque web site, in order to get traffic from those people searching for family members.

My only concern with the database right now is that the images they provide are not big enough to read the information directly from the photographs. Many times relatives are grouped together in these memorial walls, and it would be useful to see the images in higher resolution so one could read all the plaques and see who is located nearby on the wall. Hopefully this can be remedied in the future.

For more information, go to the web site, or contact the project coordinator, Nolan Altman.

The Ring of Trust

Illustration from 1891 article describing Jewish wedding in Pennsylvania

For those who have never looked at my bio on the right side of this page, my last name is Trauring. I’ve written a bit about the name change from Traurig (German for ‘sad’) to Trauring (German for ‘wedding ring’). While Trauring is a fairly unique name (show me a Trauring and it’s 99% likely I’ll show you how they’re related to me), it has an interesting quirk in doing online research. When researching online databases of newspapers, the name Trauring for some reason is commonly confused with the word Training. Depending on the quality of the scanned newspapers, the the quality of the optical-character-recognition (OCR) done on the scans, you’d be amazed how many hits are for the word Training and how few are for Trauring.

While skimming my Google+ feed recently, I came across an article by Kenneth Marks about the newspaper search site Elephind. Elephind is a newspaper search aggregator created by digital library developer DL Consulting in New Zealand. It provides a single search interface to multiple newspaper search sites, including the US Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site, and Australia’s Trove site. Currently the site claims access to 1,034 newspaper titles (and 1,099,175 newspaper issues). Most of those newspapers come from the two sites already mentioned (845 from Chronicling America and 111 from Trove), with other smaller local newspaper search sites included from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

One of the annoying things about Chronicling America is that the search results don’t show the context of the hit, but rather just show a thumbnail of the page. Combine that with the unfortunately low level of OCR in the Chronicling America database, you spend a lot of time looking through false hits. For example, here is a search on Chronicling America for ‘trauring’:

Chronicling America search results for ‘trauring’ (Click to Enlarge)

You might notice the red highlighting which is supposed to show where the hit occurs on the page, but I defy you to actually read any of that text. In order to figure out the context you need to click on the image and load the full version of the page and find the text on the page. With 2,060 results, you can imagine how much time it would take to go through all those pages.

Now let’s take a look at the Elephind results:

Elephind search results for Chronicling America for ‘trauring’ (Click to Enlarge)

The search was specifically restricted to Chronicling America, to try to get the same results. Oddly, instead of 2,060 results there are only two. If you take a close look at both sets of results you’ll notice that the two results are the same as the first two results on the Chronicling America site, although in reverse order. You’ll also notice that the first result on the Elephind site illustrates the general problem with searching OCRed databases for the name Trauring:

.. t ilio lowest possible cost. IT is today, with a fhcnltv of 83. a boarding patronage of 308, a student body of -138, and a plant worth $160,000, The Leading Trauring School for Girl;-, in Virginia. PAYS all charges for the y? ar, Including Tnblo Board, Room, Lights, 8leam Meat, I .au miry, Medie.il Atton tentiorr, Physical Culture and Tiiltlon …

Besides the general incomprehensibility of the text, you’ll notice the phrase ‘The Leading Trauring School for Girl’ is clearly supposed to have the word Training, not Trauring. Of course, the important thing to notice here is that the user interface actually does show you the context. I don’t need to load the image and look, I can immediately dismiss the search result, which is very welcome. Why there are only two results is a mystery, however.

Page found in The Evening Herald (click to load on Chronicling America)

The text recognition on the second result (from The Evening Herald of Shenandoah, PA) is a bit more readable, and while the story is not about my family, it is interesting in that it mentions Trauring in the following context:

After pronouncing two benedictions the Rabbi took in his hand the wedding ring, saying, as the ring was one entire mass, not separated but continuous, so their lives in the future should be one–a combination of love and faithfulness and unity. The ring is called in German “trauring,”–trau meaning trust, it ought to remind them that it was the ring of trust.

A very interesting interpretation of the word trauring, giving it more meaning that the simple definition ‘wedding ring’. The story is something very common in newspapers of the day (this article is from May 28, 1891), chronicling the big local social events, this one being a Jewish wedding in Shenandoah, PA, described as “one of the most brilliant affairs of the kind ever celebrated in this section of the country”. This wedding, between Lena Friedman and Simon Yedinsky, is described in great detail, has two illustrations, and even lists which guests gave which gifts. From a genealogical point of view these kinds of articles are sometimes goldmines. In my own research I’ve come across wedding descriptions that listed many relatives as guests, sometimes specifying them as such, and sometimes not, but all the information is useful.

Illustration from 1891 article describing Jewish wedding in Pennsylvania

Anyone have a good story on the meaning of their name? Share your story in the comments.

Racism and Commonality as Reasons for Name Changes

Back in May 2011 I discussed a book Petitions for Name Changes in New York City 1848-1899 as part of a broader article on the myth of Ellis Island name changes. The book transcribes 890 name change petitions that were made in New York City in the 52 years between 1848 and 1899. In my original article, I discuss many of the reasons people changed their names. In this post I want to go back to take a look from a slightly different perspective.

That names changed due to racism and antisemitism is not hard to show. While not every name change says it explicitly, without a doubt many of the name changes that are for ‘pecuniary benefit’ or similar reasons are due to the petitioners believing (perhaps rightly for the time) that their names were too ethnic sounding to allow them to flourish without discrimination.

Some, however, were explicit. Indeed, the first two petitions listed in the book are:

Petition (11 July 1892) of William Abraham, aged over 21, residing at 323 E. 3rd St., unmarried. His father, Morris Rogozinski, came to the U.S. in 1866 from Russia and assumed the name Abraham. Petitioner’s father is dead. His mother’s name is Sarah. He states that as the name Rogozinski and Abraham are of Semitic origin, it will be to his material and pecuniary advantage to bear a name that will not be so distinctive. He wishes to assume legally the name William Abraham Rodgers.

Petition (25 Mar. 1891) of Joseph Abrahamson, age 21 on 2 Nov. 1890, residing at 2093 Third Ave. He was employed about 8 years by one Russak, now deceased, who had 3 other Josephs in his employ and called the petitioner Edson. The petitioner has become a Christian and is about to marry an Episcopalian young lady. He and his bride desire that ‘all semblance of a Jewish surname shall be removed from the petitioner.’ He wishes to assume legally the name Joseph Abraham Edson.

Looking at patterns in the names, however, we can learn some more. For example, which names were changed the most?

It may not surprise anyone to know that the most commonly changed name is also the most common name in the United States, Smith. Consider for a moment over a hundred years ago how people found each other. New York City had city directories, pre-cursors to phone books, which listed people by name – but what happened when there were 50 other John Smiths? What if 10 of those John Smiths were in the same business as you? It’s not hard to see why someone with the name Smith might want to change their name to something more unique. According to the 2000 US Census, there were 2,376,206 people in the US with the last name Smith. I don’t know how many people in the US, or even just New York City, had the name Smith in the years covered in this book, but there is no question even then it was a very common name. Take a look at the following chart that looks at the name changes from Smith, and the reasons given for each change:

Name changes from Smith, with reasons. (Click to enlarge)

Note that more than half of the petitions were due to commonality of the name, and even more were probably for that reason (although not explicitly shown in the petitions). The next most often petitioned names, however, were not among the most common US surnames, but rather of the most obviously Jewish surnames – Levy and Cohen. I’ve created charts of the name changes from Levy and Cohen (with Cohn) that illustrate the changes made, and why the changes were made:

Name changes from Levy, with reasons. (Click to enlarge)

Among the people who changed their names from Levy, while none explicitly point out the removal of ‘Semitic origin’ like the example above, it is implicit in almost all of them (one says it is because the name is too common).

Name change from Cohen and Cohn, with reasons. (Click to enlarge)

In the changes from Cohen and Cohn, there is a similar implicit pattern. Only two petitions list commonality as a reason (the Keene and Spahn petitions). Compare that to Smith where more than half of the name changes are attributed to the commonness of the name.

Clearly something else is going on that causes these name changes to occur, and if we can’t know that the names changed for the reasons in the first two petitions from the book, we can certainly infer that the reasons are fairly similar. The desire to ‘not be so distinctive’ was strong among many immigrants, and changing ones name to fit in better was an easy way to remove distinctiveness.

The reasons behind these name changes are very different from some of the other reasons I’ve discussed in the past, such as children having to take their mother’s surnames because it was difficult for Jews to be civilly married in places like Austria in the 19th century. While the circumstances are very different, it’s no less complicated for family members try to research their family when names change. Moreover, the circumstances, while different, still emanate from racism. In the case of mother’s surnames, discrimination against Jewish families in the civil registration process, and in the case of these NYC name changes, discrimination that causes the petitioners to want to change their surnames to fit in better.

Interestingly, the fact that many Jews did not have surnames until just over 200 years ago probably contributes to the lack of commonness as a reason for changing one’s surname. Other reasons are more common, however, such as changing a name that was derogatory (assigned by antisemitic bureaucrats) when possible, changing from a mother’s surname to a father’s surname (common when coming to the US where name changes were easier), and changes to try to prevent discrimination. Name changes of Jewish immigrants to Israel is a whole different topic, but encompassed a whole different set of reasons, including a desire to Hebraize one’s surname – in some cases this was not a choice but a requirement if the person worked in the government or military in Israel.

What interesting name change stories do you have in your family?