If you’re curious about your family history, you’re certainly in the right place! The Rabbi Richard B. Safran Library can help you start your research, inspire you to keep looking, and even help you share your story. Find our catalog of resources.
To start, there is no better guide than the classic, From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History by Arthur Kurzweil. Miriam Weiner is another well-known author and researcher. We have her Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy as well as Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova and Jewish Roots in Poland. For something directed at a younger audience, we have the official Ellis Island handbook, Do People Grow on Family Trees? by Ira Wolfman. And if the potential of DNA testing interests you, you might want to check out Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, by Harry Ostrer.
Just researching your name can prove fascinating, and we have several titles to help with that as well. A personal favorite is Benzion Kaganoff’s Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History. Although there is a dictionary included, a significant part of the book includes stories of the origins of Jewish names which are quite interesting. Jewish Personal Names, by Shmuel Gorr, and Alexander Beider’s Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire are also useful.
David Laskin’s The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century is one of the best examples of what can be found with persistent research. This is a wonderfully written account of a history that is quite common among American Jewish families. Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman is another well-written quest for a family story based on letters discovered by the author. This one is more of a mystery than David Laskin’s book, as the reader is kept wondering what happened to the girl throughout the book. Like Family and several other titles, the focus is on victims of the Holocaust, but Wildman’s book stands out by revealing the picture through the eyes of the survivors in this country. Other adult family histories in our collection include Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, and Alan Weisman’s An Echo in My Blood: The Search for My Family’s Past.
Sharing Your Stories
If you are ready to share your stories, particularly with the younger generation, we have several examples in our picture book collection that are worth checking out. Two favorites by Patricia Polacco – The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup – are both beautiful family histories in their own way, traced through heirlooms passed down through generations. Grandma Esther Remembers, by Ann Morris, and Under the Sabbath Lamp, by Michael Herman, are also excellent family stories.
Finally, remember that there are resources within our congregation that might be of help. Irv Adler shared his family history presentation in June on Genealogy and the Holocaust - Tracing Family: Lost and Found. Our librarian, Betsy Gephart, has written numerous family history books for her daughters and would be happy to help you get started in that area.
Of course, our very own public library is known throughout the world for its Family History collection. Little-known within the collection, but extremely valuable, is their significant collection of Yizkor, or Memorial Books. Below are links to their resources, as well as other Jewish Family History Resources that may be useful.