Jewish History

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Ashkenazi Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur by Maurice Gottlieb, 1878.

Effective research requires understanding historical events that affected your family and the records about them. Learning about governments, laws, wars, migrations, and religious and economic trends helps you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. These events may have led to the creation of records about your family, such as taxation and military documents.

Your ancestors will become more interesting to you if you also use histories to learn about the events that were of interest to them or that they may have been involved in. For example, by using a history you might learn about the events that occurred in the year your great-grandparents were married.

Since Roman times Jews were found in many cities throughout the Mediterranean region. After the fall of Jerusalem in 66 c.e., Jews were scattered even wider. This scattering of the Jews is called the Diaspora, which means dispersion in Greek. The Jews that settled in Spain [Sepharad in Hebrew] came to be called the Sephardim or Sephardic Jews. They lived among the Islamic Moors and the Catholic Spanish. This influenced their language and culture. These Jews came to speak a language related to Spanish called Ladino.

Other Jews migrated north from Italy and by medieval times were settled among the Germanic peoples of central Europe. These Jews came to known as the Ashkenazim or Ashkenazic (Ashkenaz means German in Hebrew) Jews. The language that developed among them was closely related to German and called Yiddish.

Some key dates and events in Jewish history of interest to the genealogist are:

1492 Jews are either forcibly converted or expelled from Sardinia, Sicily, and Spain. They settle in the Netherlands, France, Italy, the Balkans, and North Africa. Later many European Jews flee to Poland, which has become far more tolerant of religious diversity than other nations. After the expulsion of Spanish Jewry and the continued persecution of Jews in western Europe, Poland and Lithuania (united into one kingdom in 1569) become the new cultural center of Jewish life in Europe. The Jewish population grows and flourishes in Poland. In some cities Jews constitute over 50% of the population.

1654 The first Jewish settlement in North America is established at New Amsterdam (New York).

1784 Austria introduces official registration of births, marriages, and deaths by Catholic clergy. Jews are recorded in Catholic registers and are required to adopt fixed surnames.

1791 French Jews are granted full rights and declared citizens. Russia establishes the Pale of Jewish settlement, an area of western Russia where Jews were permitted to live. The borders of the Pale are modified from time to time.

1804 In his "Statute Concerning the Organization of the Jews" Russian czar Alexander I expresses the dual policy of forced assimilation and expulsion from villages. The goal is to draw Jews into the general stream of Russian economic and cultural life. Jewish residence in villages is prohibited, and expulsions begin soon afterward.

1808 The Duchy of Warsaw introduces civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths under Catholic supervision. Jews are recorded.

1813 Prussian law requires Jews to take fixed surnames.

1826 The Polish government requires all religions to keep their own registers of births, marriages, and deaths.

1827 Reinterpretation of Russia’s Conscrip-tion Law mandates 31 years of military service for Jews, beginning at age 12, in another effort to assimilate the Jews.

1835 A strongly enforced Russian law requires Jews to take fixed surnames and register with the Crown Rabbinate.

1848 Revolutions and riots in Central Europe, especially Germany, spur increased Jewish immigration to America.

1861 Russian laws free the serfs. Russian Jews are gradually allowed to settle in villages outside the Pale.

1867 The Jews of Austria and Hungary receive full civil rights.

1873 Reform Judaism in the U.S. establishes the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

1881 The "May Laws" in Russia result in Jews being forced to live only in the Pale of Settlement. These restrictions and the pogroms (organized massacres of innocent people) that spread throughout the southwestern region in Eastern Europe mark the start of mass migrations of eastern European Jews.

1890 The Jews of Great Britain receive full civil rights.

1908 The Jews of the Ottoman Empire receive full civil rights.

1917 As a result of the Russian Revolution, Soviet Jews receive full civil rights

1918 The end of WWI. European borders are redrawn, and many Jews now live in the new Republic of Poland.

1939–1945 World War II and the Jewish Holocaust occurs.

1948 The State of Israel is proclaimed. Jews begin immigrating to Israel.

The Family History Library and many other public and private libraries have many books on Jewish history or histories that include information about the Jews. Some examples are:

  • Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Atlas of Jewish History. London: Routledge, c1994. (FHL book 296 C661a.)
  • Patai, Raphael, et. al. The Vanished Worlds of Jewry. New York: MacMillan, 1980. (FHL book 296 P27v.)
  • Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1978. (FHL book 296 P849w.)

Local Histories[edit | edit source]

Some of the most valuable sources for Jewish family history research are local histories. Even if these books do not discuss your ancestors, information on other relatives may be included that will provide important clues for locating your ancestors. A local history may also give you ideas of other records to search. In addition, local histories should be studied and appreciated for the background information they can provide about your family’s life-style and the community and environment your family lived in.

General local histories describe the settlement of the area, churches, schools, and local economy and may include information about the local Jewish community. Other histories focus specifically on the Jewish community and give additional information about the founding of synagogues, yeshivas (an academy of Jewish learning and scholarship), and businesses, including maps and photographs. Yizkor books, which are discussed in "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)" in this outline, also contain informa-tion about the history of Jewish communities. Examples of some local Jewish histories include:

Berkley, George E. Vienna and Its Jews, The Tragedy of Success, 1880s–1980s. Cambridge, MA: Abt Books, 1988. (FHL book 943.613/W1 F2b.)

Emmanuel, Isaac S. and Suzanne A. History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles. 2 vols. Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1970. (FHL book 972.986 F2e.)

Gans, Mozes Heiman. Memorbook, History of Dutch Jewry from the Renaissance to 1940: with 1100 Illustrations. Baarn: Bosch & Keuning, 1977. (FHL book 949.2 F2g.)

Kayserlin, Meyer. Historia dos Judeus em Portugal (History of the Jews in Portugal). São Paulo: Livraria Pioneira Editora, 1971. (FHL book 946.9 F2k.)

Wachstein, Bernhard. Urkunden und Akten zur Geschichte der Juden in Eisenstadt und den Siebengemeinden (Records and Documents on the History of the Jews in Eisenstadt [Austria] and the Seven Congregations). Wien: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1926. (FHL book 943.615/E1 B4w Vol. 2.)

Chronology[edit | edit source]

In the Hebrew calendar the years are counted from the creation of the world, which is considered to have taken place 5760 years ago as of the year 2000. Days are reckoned from evening to evening. The Jewish civil year begins in September or October with the festival of Rosh Hashanah (the first day of Tishri).  A calendar showing both American days / holidays and Hebrew days / holidays is prepared by Jews for Jesus -- They presently have a mailing address of 60 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA 94102-5895.

The Hebrew calendar is based on 12 or sometimes 13 lunar months that adjust to the solar year. The 12 months are Tishri, Kheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Elul. The 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years in every 19-year cycle have a 13th month. This extra month of 30 days, Adar II, is added after Adar.

The months and years of the Hebrew calendar do not correspond with the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar in common use in the world today. The Gregorian calendar is based on the birth of Jesus Christ and uses the abbreviations a.d. (year of the Lord) and b.c. (before Christ). When Jews date events in accordance with the Gregorian calendar they use c.e. (common era) and b.c.e. (before the common era).

The Gregorian is a correction of the Julian calendar, which had been in use since 46 b.c.e. Leap years had been miscalculated in the Julian calendar; by 1582 the calendar was 10 days behind the solar year. Pope Gregory XIII corrected the calendar by dropping 10 days. The new calendar was adopted by the Catholic church in 1582 but at later dates in non-Catholic countries. Russia did not accept the new calendar until 1918. In Russia and part of Poland, the Julian calendar was generally used throughout the 1800s, when the difference had accumulated to 12 days. Polish vital records often give both the Julian and Gregorian dates. This can be confusing to beginning researchers. When both dates are given, use the later date (the Gregorian) for your record keeping.

Many Jews lived in nations where other calendars were prevalent. Most notable is the Muslim calen-dar, which reckons time from the date Muhammad and his fellow Muslims emigrated to Medina in 622 c.e. The French calendar was used in countries ruled by Napoleon (France and bordering countries to the north and east) from 1793–1805 and has to also be converted to the Gregorian calendar. See the French Republican Calendar.

Resources and conversion charts have been published that convert dates to the modern Gregorian calendar. Many of these are available free through the Internet, including:

Calendar Conversions by Scott E. Lee:

This is a online conversion freeware program that will convert days from the Julian, Hebrew, and French Republican calendars to the standard Gregorian calendar. It will also convert backwards from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar.

Tarek’s hijri (Muslin)/Gregorian/ Julian Converter:

This online conversion program converts days from Muslim, Gregorian, and Julian calendars. Simple to use; no download necessary.

Over 50 other calendar freeware and shareware programs are available for converting dates from the Gregorian, Julian, Hebrew, Muslim, French Republican, and Chinese calendars and can be found on the Internet at: