First off, let me explode a myth: No one got a name change at Ellis Island. Everyone, then as now, had to be documented, which obviously is a boon to researchers.
And brings me to a second myth: Our grandparents, mostly, said they were Russian and that’s what the records show. But that doesn’t mean they were from RUSSIA the country. They left the Russian Empire, ruled by the Tsar, from the area we call the Pale of Settlement, which is now mostly the Ukraine. Few Jews actually lived in Russia before the 20th century so forget that idea.
But that’s the fun of genealogy research: discovering history – political and personal – and how we’re connected to it.
So how to start. First, obviously, gather what you think you know and record it. I say “what you think you know” because each family has its own stories, not all of which are exactly true and you may as well acknowledge that in the beginning.
Start with your own birthday – where, when, siblings, parents. You don’t have to use a computer but it does make record-keeping and researching a lot easier, so I highly recommend it.
There are several decent programs available for free – some only for use online (which I don’t recommend), others available for download.
I use the commercial program Family Tree Maker, which sells for about $40. It’s very useful and has the added advantage of being popular, which means it’ll be easy to share data WHEN you find someone else researching your family (and you will).
The next step, for me, was contacting relatives for information. Records in the U.S. are readily available so you don’t HAVE to contact anyone. But if you don’t, you’ll miss out on lots of stories and helpful insights. Just remember that the information you gather isn’t 100% reliable.
Okay, so now you’ve got some basic information and a way to store and organize it. So what do you want to research? Do you want to know who you’re grandparent’s neighbors were, how much rent they paid, did they have boarders?
Or maybe you’d like to know WHERE exactly they came from, how they got here, who they traveled with or who they were joining.
Again, the computer and internet aren’t essential but will make things a lot easier, and faster. I loved going to archives and seeing actual documents but what took me weeks or months can now be done in hours. An amazing amount of information is on the web, just waiting for you to discover it.
Trying to confirm facts in the Old Country on the other hand, let alone discover new information, is hit or miss, depending on where your family came from and how common the names are that you’re interested in.
My husband’s paternal family lived in Lithuania, in a big city, with an unusual name, so we’ve been able to track them back to the early 1700s. And could have gone back farther.
Polish and German records are almost as good.
The Ukraine, where most of us come from, is missing a lot of records. And the few that survived all the political upheavals of the 20th century are still guarded like state secrets. So it’s a lot tougher. In some cases, impossible. My family tree, for instance, is a bush. Lush and detailed, spread wide, but totally void of hard information from the old country.
The first place to look online for Jewish genealogy, whatever your interest, is JEWISHGEN.ORG. The site is free and you’ll find links to everything – basic information, advice, lists of what IS available and how to find it. Maybe even someone how’s looking for the same things you are or, better yet, found it.
Sooner or later, if you research, you’ll have to visit ANCESTRY.COM. Everything American is there and lots of foreign stuff. Mostly only available for a fee. It is free to find out what records they have and there’s always some teaser information. I do recommend taking advantage of their free month trial AFTER you’ve done the basics, WHEN you have a list of things you want to research, & IF you have a month to take advantage of the it. It’s a great resource site BUT they WILL automatically bill you hundreds of dollars at the end of the month. It’s easy to cancel – but YOU have to call to do it.
A lot of people use the Mormon sites – online at FAMILYSEARCH.ORG, local research centers, or the bonanza in Utah. I don’t like them, for several personal reasons. I felt seriously harassed the one time I visited a local center, which was the only way to get free access, and I don’t like supporting them since they have a history of changing records – converting all Holocaust victims posthumously, for instance – which makes information you get from them unreliable.
My local library website (LVCCLD.ORG) has lots of free information and good links. But the site is very difficult to navigate. It’s worth checking out your library, just in case.
Other good sites are MYHERITAGE.COM, where you can find a free genealogy program, and CYNDISLIST, a general genealogy site with lots of links.
Hopefully this will help you get started and excited about researching.