Joel Spector is a self-described genealogy addict. The director of the Jewish Genealogical and Archival Society of Greater Philadelphia has compiled a family tree consisting of close to 1,000 members. For him, it’s about much more than identifying names and dates.
“You don’t just create a tree, but you create all of the data that goes with a particular person: family stories, documents, all kinds of things that are fascinating,” Spector said. Through his research, he was even able to find a third cousin he never knew who lived just five miles away.
On Dec. 20, Spector gave a Zoom presentation for the Germantown Jewish Centre called “Who’s Your Daddy? or How to Research Your Family Background” and outlined the best research methods for Jews looking to explore their ancestry.
Spector said records that might seem mundane at first can yield surprising amounts of information. He found his grandfather’s occupation on a federal census, the Canadian address of an aunt who died in Montreal on a death certificate and the town where his great-grandmother used to live in Russia on his uncle’s draft registration card.
He said that the best place to start when compiling a family tree is with yourself and the information you know about your immediate family, such as birthdays, places of birth, marriage dates and information about spouses. You also may have letters and photos from family members or newspaper articles about important events in their lives.
“Sometimes you know who you are named after, which is a fascinating thing in Jewish genealogy because, in Ashkenazi practice, people were named after deceased ancestors, which usually alternated through generations,” Spector said.
The next step is to interview your living relatives, especially the older family members. This is even more important if you have immigrant ancestry, as these relatives may be the only people who have information about how their branch of the family tree ended up in the United States, and as well as information about relatives in the old country. Spector advised researchers to keep the conversations informal, but to be sure to get details like places of birth, marriage dates and port of entry into the U.S.
Once you’ve gleaned as much information as you can from yourself and your family members, it’s time to turn to archives and documentation. This was a much more complicated process before the rise of the internet, which made many of these records available in digital forms.
Spector recommendsJewishGen, the main Jewish genealogy website, where users can look up family names and find contact information for other people researching the same ones. They can also look up town names and join research divisions for specific areas, including Belarus, Scandinavia, Ukraine, France and Britain. The group is usually quick to respond to questions. He also recommended Ancestry, a paid family history site with an extensive library of records, and FamilySearch, a research library based in Salt Lake City and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“When I visited them last about five years ago, they had two-and-a-half million reels of microfilm. They probably have more now,” he said.
For local families, Spector recommended his own organization, which he said is 40 years old and the third-oldest Jewish genealogy society in the country after the groups in New York and Los Angeles. He recommended the archives at local universities, such as Temple University’s Urban Archives, especially for newspaper records.
He added that the City of Philadelphia houses marriage documents at City Hall and birth certificates at the City Archives. Death certificates are maintained by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Carlisle.
There is a certain type of information that is especially difficult for even the most thorough researchers to find: birthdays.
“People put down different birth dates so they could get married legally, so they could work legally and for various other reasons,” Spector said.
His own great-uncle kept his birthday private because his parents had paid a customs agent to add six years to his age to make him beyond the reach of the draft in Russia. His younger brother had years subtracted from his birthday to make him too young for the draft in the United States.
Dick Menin, president of the Germantown Jewish Centre’s Men’s Club, has done his own research into his family’s Russian ancestry.
“I do recommend that if you have any older living relatives, this is the time to talk, ask questions,” he said. “Unfortunately, all of my relatives that I’d like to have had more information on are now available only on a Ouija board.”