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  • Historical Myths Debunked

    As family historians, our goal is to root out any false traditions or tall tales from our family trees. Although oral traditions and family legends can help lead us to factual events, they should always be verified before they are accepted as accurate. Likewise, there are also many misleading and erroneous historical accounts. For this article, let's get to the bottom of these stories. But remember, every legend contains a kernel of truth.

    John Smith and Pocahontas. Retold in elementary-school classrooms and immortalized in an animated Walt Disney film, the actual interaction of John Smith and Pocahontas was not at all the glamorous love story it is sometimes made out to be. For one thing, Pocahontas was only ten years old when she saved Smith's life, according to his account. But even that may not be accurate. John Smith's earliest account of his encounter with Pocahontas dates 1616, almost ten years after the supposed event. Many historians argue that John Smith's accounts of his adventures in Virginia were embellished to exaggerate his own heroic escapades, so we may never know.

    Paul Revere and William Dawes. Paul Revere was the rider immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1861 poem. But on the night of 18 April 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren actually sent two riders to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that the British were marching from Boston to Lexington. Paul Revere and William Dawes both made the ride from Boston, and along the way they were joined by Samuel Prescott, a local physician. Two lanterns were hung in the steeple of the Old North Church to transmit the message in case Revere and Dawes were captured.

    Ferdinand Magellan. Although Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is commonly credited with being the first man to circumnavigate the globe, he was actually killed by natives in the Philippines. It was his second-in-command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, and the surviving crew, who made it all the way around the world.

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  • A History of the Month of May

    Get up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
    Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
    See how Aurora throws her fair
    Fresh-quilted colours through the air. 
    Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
    Come, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.

    -"Corinna's Going A-Maying," Robert Herrick

    The month of May marks the season of springtime and the real beginning of summer. After a long cold winter, nothing is more exciting than the bright and cheery month of May. In ancient times, May was the third month of the Roman calendar. The Roman poet Ovid wrote that the origin of the month's name comes from maiores, Latin for "elders," while the month of June is named for iuniores, or "young people." Whether that is the true origin of the month's name or not, the month of May marks many important events. Throughout the ages in Europe, the first of May was celebrated as "May Day," and the people went "maying" and held their festivities around the Maypole accordingly. On the first Saturday in May the famed American horse race, the Kentucky Derby, is held. The second Sunday in May is Mother's Day. The last Monday in May is always Memorial Day (and on the Sunday before that, the Indianapolis 500 is held).

    There are many other historical events of great import that occurred in May:

    • 2 May: In 1994, Nelson Mandela won the presidency of South Africa in the country's first multiracial election.
    • 3 May: In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of England.
    • 5 May: The Mexican army conquered the occupying French forces in the Batalla de Puebla; this is now commemorated as the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo.
    • 8 May: On "Victory in Europe Day," the military forces of Nazi Germany surrendered, ending Hitler's Third Reich, and victory was proclaimed by the Allied Forces.
    • 10 May: In 1869, America's first transcontinental railroad was completed; both sides of the railroad were joined in northern Utah.
    • 14 May: In 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed.
    • 16 May: In 1770, Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI of France.
    • 20 May: American actor James Stewart was born in 1908.
    • 23 May: In 1967 Egypt blocked Israel's port of Eilat and closed the Straits of Tiran, a move that would contribute to the outbreak of the Six Day War.
    • 30 May: In 1431 on this day Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic.

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  • Italian Jewry

    The Italian Jewish community was formed from different groups of Jews that arrived on the Italian Peninsula at different times. Some Jews lived in Rome before 70 A.D., and more Palestinian Jews arrived in southern Italy in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. They later moved north and formed the roots of Ashkenazi Jewry. Throughout their history, Ashkenazi Jews were eminent rabbinical and Talmudic scholars.

    Beginning in 1492 with Fernando and Isabel's expulsion edict, and spurred on by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, many Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula migrated to Italy. They settled mostly in Rome and in the northern cities, where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews mingled and married freely. During the 1800s, they were joined by Jews from the Ottomon Empire. For most of their history, Italian Jews enjoyed relative tolerance. But this "Golden Age" was not to last. The word "ghetto" is Italian in origin; Italian Jews were confined to Jewish-only neighborhoods and made to listen to anti-Jewish sermons in their own synagogues, and eventually about fifteen percent were killed by the Nazis. The population of Italian Jews today is only about 40,000.


    When under Napoleonic rule, civil registration laws in Italy required all Jews in Italy to stop using patronymic surnames and to adopt fixed surnames instead. Many took the names of the towns or cities in which they lived. For that reason, you can often trace your ancestors to their town of origin using their surname. Be careful, though-many towns in Italy have the same names, or very similar names. Also, even though we think of Italy as one nation, it did not achieve unification until 1870. The borders of the country were still changing as late as 1918. Because of similar town names and changing boundaries, it is essential to consult a detailed map or geographical dictionary for Italy.

    Once you know for certain where in Italy your ancestors lived, you must determine whether or not there is still a Jewish community in that town. If so, write to them to find out if the local records for Jews are currently kept in the synagogue or in the town archives. If there is no longer a Jewish community in the town where your ancestors lived, find the nearest Jewish community and contact them. They may have current stewardship over the records, or they may be able to tell you who does.

    Aside from resources specific to Jewish Italian ancestors, there are also many good resources for Italian research that you should consult. See or for ideas. You should also be prepared to deal with the challenge of old Italian handwriting and documents. Use this handwriting tutorial or this tutorial on Latin and Italian abbreviations.

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  • A History of the Jews in the Netherlands

    The first Jews began coming to the Amsterdam in the late 1500s; they were Portuguese merchants who were conversos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Because they were a boon to commerce, these Jewish merchants were welcomed by the Dutch authorities. In the atmosphere of tolerance that they enjoyed in Amsterdam, many conversos reverted to their Jewish faith, and beginning in the sixteenth century there was a strong presence of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain and the Iberian Peninsula) in Amsterdam. Later there was an influx of Ashkenazi Jews, who were driven out from the rest of Europe by persecution. Sephardim and Ashkenazim intermingled freely in Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and most mercantile cities of Holland.

    From 1795 to 1813, Holland was under French rule. Thus in 1796 Jews were granted civil rights per French law. Once freed from French rule, Holland became a constitutional monarchy and, in 1917, enfranchised all adult males. Jews in Holland owned thriving businesses and some had prestigious posts and leadership positions in Dutch politics.

    To research your Jewish-Dutch ancestors, one of the most valuable resources is civil registration. Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths was instituted in 1811 under Napoleon. With the advent of civil registration, Jews were required to adopt fixed surnames instead of using the patronymic surname system; they had to appear before a civil register and designate what surname they would adopt. Thus there are surname registry books that you can search.

    Another resource for family researchers is the Bevolkingsregister, a population register that was essentially like the census. It recorded the name, date and place of birth, religion, marital status, and occupation of every individual living within a house. In addition, the Bevolkingsregister records the movements of individuals and families: when they moved into a particular house, when they moved out, etc. At the turn of the 20th century, the system was tightened up and instead of enumerating people in books, each individual was required to have a registration card. Each time someone moved, a new card was generated for them and kept in a central registry. (see footnote 1)

    Beginning in 1940, Germany took over and occupied the Netherlands. Since part of Hitler's agenda was to round up all the Jews there, the Nazis used Holland's card registration system to locate Jewish families and deport them to death camps in Poland. Some registration cards in Amsterdam and The Hague were destroyed by the Dutch resistance-because of this, some Dutch Jews were able to slip through the cracks, go into hiding, and survive the German occupation. Out of Holland's Jewish population of 140,000, only 40,000 survived. (see footnote 2)

    The large Jewish communities in Holland kept records of their own; these records have been preserved in the municipal archives of Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Rotterdam. They include records of membership, marriage, and burial, but not circumcision registers, since the mohel (ritual circumciser) typically kept his own records. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews appear equally in these valuable records, as well as in civil registration, surname registry books, and population registers.

    Footnote 1 - Odette Vlessing, "The Netherlands," Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, ed. Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2004), 438.

    Footnote 2 - Odette Vlessing, "The Netherlands," Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, ed. Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2004), 437.

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  • The Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System

    In English, one letter can represent more than one sound, and one sound can be represented by more than one letter. Thus two names (surnames or place names) that are pronounced exactly the same can be spelled in very different ways. For that reason, Robert C. Russell developed the American Soundex System, dividing each consonant in the English language into eight categories:

    1. Sounds made with lips (b, f, p, v)
    2. Gutturals and sibilants (c, g, k, q, s, x, z)
    3. Sounds made with the tongue and teeth, or the tongue and the roof of the mouth (d, t)
    4. l, a unique sound
    5. m and n
    6. r, a unique sound

    Under the American Soundex System, many Eastern European Jewish names that sounded the same did not have the same Soundex code. The letters w and v were problematic, since they should have been interchangeable for the sake of Jewish names (like the surnames Moskovitz and Moskowitz, for instance).

    In the first issue of the AVOTAYNU genealogy newsletter, Gary Mokotoff published an article entitled, "Proposal for a Jewish Soundex Code." One major difference between this system and the American Soundex System was that in this system the first letter of a name was encoded as a number. If the first letter was a vowel, it was assigned as a zero. Double-letter combinations that essentially represented the same sound (such as tx, tz, and tc) were coded with a single number. (see Footnote Below)

    Randy Daitch, another researcher of Jewish genealogy, responded to Mokotoff's article by proposing the following additional changes:

    • Names would be encoded to six places, or six digits, rather than four. This would give the researcher fewer surnames to check.
    • Other multiple-letter combinations from Slavic and German were added.
    • For the purpose of databases, if a combination of letters could have two possible sounds, it was encoded in both ways (a hard ch versus a soft ch, for instance).

    The new system, with the contributions of Mokotoff and Daitch, became the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System. It is sometimes nicknamed the Jewish Soundex System or the Eastern European Soundex System, and it has become standard for all indexing projects conducted by Jewish genealogical organizations.

    (Footnote): Gary Mokotoff, "Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System," Appendix D, Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy,ed. Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, New Jersey: Avotaynu, 2004), 591-594.

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