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  • Internet Resources in Jewish Genealogy: Avotaynu and JewishGen

    Avotaynu is an organization that was founded in 1985 by two eminent researchers in the field of Jewish genealogy, Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack. Avotaynu means "our fathers" or "our ancestors" in Hebrew, and the original purpose of the organization was to publish a journal on Jewish genealogical research. AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy has been published quarterly since 1985. In 1991, Avotaynu began publishing books as well. Between 1991 and 2003, Avotaynu published 26 books on Jewish genealogical research, including:

    Where Once We Walked, 1991, a gazetteer of 22,000 towns where Jews lived before the Holocaust

    How to Document Victims and Locate Survivors of the Holocaust, 1995

    Index to The German Minority Census of 1939, microfilmed by the Family History Library, 1996

    Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy, 2000

    History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 2000

    The Avotaynu website ( also hosts the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index at The Consolidated Jewish Surname Index has information on 500,000 different surnames from 34 different databases; it is a consortium allowing you to search multiple databases with one search. One of the best things about the database is that it employs the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System, a Soundex system designed to accommodate Jewish surnames.

    Another premiere internet resource for Jewish genealogical research is JewishGen at The website started in 1995, and in 2003 it became a division of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York ( Some of the databases on JewishGen include:

    The Family Tree of the Jewish People, a lineage-linked database listing more than 2.5 million ancestors contributed in family trees by more than 2,000 people

    Shtetl Seeker, a database of 500,000 Jewish towns in Central and Eastern Europe (the database can help you track towns even through boundary changes and name changes)

    Aufbau Survivors Lists, a database containing the names of 33,000 Holocaust survivors published in the German-language newspaper Aufbau, New York, 1944-1946

    The Yizkor Book Project, a database that preserves Yizkor books, which were written by groups of Holocaust survivors to honor and preserve the memories of their friends, family members, and neighbors who were killed during the Holocaust.

    There are also discussion groups, burial registries, and message boards hosted on this vast website.

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  • The Jewish Diaspora

    Despite being spread all over the world, Jews have managed to preserve their cultural identity and religion, and even thrive in the face of oppression and persecution. To begin our month-long series of articles on Jewish genealogy, this article focuses on the history of the Jewish Diaspora.

    The word diaspora means "dispersion" or "scattering." The Diaspora began in 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian empire and large numbers of Jews were deported to Babylon. In 539 B.C. Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, but in 70 A.D. Jerusalem was conquered again-this time by the Romans. By that time, the Jews were living all over the Mediterranean world. With the fall of Jerusalem even more of them were scattered-to Spain, North Africa, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and present-day Iraq.
    Today's Jewish population can be grouped into three groups: Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Mizrahim.


    Sephardic Jews lived in Spain under Muslim rule from the 8th to the 12th centuries. They were granted complete religious freedom as long as they paid taxes to the Muslim political leaders. Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted peacefully in cities like Toledo, Córdoba, and Granada. The Jewish population in Spain was one of the largest in the world during this time; they spoke their own Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino or Judezmo. This era was also known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry because of the many advances made in architecture, literature, and scholarship.

    All of that came to an end with the Reconquista. Christians from the northern part of the Iberian peninsula moved down, re-conquering Muslim Spain one city at a time and driving Jews and Muslims out before them. The Reconquista culminated in 1492 with Ferdinand and Isabel's expulsion edict; Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or flee. Many fled to Portugal, Italy, and Morocco.


    Jews on the European continent came from a different branch of Judaism, the Ashkenazim. Throughout their history, they faced considerable persecution. In 1290, Edward I of England banished Jews from his realm and confiscated their property; most fled to France and Germany. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were banned from trade guilds and were not allowed to own land. Since they could not be engaged in crafts or in agriculture, many became financiers and moneylenders (hence Shakespeare's stereotype of Shylock, the wealthy moneylender in The Merchant of Venice). At a time when literacy was a mark of social class and only the clergy and the nobility were literate, Jews were educated and taught all their children to read and write, even their daughters.

    In Germany in the 1100s Yiddish was developed; the words were mostly German but written with Hebrew letters. By the 1700s it was widely spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. In the face of increasing persecution-Jews were accused of causing the plague and of using the blood of Christian children in Passover rites-many Jews from Germany fled east to Poland, Lithuania, and Russian or west to the Netherlands, where they could apply for Dutch citizenship. Most European and American Jews today are Ashkenazim.


    The third branch of Judaism are the Mizrahi Jews, descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today the Mizrahim include Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Persian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, and Pakistani Jews.

    Today Jews are as diverse as the many nations they inhabit, but "wherever they have wandered, Jews have always carried with them strong faith, and independent spirit, and a high regard for work and education." ( Jay Schleifer, A Student's Guide to Jewish American Genealogy (Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1996), page 36.).

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  • Coal Mining Ancestors

    "It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
    Where the danger is double and pleasures are few,
    Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines, 
    It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine."

    - Merle Travis

    The landscape of America is dotted by ghost towns: mining towns that sprang up out of nowhere when veins of ore were discovered then vanished back into the dust as quickly as they had come when the mineral deposits dried up. If you had an ancestor who worked in a mine or lived in a mining town, where can you find record of him and his experience?

    On the website of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor, you can find an index to mining museums and miners' memorials for thirty of the fifty states.  If your ancestor was a miner in Kentucky, you can find record of him on Kentucky Coal Miners, a site dedicated to preserving the memories and stories of miners. Many photos have been posted there, and the site also links to county websites and even the family websites of coal miners and their descendants. For Pennsylvania ancestors, you should be sure to check out the Virtual Museum of Coal Mining in Western Pennsylvania, which lists every mine for every county in Pennsylvania, as well as any resources available for researching that mine.

    Of course, one of the greatest resources at your disposal is US GenWeb, which has projects related to miners in many different localities.  The Mining in Wyoming page is helpful, as is West Virginia Coal Mining, which has family histories, links to mining museums, and miners' obituaries.

    Ironically, you are most likely to find your ancestor in mining records if he was involved in some kind of mining accident.  These were reported in newspapers, and you can also find record of them on sites like Life in the Mines or the Iron Range Research Center, which also includes mining company newsletters and a survey or women in industry taken in 1919. If your ancestor was a miner in West Virginia who was involved in a mining accident, you can find him in the annual chief inspectors' reports, listing miners who were injured or killed for each year. You can request these records from the Archives and History Library of West Virginia, or you can view them on microfilm at the Family History Library on the film entitled, "Index of Fatalities in WV Coal Mines 1883-1926." The information listed on these records includes: the name of the company and mine; the name, age, and occupation of the man killed; how he was killed, the date of injury, and the date of death; his nationality; how many years of experience he had in the mines; whether or not he left a widow; and how many children he had. These records can be priceless for digging back into your family tree.

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  • Traditions of Our Ancestors: Holy Week

    The long wintery days of Lent are drawing to a close and Holy Week is fast-approaching. Holy Week memorializes the last week of Jesus Christ's life and his crucifixion. It culminates in Easter, the celebration of his resurrection. Christians of many different denominations feel more connected with Christ re-living events from his life during this week.

    The practice of honoring Holy Week is as old as Christianity itself. Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the first centuries A.D., when Christian pilgrims traveled there at Passover time to re-enact the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The earliest written account of these practices is from Egeria, a Spanish woman who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the fourth century. By this time, Holy Week traditions had already grown quite elaborate, including Good Friday processions along the Via Dolorosa, the road where tradition says that Jesus carried his cross through the city. Via Dolorosa means "way of pain" in Latin, and early Christians developed the practice of stopping their processions at each station of the cross, a tradition that continues today in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

    The customs of Holy Week spread from Jerusalem first to Spain, where Holy Week celebrations today are still among the most renowned in the world. By the seventh century, Holy Week celebrations were widespread in Gaul and the British Isles as well.

    Eastern Christians and western Christians alike consider Holy Week to be the week before Easter; however, the celebrations don't occur at the same time because eastern Christians use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter.

    Holy Week is preceded by Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts about forty days. Historically, during Lent Christians abstained from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Savior's suffering on Good Friday. Many Christians today use Lent as a time to give up bad habits and grow closer to God. In either case, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance.

    Holy Week commences with Palm Sunday, which memorializes Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, as was prophesied by Old Testament prophets. On this day Christians worldwide carry out Palm Sunday processions bearing palm branches. Holy Week also includes Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper. The term "Maundy" is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which means "to entrust" or "to order." This refers to the commandment that Jesus issued to his disciples at the Last Supper: that they should love one another and their fellow men. The Last Supper is also remembered by Christians of all faiths by participation in the Eucharist, sacrament, or communion.

    Holy Week customs also include the observance of Good Friday, which commemorates Christ's crucifixion. On Good Friday, Christians mourn the death of Jesus and venerate him by performing processions bearing crosses. In many places, lifelike wooden sculptures of Christ, Mary, and the apostles are made and carried through the streets in processions.

    Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, is the culmination of Holy Week. Many Christians greet Easter with candlelight vigil the night before; others hold sunrise services before dawn on Easter morning to remember Mary Magdalene's early-morning visit to the tomb. Either way, Easter a joyful and sacred celebration to Christians everywhere.

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  • Happy Saint Patrick's Day from OneGreatFamily

    Saint Patrick's Day, now celebrated in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, is an unusual blend of Christian and pagan customs, and a celebration of the venerated Catholic saint and missionary, Patrick.

    Patrick was born in Wales in 385. When he was sixteen, he was taken from his home and sold into servitude in Ireland, where he spent six years working as a shepherd. During this time, he became a devout Christian. Upon escaping from slavery, he went to Gaul, where he studied Christian doctrine for fifteen years and was eventually ordained to the Catholic priesthood. He subsequently returned to Ireland as a missionary.

    Contrary to popular belief, Patrick did not introduce Christianity to Ireland. There were already Christians living in Ireland, but they were a very small minority, with most of the indigenous Irish population following Celtic-pagan beliefs. Having already lived among the common Irish people for six years, Patrick was ideally suited to bring Christianity to Ireland on a large scale.

    In his missionary efforts, Patrick used his knowledge of Irish culture and pagan belief to explain Christianity in terms that the people would understand. The shamrock, for instance, was already an important symbol to the people, signifying spring and rebirth. Patrick employed the shamrock to represent the Trinity: three separate pieces all part of a whole. Patrick's newly-won converts adopted the shamrock as the symbol of their Christianity and wore it on their clothes; later this transformed into the custom of wearing green to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day.

    Another prevalent Celtic symbol was fire. The Celts used bonfires to honor their gods, so Patrick adopted this custom into the Catholic celebration of Easter, and early Irish Christians celebrated the holy day with fires and revelry. Because the Irish pagans also worshiped the sun, he superimposed an orb over the cross to create a new icon of the Irish Catholic faith. This emblem is now recognized as the Celtic cross.

    One common myth about Patrick is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Actually, there were never very many snakes in Ireland to begin with. This legend comes from an incident that is purely symbolic: Patrick stood on a hilltop (which now bears his name), held up his wooden staff, and "banished the snakes" from Ireland. The "banishing of the snakes" represented the eradication of pagan doctrines from Ireland. Within two centuries, Patrick's vision had been realized, and Christianity had triumphed.

    Patrick died near present-day Dublin on 17 March 461. He was canonized by the Church, and the day commemorating his death is now a holy day of religious observation for Catholics in Ireland. Today Saint Patrick's day has become a secular holiday as well, and a celebration of all things Irish. Superstitions of leprechauns stem from Celtic beliefs in fairies, small magical people given over to mischief and trickery. Another Irish idiosyncrasy that has become well-known is that of the Blarney Stone. The ritual of kissing the stone, hoping to tap into its magical qualities and receive the gift of eloquent speech, has been performed by millions of people. This kind of pagan practice is hardly new; special stones and landmarks existed all over the ancient world, everywhere from the fertility rock at Giza to the oracle at Delphi to the spring of youth and vitality in Tuscany. It was through this kind of hybridism that Christian missionary efforts among the Celtic people were so successful, and through the Christianization of Ireland that Saint Patrick's legacy lives on.

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