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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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  • 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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