Secret Genealogy - A How-to for Finding Ancient Jewish Ancestry
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Why Search? What Does it Mean to be Jewish?
After spending years on the genealogical websites, I have come to believe that I can help millions of Americans who have reached dead ends in regard to their family trees. Even after several years of hunches that my ancestors were Jewish, there was always doubt, but the ancestors cheered me on. They left proud symbols, whether it was the lions that lay crumbling to entrances of long forgotten homesteads or names they picked for their children, Rachel, Jacob, Samuel, Ezekiah. They had hope for a future where descendants were sensitive to the echo of their voices. The dead can talk and they knew how to leave clues, we just don’t know how to look for them.
One can only imagine the conversation our ancestors had when they made a pact to not tell the next generation they were Jewish. For a people so proud of their heritage, it must have been for the family’s survival and/or the opportunity to live free of persecution that this decision was arrived upon. The guilt and sadness that would have presided over the loss of such a beloved and ancient culture must have been immense.
One day while writing this, a man walked into the Holocaust museum in Washington and shot the bodyguard and himself. Early reports said he was linked to a white supremacist website. My hope is that people with lost tribal roots will find more unity and love for others if those roots are found.
There are two groups of Jews that I will be referring to, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. Ashkenazi Jews descend from Middle, Northern and Eastern Europe and may speak Yiddish. The Sephardim are the descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal and they may speak Ladino. Sometimes I use the expression “Hebrew” because during the Middle Ages Jews were often referred to as “Hebraic," as in the end of the 1600s, when “The Holy Office at Cartagena de Indias," denounced people for being “of the hebraic nation.”
What does it mean to be Jewish? I think if you asked that question to the Jewish community you would find many answers, just as you would if you asked what is it like to be a Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or even what it means to be a mother or father or a brother or sister. Everyone has different needs and desires. I’m not Jewish and if I was born from a Jewish mother and father but did not go to Synagogue, some Jews would say I’m not Jewish. Orthodox Jews may fail to recognize the new “Reformed” Jews who have taken a modern approach to worship, bringing jazz musicians into the Shabbat service, and having an orator speak in English instead of Hebrew. Having some Jewish ancestors does not make me Jewish. I would only be Jewish if my mother was a Jew. However, I’ve seen a posting on a Jewish message board where someone was not a practicing Jew but was told that if their parents/grandparents were Jews, then they had been Jewish all along. I’m sure you will find someone to totally disagree with that.
I love to uncover and rediscover what was lost. Too many Americans want their ancestral history to be right out of the pages of a European fairy tale. No matter how hard you try, you can’t re-invent it. Our ancestors are who they were, not who we wish them to be. My ideas may require a change in thinking but a fascinating change, once you educate yourself on the beautiful history left behind by the Jewish people.
Let me state a couple of historical points that one should bear in mind when researching a Christian family tree. One, a Jew could convert or be forced to convert and later become a priest. Two, A Jew who converted or whose family earlier converted could work his or her way into prominent European society, or marry into, and obtain those titles that stir one’s imagination of how they want to see their ancestors, e.g.: knight in shining armor, duke, king, princess, duchess, etc. Being “Jewish” or being “Royal” is not exclusive of one another. There was Jewish royalty as well, e.g.: Hasmonean Royalty. Someone could also have had a Jewish mother and wound up in a European Royal family tree. Jews were not aliens from another planet; their culture may have been different but quite often very much like others.
There is an ancient designation between the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Judea). Technically, “Jews” are the names of the descendants of Judea but “Jews” is also used when speaking of “Israelites." The twelve tribes of Israel are all the descendants of “Jacob," whose name later became “Israel." Don’t feel bad if this is confusing. One of the reasons I wrote this book was so that I can return to it as a reference. There is a lot to remember and I hope to keep this as simply as I can. I will probably make the mistake of referring to the lost tribes of Israel as Jews. Although it is not technically accurate, I do it for the sake of genealogy and wanting to trace back into antiquities. It’s a complicated process.
Once you find your Israelite ancestors, you can further your research and try to decipher whether they were Jews or Samarians but they were both Israelites and descended from Jacob who was referred to as a Lion in the Book of Genesis in the Torah/Bible. The lion became the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah.
A company called Mazornet, dedicated to compiling information and resources about Jewish genetic diseases, states that “because of wars, occupation and dispersal, most modern-day Jews are descended from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah (hence, Jews). There is, however, valid historical evidence that remnants of other tribes merged with Benjamin and Judah. Thus, most Jews today carry the blood of all the tribes of
The Ancient Hebrews were very religious. If they hadn’t been they would have been ostracized from their community. The purpose of this book is not about converting to Judaism. My intention is to guide you toward sources that will enable you to discover whether or not your ancestors were Jewish.
Though intermarrying happened within all ethnic groups, tribes, etc. the Jews of the Middle Ages did not approve of it. They were very strict with their laws and customs and they did not think it enough to have faith in God but believed it crucially important to follow the Law of Moses. You can see how difficult a task that must have been when being up-rooted or forced to hide. Unable to openly teach religion, at times Jewish children grew up not knowing how to practice it. The old adage, use it or lose it, rang just as true during the Middle Ages for religion as it does today for any number of disciplines. What did happen though, when they had an opportunity to regroup, was that they tried their best to return to the old ways and the customs of the ancients.
Please remember, if and when you are quite certain your ancestors were Jewish, you probably would not be considered Jewish unless you studied the religion and went through a rigorous succession of lessons. One does not say, “Oh, I’m three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter Native American." It would be correct though to say, “I’m one-quarter Native American and my other ancestors were Jewish."
If it hadn’t been necessary for our ancestors to keep quiet about their Jewish origins, there would be no need for me to write this book. I’ve strived to be accurate and unbiased but I’m sure that I’m not. But I have had a lot of fun over the last few years searching for the clues to my Jewish ancestry. It’s been a treasure hunt scouring four-hundred-year-old family trees and history books looking for clues.
Of utmost importance to the ancient Hebrews was the strict record keeping of descendants. Through the ages, in order to survive and prosper in dangerous environments that expelled, exterminated and imposed exorbitant taxes and fees on Jews in Europe and again in the New World, some Jewish families felt it necessary to disguise their ethnicity. When Jews came from European seaports to the New World they had a desire to be treated equally and wanted the same opportunities available to all immigrants. Many Jews who immigrated to New World settlements along the Atlantic Coastline not only kept quiet about their origins but altered their names as well. I’ve also come to believe that some Jewish eastern seaboard colonists who migrated west in “groups," did so with others who held Jewish ancestry, preferring to marry within the Jewish community or at least try to maintain a semblance of the old brotherhood pact.
One characteristic of Jewish history that will keep you engaged in this treasure hunt is that ancient brotherhood pact. There were Jews who stuck together. This one element stunned me the most. It wasn’t so much the hints of Judaism in the names of my ancestors that made me continue looking for concrete evidence; it was the names of their associates. Several of the folks with whom they did business with, intermarried with, packed up wagons with and headed out into dangerous new untamed territories had Jewish names. I began using the Internet search engines to research the surnames of these “associates," putting “Jewish” before the last name. Most of these surnames had plenty of Jews with that name, you could tell by the hits that came up. They were prominent Rabbis or involved in a Jewish hospital or Synagogue or any hundreds or thousands of occupations and endeavors. It became a fun obsession. I had uncovered a conspiracy in my own family and I could not stop trying to prove it. Besides, I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice such a striking similarity between the attire of the Amish and New York’s Orthodox Jews. It would not surprise me to find that Jacob Ammann (the Swiss Mennonite, who in 1620 began the sect of Mennonites now called Amish) had Jewish ancestors. There are many Jews with the South or Swiss German surname “Ammann” that means “administrator” or “tax farmer."
Searching for ancestral clues has been an adventure but not without difficulties. Not everyone “cares” about family origins. Many are as adamant about “not searching” as those are about “finding." I have often questioned my own motives. My mother had never once said she had Jewish ancestors, probably because no one had ever told her. Her great-grandmother’s name was Rachel, a common name for early American women, yet I’m inclined to believe that these Old Testament names were a carry over from when many grandparents and great-grandparents were Jewish. I often hear, “It was very common for Colonial American Christians to have Old Testament names, that doesn’t mean they were Jewish." No, it doesn’t and I believed that, at first, but now that I know their story, I believe that many of these Biblical names are remnants of our ancient Hebrew ancestry. Not all, but many. I have come to believe that there were many more Jewish immigrants that came to the New World than what history has recorded.
This book is not simple. It is a complicated subject and finding information about people who died hundreds of years ago is almost impossible, except for that wonderful new technology, the Internet. I have spent several years reading stranger’s family trees, doctoral papers, excerpts from books, religious websites, etc. and have had the opportunity to have my library provide me with books I found referenced online. I want to share this abundance of information with you but in the most simplified manner I can.
In the beginning, there were desert people who recorded their genealogy. Sometimes they were the persecutors and at other times, they were persecuted. During their persecuted years, they were constantly being driven out of or migrating away from their homes. Early on, they went to eastern countries near their original homeland but some reports have the Jews going up to the lands now claimed by Britain. What is distinctive about the Jews is that they maintained strong ties with other Jews and endured through very difficult times. They obviously were a proud and stubborn group of folks and it was no doubt irritating to various factions yet this tenacity has saved a unique culture and left much of it intact and thriving. Even if you can’t prove your suspicions of Hebrew ancestry, look at the bible as not just a religious book but also a book chronicling origins through two tumultuous millenniums.
Anthropologists have found ancient Judaic artifacts and oral histories throughout the world, including Japan, India, Afghanistan, Italy, Malta, Pakistan, Germany, The Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, Africa, China, Russia, the British Isles, the list goes on. Persecution of European Jews led to New World immigration, especially due to Spain’s Inquisitional period, when hundreds of thousands of Jews that had been living in Spain were driven out or burned at the stake. Many immigrated to Portugal where they met the same fate as in the mass conversion where the Inquisition pushed thousands of Jews into a stadium and sprinkled them with holy water. It was not a pleasant time. Many converted and pretended to be practicing Catholics but the authorities knew better and kept after them. In Spain and Portugal particularly, the Crown did not want Judaism to spread, they wanted Christianity and they resorted to some real ugly business. So the Jews hid. They hid behind religion, they cleverly changed their names and they also fled but they knew well enough to keep quiet about their Jewish origins. It must have made them very angry, of course. How do you maintain a secret identity, one that if discovered could mean your life and the life of your loved ones? The clues are hidden in their names and it is up to us to be open-minded (and brave, it’s easy to look foolish) and see if we don’t descend from these Hidden Hebrews.
For years, I’ve heard that Jews were a minority in America. I disagree and for the sake of technicalities, I’m going to have to set aside the myriad meanings of “Jewish." We will brush those arguments aside while we continue with our genealogical search. If you have hit a genealogical brick wall and I have lured you in, you are not “Jewish." For lack of any other way of spelling it out to you I will continue to use the term “Jewish” to define these particular ancestors. I do find it annoying that one can share ancestry discussions with friends and say, “I’m Irish, Japanese, Scotttish, African, Arabic, French, Native American, etc.” but can not say “Jewish” because of the technicalities of that expression. I must be content to say, “My ancestors were Jewish” or “I have Hebrew ancestry."
I have spent years studying my own genealogy. I found, by accident, my surname among Jewish genealogical records only because I was tracing Jewish genealogy for someone else. I like to do that. I don’t know what it is about genealogists, but we’re a nice lot. See for yourself. You’ll find genealogists with websites that reference hundreds of names. They understand that we are all connected. These big family trees, these webs of life, are all over the Internet and each day the trees grow larger. The longer you wait, the more likely it will be that you can place your ancestors into someone’s family line. Unfortunately many have hit a brick wall and are having an impossible time tracing their roots. That’s where I come in. I want to help.
My mother was a Lutheran and my father was what I like to call a “Bed Baptist” because on Sunday morning he stayed in bed while we went to church. When he first met my mother he was a Southern boy who loved to go to “Revivals." It wasn’t quite my mother’s style and California was not a hot spot for Revivals. My father’s religious culture would have faded away if not for his endless narrations. I grew up hearing stories about the South, New Orleans in particular, and can still picture what it must have been like to witness people with long, flowing, white garments walking into marshy, southern waters to be baptized. I can still hear the old songs he sang to me to help understand his culture, spiritual songs, songs African Americans also sang and still sing today. My father was deeply religious and soulful. He believed. You could see it in his face. You could feel it when he spoke of it. He lived it.
My father, perhaps only once, mentioned that he felt our last name was originally Rotenberg, but that the “berg” had been dropped. As a child that meant nothing to me, nor did it mean anything to me as an adult until I started researching genealogy. One day, while searching for my husband’s ancestors, I wound up on the Jewish message board at www.genealogy.com. It was interesting to read other’s queries. From the Jewish message board I learned of the website www.sephardim.com and was thrilled to go to the name listings and find my husband’s family name. It was a great day to find such an informative site and very eye opening to see all the other ancient Sephardic Jewish names. Out of habit I looked for my maiden name and there were two listings: Rotin and Rotenberg. What’s interesting is that it was always right in front of me and I never saw it. I was so conditioned to being a Christian that it never once occurred to me that my ancestry may have been Jewish. I was always confused about why Christians studied maps of the Holy Land. It isn’t just because Jesus is from Nazareth. The earliest Christians were Jewish and centuries later many of the transcribers of the Bible were Jewish.
Shortly after I discovered Sephardim.com, I found some notes I had jotted down during one of many conversations with my mother. When I “googled” her ancestors, a pattern emerged. I was able to hit the ground running, because I had one strong name that led me to others in the family tree.
I love history and to me, who my ancestors were and from where they originated is fascinating. I would have lost the passion if my trails were dead-ends but that was not the case. There was always another clue, one after the other.
I’ve followed many trails for friends and their names clearly are not Jewish and many of the names on my family trees do not appear to be either, but I am surprised and to be honest quite shocked how many Jewish names I’ve found on my family tree. It’s a job researching them, learning the history of surnames and how they came about, when they came about, spelling changes, etc. Of course following the history of Jewish names led me to the Inquisition and I realized I had to write a book and document all that I had uncovered. I hope those denied of their truthful ancestry will cherish this book.
Please, do not be convinced that your ancestors were not Jewish just because they show up on baptismal records, or if they were married in a church.