Hanukkah began last night. For the first time since 1888, the Jewish holiday coincides with Thanksgiving here in the United States. Not only that, but Thanksgivukkah will not happen for another 79,000 years. So, families are finding unique ways to celebrate the two holidays together. I’ve seen turkey menorahs and fall colored dreidels. I even did a search for a pumpkin challah recipe – and I’m not even Jewish.
For those of you who are Jewish, as you spend time with family over the coming days of Hanukkah, I am sure that the conversation at some point will turn to Hanukkah’s past. Stories will be shared. Loved ones will be remembered. You may even find a few quiet moment to do a little family history research – alone or with a family member.
If you are just getting started, be sure to check out the Top Tips for Beginning Jewish Family History Research. Once you have traced your ancestors into Europe, the research becomes a little more challenging so my best advice is to be sure you know exactly where in Europe your family came from before trying to do further research. Google the name of that location to learn a little more about it. Understand what country it was part of when your family lived there, and what country it is part of today. Understanding geo-political boundaries is critical to knowing where records about your ancestors may exist today.
Next, use the Card Catalog on Ancestry.com to narrow down the list of databases to only those that have records about the particular country you are interested in, using the filters on the left hand side. You can further filter that list by time period and record type. You will likely find birth, marriage and burial records, voter lists and assorted censuses. Click on any one of these databases to search. Try searching by last name only (including spelling variations) in a specific location to identify other possible family members.
If your family is from Eastern Europe, and you don’t find a collection on Ancestry.com that contains records for the time period and location your ancestors lived, be sure to check out Miriam Weiner’s Eastern European Archival Database. Search this database by location to discover what records are held in archives throughout the countries of Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Many birth, marriage and death records yet to be digitized, some dating back to the mid-1700s, can be found in national and local archives. This database provides you with specifics about the record types, years covered and exactly where you can write to obtain copies of those records.
Regardless of whether you are eating mashed potatoes or latkes for dinner, I hope you have the opportunity to gather with family to remember the miracles in your life and express gratitude to one another. While you are doing that, don’t forget to take lots of pictures, ask lots of questions, and tell your favorite family stories. While lighting the menorah each night, you may discover that the flame of family history is lit in the hearts of your loved ones as well.
Happy Hanukkah! And, have fun climbing your family tree.