Ashkenazi genealogy is a PITA!

There’s a lot of reasons genealogy could be easier. For example, I used to think of surnames as eternal, more or less. Turns out, that’s usually not the case. My grandparents were born ADELSON, BLOCK, ABRAMS, and OCHOWITZ. Their fathers (paternal grandfather in the case of ADELSON) were born FINGERBREN, SCHNITZ, ABRAHAMS, and OCHOROWICZ, respectively. Five years ago, only ONE of these name changes was known to living generations! Or at least to family to whom I had access.

This kind of thing makes it not only difficult to find cousins, but acts as a hindrance for cousins who are searching to find me. On the other hand, it can be the key to solving mysteries. Several years ago, I was able to merge three trees simply because I held the “surname key”. There was my own tree, much smaller than it is today. Second was a FINGERBREN tree online, run by a cousin in England. They were unaware of my surname change, and thus unaware of my branch. Third was a branch through Briana Leah FINGERBREN PROLER. The English cousins knew about Briana Leah, but didn’t trace through, since the the European name had been PRAVLER (which I expect was pronounced something close to “prowler”). An American cousin had started their tree with Briana and her husband Julius PROLER, but had not known her maiden name nor the European spelling. Since I had heard from my father that we were “somehow” related to the PROLERs of Lancaster, PA, I had been on the lookout for that name. Thus, two critical pieces of information about name changes, which I was lucky enough to hold, and three trees merged. A thing of beauty, and perhaps something forever apart had I not happened upon it.

Traditionally, Jewish names were just patronymics… “Stephen son of Allen”. It was only in the post-Napoleonic era that Eastern European Jews began to take on surnames, because of new laws from the governments. In the early days, names weren’t consistently applied; families adopted surnames, but they didn’t bother to do so in the same manner. Different households, even if closely related, might not adopt (or keep for long) the same name. Likewise, unrelated households might take on the SAME surname rather arbitrarily. There were many reasons for this, which are nicely discussed in a recent article by Jeffery Marc PAULL and Jeffrey BRISKMAN, History, Adoption, and Regulation of Jewish Surnames in the Russian Empire.

Appropriately, Dr. PAULL is a close genetic cousins on my father’s side. Partially because the surnames aren’t indicative of relationships, we don’t really know where exactly.

OK, so surnames aren’t as useful as they might be. What else? Well, Jews traditionally married within the faith. In small European shtetls, that means that most people were cousins to some nearer or further degree and we of the more recent generations tend to be related along multiple lines. Thus, genetic genealogy is less helpful than it might be for others. It can disprove a recent relationship, but has a harder time proving it.

And then, of course, you have the many records that were destroyed in the 20th century. Many more than might be expected did survive, but still there were a great number consumed by fires, empires falling, and war. Still, it’s not the period you might think which is lost. The post WWI era is generally preserved. Even, in many places, the period post-1870’s survives, as do 18th century records. But much of the 1800 to 1870s era do not. Thus, trying to make the leap from (more-or-less) settled surnames back to the patronymic time frame is lost.

In the end, there’s a lot of research, cross-referencing, and some educated guesswork that goes into creating the tree….


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