Jewish culture has always placed a strong emphasis on family and on the importance of knowing your roots. If you have Jewish ancestors, or believe you might, there are many resources available to help you learn more about them. MyHeritage boasts a rich selection of historical record collections particularly valuable to those researching Jewish family history.
In this article, we will explore the concept of Jewish identity and touch on important points to keep in mind about Jewish history, then take a dive into the Jewish records available on MyHeritage and how to search them. We will also explore how DNA testing can help you learn more about your Jewish heritage.
What is Jewish ethnicity?
While most other ethnicities are mostly tied to a specific geographic region, the identity of the Jewish people is a bit more complex. Jewish communities have lived and thrived on almost every continent for many centuries, creating distinct ethnic and cultural subgroups. What’s more, while Jewishness is often categorized as a religious identity rather than an ethnic one, it is, in fact, both. This means that people who are born within a Jewish community are still considered Jewish even if they practice another religion, and people with no Jewish heritage at all who convert to the Jewish religion are also considered Jewish.
The MyHeritage DNA Ethnicity Estimate currently identifies 5 Jewish ethnic subgroups — more than any other DNA testing company:
- Ashkenazi Jewish
- Sephardic Jewish – North African
- Ethiopian Jewish
- Yemenite Jewish
- Mizrahi Jewish – Iranian/Iraqi
Each of these ethnicities has a completely unique set of cultural characteristics, including geography, history, culture, and language. Yet, they all identify as a single cultural group that shares an overarching identity which includes history, culture, language, and so on that they all share.
Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of Jewish people that lived in the area of France and Germany in the early middle ages and migrated to Eastern Europe over the centuries largely due to persecution. They spoke Yiddish as well as additional Eastern European languages such as German, Russian, Ukrainian, or Polish, and their cuisine was characterized by the types of ingredients most readily available to them: wheat, dairy, goose and other fowl, cabbage, and root vegetables.
The majority of Jews today are of Ashkenazi descent, with the largest communities living in the United States and Israel. Significant Ashkenazi Jewish communities can also be found in other English-speaking countries as well as Eastern Europe and South America.
Sephardic and North African Jews
Sephardic Jews solidified their common identity in “Sepharad,” the Hebrew term for the Iberian peninsula. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, they settled in areas such as Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and North Africa, and became the dominant Jewish culture in those areas. They spoke variants of Judeo-Spanish as well as Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and so on. Their cuisines incorporated local flavors from ingredients that were easier to procure in warmer climates: various herbs, rice, spices, fresh vegetables, legumes, and olive oil.
Most Sephardic and North African Jews live in Israel today, comprising about half of the Jewish population of Israel.
Also known as the Beta Israel (“House of Israel”), the Ethiopian Jewish community is believed to have ancient origins dating back to the time of the kingdom of Judea, King Solomon, or even to Moses — historically identified with the ancient Israelite tribe of Dan, or as descendants of the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. While scholars dispute the exact origins of this community, it is clear that they have very ancient ties to the Jewish religion, the rest of the Jewish people, and the Holy Land, despite an apparent isolation from mainstream Jewish communities throughout the world for around 1,000 years. Unfortunately, like other Jewish communities, they suffered from religious persecution over the centuries, including forced conversion to Christianity. Jewish converts to Christianity were known as Falash Mura.
The old traditions of the Ethiopian Jewish community, also known as Haymanot (meaning “faith”) are distinct from those of many other communities in that they are non-Talmudic (perhaps pre-Talmudic). Their holy book, the Orit, is written in the Ge’ez language and contains the five books of Moses as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. Other books from the Bible have less importance in their tradition. In their day-to-day, they spoke Amharic.
Today, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, and those who remain religious follow a combination of Rabbinic Judaism and Haymanot. Members of the Falash Mura communities have also been choosing to return to Judaism.
Traditional Ethiopian Jewish dress is made from pure cotton, usually white and woven at home with colorful and intricate embroidery. Their cuisine is similar to that of their neighbors: injera, a sourdough flatbread made of teff flour, is typically eaten with wot, a stew made with legumes, vegetables and sometimes beef or lamb. In addition to the Biblical Jewish holidays, the Ethiopian Jewish community marks a special holiday called Sigd, which takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur and celebrates the community’s acceptance of the Torah and yearning for the land of Israel.
The Jewish community from Yemen also has very ancient origins, with evidence pointing to a Jewish presence in Yemen from at least the 3rd century C.E. In fact, the Himyarite Kingdom that ruled the region at the time adopted the Jewish religion in 380 C.E. until it fell to the Kingdom of Aksum in 525 C.E. Yemenite Jews developed a rich culture and tradition based primarily on their Jewish origins but incorporating elements from the Muslim culture around them.
Yemenite Jews spoke Judeo-Yemeni Arabic, but like other Jewish communities, continued to use Hebrew and Aramaic for liturgical purposes. Their version of Hebrew is believed to be closer to the original language, in terms of phonetics and grammar, than other variants where certain phonemes and grammatical structures were dropped.
Yemenite Jewish cuisine is characterized by its special breads and flatbread — kubaneh, jahnun, malawah, and lahoh — as well as spicy condiments like zhug and hilbeh (fenugreek sauce), oxtail soup, and unique curry-like spice mixes.
While the term “Mizrahi” often refers to Jews hailing from Arab lands, including those of North Africa, this ethnicity focuses on Jewish of Middle Eastern origin specifically from the regions of modern-day Iran and Iraq. The Jewish communities of Iran and Iraq are some of the oldest and most historically significant in the world, with origins going back to Biblical times. After the expulsion from the Kingdom of Judah following the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish population was brought to Babylonia. The majority of Jews remained in that area throughout the centuries that followed, even through the period of the second Jewish temple and the Hasmonean kingdom in the Holy Land. The Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita were established in Babylonia and the region became the flourishing center of Jewish scholarship until the Middle Ages. Even after the Jewish communities of Sepharad rose in prominence following the Muslim conquest, many Jews remained in the Fertile Crescent and thrived there until well into the 20th century.
Jewish people living in Iran spoke Persian and Judeo-Persian, while those in Iraq spoke Arabic and Judeo-Iraqi Arabic. As in the previously mentioned groups, the cuisine of Persian and Iraqi Jews utilizes local ingredients and flavors: rice, flatbreads, lots of spices and herbs, onion, and meats. Similar in style to North African Jewish cuisine, Mizrahi cuisine also incorporates some unique Asian characteristics, including spice mixes and condiments similar to those commonly found in India.
Many groups, one people
This list is far from exhaustive: Jewish communities have been established on practically every continent, and each has its own unique characteristics. Yet despite these differences, both of these groups — like all Jewish groups — trace their roots back to ancient Israel and Judah. Even after settling in different areas in Europe, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews prayed and studied Torah in Hebrew and Aramaic, celebrated the same holidays, adhered to the same religious laws, and passed on the same narrative about their cultural history. There were variations: for example, parts of their prayer services differed, and they had different customs about ambiguous aspects of Jewish law. But from an anthropological and historical point of view, these differences are negligible compared to the cohesive overarching Jewish identity they shared.
The large degree of diversity within Jewish culture makes it difficult to provide a quick historical background that is relevant to all subgroups. It’s important to research the specific history of the region your ancestors were from so you can understand the historical context they lived in. This is especially important in regions that changed hands often throughout history — for example, a village in what is now Ukraine may have been part of Poland before World War II.
There are, however, a few common characteristics you should keep in mind when researching Jewish family history.
- Until the Emancipation in the 19th century, Jews were not really considered “citizens” of any country. In some countries, they were considered property of the sovereign; in others, they were foreigners who were allowed to settle in a specific region. This can affect how records of Jewish residents were kept.
- While Jews living in Christian countries suffered more violence and severe persecution, those under Muslim rule were not treated as equals, either. Jews in both Christian and Muslim areas were usually heavily taxed and many aspects of their lives were restricted or regulated, from how they were allowed to dress, to what trades they were allowed to engage in and how high they were allowed to build their community structures.
- In some places, there were even quotas placed on the number of marriages allowed — which led to a lot of “unofficial” marriages being performed that were never registered with the authorities.
Finding Jewish records on MyHeritage
Given that the Jewish people were a minority spread across a wide swath of geographic regions, it can be a bit tricky to identify collections of value for Jewish genealogy. Historical records of Jewish ancestors may be found in specifically Jewish collections, but they may also be found among records for other minorities or the general population — even church records! In some areas, during the 17th and 18th centuries, churches were charged with keeping records on everyone in town regardless of their religion.
MyHeritage is home to a number of important Jewish collections and resources. Among the collections of significant interest for researchers of Jewish heritage are the following:
- Greece, Corfu Vital Records, 1841-1932: Not a specifically Jewish collection, but does contain information on a significant Jewish community in Greece
- Israel Genealogy Research Association – IGRA: an index of all kinds of records (vital records, voter lists, censuses, etc.) that are free to access on MyHeritage (whereas you must be an IGRA member to search the records on IGRA)
- BillionGraves: MyHeritage partnered with BillionGraves to digitize all cemeteries in Israel, and while these records are available on BillionGraves as well, MyHeritage’s cross-language search and matching capabilities help you find and understand inscriptions in other languages
- Mandatory Palestine Naturalization Applications, 1937-1947
- Avelim – Israeli Obituaries
- Eretz Israel Telephone Directory, 1944
- Jewish Holocaust Memorials and Jewish Residents of Germany 1939-1945 (free on MyHeritage)
- German Minority Census, 1939
- Lithuania Internal Passports, 1919-1940
- Latvia, Riga Internal Passport Holders Index, 1918-1940 (free on MyHeritage)
- List of Partisans from Belarus, 1941-1945
- Piotrków Trybunalski Poland Births, (1808-1875), Deaths (1808-1888), Marriages (1808-1870)
- Slovakia, Church and Synagogue Books, 1592-1910
In addition, MyHeritage has a partnership with JewishGen allowing users to access records from this key Jewish genealogy resourse on the MyHeritage platform.
One tip from our Genealogy Expert Daniel Horowitz is to enter the Collection Catalog and enter the word “Jew” into the search box:
This will produce results that include collections with the word “Jew” or “Jewish” both in the title and the description. You can also try using additional related keywords, such as “Israel” and “Holocaust.”
The newspaper and book collections on MyHeritage also contain many Jewish resources, such as The Jewish Chronicle. The yearbook collections also contain publications from Jewish schools and colleges. These may be a little trickier to find, but they will turn up in the MyHeritage Search Engine when you search for someone mentioned in them, or in Record Matches when that person has a profile on your tree.
Global Name Translation™ of Jewish Records
One of the features that sets MyHeritage apart as a genealogy resource is Global Name Translation™, a feature that allows you to search records in other languages and writing systems using your native language. The algorithm identifies the name you search for in additional languages and pulls up results of records in those languages, and then translates them back into your language for you.
Learning to read the Hebrew alphabet — to read both Hebrew and Yiddish names — is an advantage for Jewish genealogy research, but Global Name Translation™ saves you the trouble. This feature is also particularly useful for searching Jewish records in Eastern Europe written in Russian or Ukrainian, or from Greece that are written in Greek.
Jewish DNA on MyHeritage
Another avenue MyHeritage provides for researching your Jewish heritage is DNA testing.
The MyHeritage DNA test offers the most diverse and detailed Jewish ethnicity results on the market, with 5 Jewish ethnic groups and 55 Genetic Groups of Jewish origin.
In terms of DNA Matching, MyHeritage has one of the largest DNA databases in the world and offers cutting-edge tools for sorting, organizing, and analyzing your DNA Matches to achieve insights about your family history.
Does Jewish DNA prove Jewish ancestry?
Jewish ethnicity results do, of course, suggest Jewish heritage, especially if the percentage of Jewish DNA in your results is above 6%. However, it’s important to remember that the Ethnicity Estimate is just that — an estimate. Having Jewish ethnicity in your results means that a certain percentage of your DNA shares characteristics with people of Jewish origin, but it is not definitive proof that you are of Jewish descent.
The only way to prove Jewish ancestry is by connecting your family tree to ancestors who are historically confirmed to have been Jewish. DNA can help you with this by connecting you with DNA Matches with whom you may share an ancestor of confirmed Jewish heritage.
MyHeritage’s filtering features can help you focus on DNA Matches with Jewish ethnicity. On your DNA Matches list, click “Filters.” Then click “All ethnicities” and select the Jewish ethnicity you’d like to focus on.
Endogamy and Jewish DNA
If you are of Jewish descent, it’s important to take into account that Jewish communities — especially, but not only, Ashkenazi Jewish communities — have historically been endogamous. Because people in these communities married amongst themselves, Jews typically share more DNA with each other than average, and that means relationships to DNA matches may appear to be closer than they are.
In light of this, when analyzing your DNA matches, pay special attention to the length of shared segments rather than total amount of DNA shared. A single, longer segment of shared DNA is a stronger indicator of a traceable relationship than many short segments.
To dive deeper into researching Jewish ancestry, see the following Knowledge Base resources:
- Finding Jewish Records In The MyHeritage Search Engine: webinar by Daniel Horowitz
- Ask The Expert – Jewish Resources On MyHeritage: webinar by Ellen Kowitt
- How to Find Out if Your Ancestors Were Conversos: article by Daniella Levy
Visit myheritage.com/research to start researching your Jewish ancestors today.