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Eastern Europe Ashkenazi Jews and Genealogy

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This page represents general information about Ashkenazi Jews that are helpful in doing their genealogy. The traditions mentioned here are based mostly on those originating in the current-day Romania and Ukraine regions, but may also pertain to other Jewish Ashkenazi people.


Patronomics and Surnames

The Jewish people from ancient times went by: "firstname son of firstname". In eastern Europe, they did not use surnames until they were mandated to by the government. In Eastern Europe surnames were often adopted in the first half of the 1800's. Brothers may have used different surnames.

For sons, Russian records often add "evich" to the end of the father's name, e.g. Chaim Motelevitch means Chaim son of Motel.

For daughters, Russian records often add "ova" , "ovna" or eva" to the end of the father's name, e.g. Sima Berova means Sima daughter of Ber.

Hebrew, Yiddish, and Official Name

The language they spoke was Yiddish and their name used amongst each other was their Yiddish name. Official birth records give the name of the person in the country language, e.g. Romanian or Russian, which often was their Yiddish name as would be spelled in Romanian or Russian. Jewish people were also given Hebrew names as their religious name at birth. Hebrew and Yiddish are different language using the same letters. For those who never left Eastern Europe, remember that they didn't speak English and their names shown in English in most family trees are transliterations of their names from the other languages.


Ashkenazi Jews have the widely followed tradition of naming a child after a deceased relative. If a child was named Moshe and they had a great-uncle Moshe, then it is quite possible for the child to have been named after the great-uncle. This is often a good clue that the great-uncle died prior to the birth. This of course causes a great number of repeated names in families, so it is essential to be sure you have the correct Moshe.

They could have double names, e.g. Shlomo Zalman, and be named after two different deceased relatives. The two names may be hyphenated in records, e.g. Jankel-Meer.

Note that the tradition for Sephardic Jews is to name children after living relatives, which is very different.

Jewish by Mother

The Jewish people classify a child as Jewish if the mother was Jewish. Conversions to Judaism are allowed, but this was rare among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe.


The Jewish people usually have their gravestones written in Hebrew as well as the local language. The Hebrew inscriptions almost always include the first names of the person and father in Hebrew and the Hebrew calendar date of death.

Three Religious Designations by Father

The Jewish people pass down from father to son, the designation of whether a child is: (1) a Cohanim, who was a descendant of Aaron of the bible, high priest and brother of Moses, (2) a Levite, who was a descendant of Levi of the bible, son of Jacob, or (3) Israelite, one of the other children of Israel (Jacob).

Cohanim often have "ha-Cohen" in Hebrew following their name on gravestones where they may also have a symbol engraved of hands symbolizing the blessings of the priests. Levites often have "ha-Levi" in Hebrew following their name on gravestones where they may also have a symbol of a pitcher of water symbolizing their ritual washing of the hands of the priests prior to their blessings.

The Cohanim and Levites follow paternal lines and correspond to Y-DNA. Several Y-DNA studies have been done on these lines. Y-DNA tends to be less useful for Jewish people's surnames because their surnames were acquired only 5 or 6 generations ago.

Special Life Events

Other than the standard birth, marriage and death events, Jewish boys also have a circumcision or Brit Milah ceremony when 8 days old, and a Bar Mitzvah ceremony when 13 years old. There may be records for these. Marriages included a Jewish wedding contract or Ketubah. For Jewish people to get divorced, they would need a Jewish Get (divorce document). The Ketubah and Get are in addition to the civil records that were still required.


Endogamy is a big thing with Ashkenazi Jewish people. For the most part, the people only married other Ashkenazis keeping the DNA pool small the same DNA from a few hundred people being passed down to what is now about 10 million people. Most Jewish Ashkenazi people have a high chance of sharing DNA with another.

Since the classification of being Jewish is passed down from the mother, the mtDNA would track the motherline which most often should be a Jewish line back.

Y-DNA is useful with regards to tracing the religious designation of Cohanim and Levites. Several DNA studies are looking at this. Since surnames were adopted so late (1800's) by the Romanian and Russian Ashkenazis Jews, the common surname relationship of Y-DNA matches doesn't usually hold. Jewish people will Y-DNA match with people of many different surnames, usually not their own, but usually recognizable as being Jewish surnames.



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