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Throughout Hanukkah, JewishGen is posting “JewishGen Mythbusters” on their Facebook page. Not only are these helpful tips for tackling the questions that may arise when tracing family histories, they are also insights into our past and our collective immigration stories.

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MYTH #1: Your family surname can be traced to BEFORE the 18th century.

THE TRUTH: Most Jews did not have fixed hereditary surnames until the early 19th century. Before that, people were known only by their first name and a patronymic, i.e., their father’s first name, e.g.: “Yaakov ben Shmuel” (in Hebrew), or “Yaakov Shmulovich” (in Russian), both meaning “Yaakov, the son of Shmuel”.
Surname adoption for Jews began to be required by the various governments during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Austrian Empire (1787) was the first to require this, and was followed by edicts from the Russian Tzar for the Pale of Settlement (in 1804, and again in 1835 and 1845), and for the Russian Kingdom of Poland (1821). Napoleon inspired France (1808) to take this modern step, which was followed by various German states: Frankfurt (1807), Baden (1809), Westphalia (1812), Prussia (1812), Bavaria (1813), Württemberg (1828), Posen (1833), and Saxony (1834).

MYTH #2: Spelling of surnames is important.

THE TRUTH: Spelling is irrelevant in genealogy, as the consistent spelling of names is a 20th-century invention and obsession. Names were almost never spelled in a standard way in earlier records. For example, it is not unusual for the same person’s name to be spelled Meyerson, Meirzon, Majersohn, etc. — they’re all the same name. Transliteration from one language to another creates infinite spelling variances, e.g., there is no “H” sound in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, so Jewish names such as “Hersh” might become “Gersh”, utilizing the “G” sound instead.