Adapted from a talk delivered to the Annual Conference of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain October 2013
Consider the following facts:
- The readmission of the Jews to the United Kingdom took place CIRCA 1656 – the date is less precise than many works of reference would have us think.
- By 1800, the Jewish population of England is estimated to have been between twenty and twenty-five 25 thousand, most of them Ashkenazi and, with the exception of sizeable populations at seaports around the the UK, most were settled in London.
- From the table published in Shemot Vol 6.4, we can see that – with the exception of a handful of Birth Records from the New Synagogue, and some miscellaneous records for the Hambro, the microfilmed Synagogue Records for Births, Marriages and Deaths held at the LDS (Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints) start in 1791.
As we all know only too well, a large proportion of the earliest records in some of these registers are Hebrew-only. We should also note that there is a clear lacuna in the LDS microfilm of the New Synagogue Marriage Registers, where there are no actual Marriage Records between October 1823 and the start of Civil Registration in August 1837. The Susser transcripts of the New Synagogue Ketubot run from 1823 to 1832, with a couple of earlier ones that overlap the marriages on the LDS microfilm. And there are a handful without dates, But we do not know how complete this register or set of documents was. And, in any event, that still leaves around five years without any New Synagogue marriage records whatsoever. And, of course, there are no microfilms specifically relating to New Synagogue deaths.
Added to data from the foregoing microfilms, there are 47 Circumcision records in the Susser transcripts, that predate 1791 and Synagoguescribes recently added some 950 burial records dating from 1776 to 1791 from the Ducking Pond Lane small burial register held at Southampton although, disappointingly, due to the minimal patronymics, a high proportion of the earliest of these records are of little use to the genealogist. There is not much to be learned from an entry recording the death of an infant of Abraham b. Joseph. Or the Wife of Jacob b. Yehudah Leib. The maths, however, is very simple: taking round figures, 1655 to 1770,. that leaves approximately 125 years with absolutely no records for the Ashkenazi community and the a further 20 -25 years with the rarest of instances.
Let’s start by looking at what – on the Donald Rumsfeld scale of options – can be termed the Known Knowns. By which I mean the core set of microfilmed registers available to view at the LDS. These microfilms are our sole means of access to these vital records, and we must be grateful to the LDS for their forethought in undertaking this task, more than half a century ago.
In January 2000, with the invaluable help of Frank Gent, I published in book form, the transcripts .of the Great Synagogue Marriages, followed by a CD of the New Synagogue Births and Marriages These transcripts had been “bequeathed” to me by their extraordinary American transcriber – whose express wish to remain anonymous I am bound to adhere, but to whom I would like to dedicate this talk. Prior to that, with the exception of a couple of centres where the films were on “permanent loan”, researchers had to pre-order the relevant microfilm, for viewing at their nearest Family History Centre. Since that time, all the transcripts bequeathed to me – and a whole lot more – have been published on the SynagogueScribes website owned by Gaby Laws and myself, where they can be searched for free. At the same time, Harold and Miriam Lewin have print published three extensive volumes of records from the three main London Synagogues, and are currently working on the Great Synagogue Death Registers.
Whilst on the subject of transcripts, I am sometimes asked about the overlap between the Lewin publications and ours. Personally, I do not see this as a problem. Quite the contrary: Any duplication can only be good for the researcher. Here is a typical example
We recently received an enquiry from a New Zealand woman regarding a family tombstone which appears on our Cemeteryscribes website, see here.
With appropriate caveats, we had identified her family name as Levy, but the enquirer could find no indication of this in the Lewin transliteration of the relevant New Synagogue Hebrew-only marriage record. The reason soon became apparent: according to our transliterator, although there was nothing specific in the Bride’s patronymic, a comment against the groom’s entry, read “son- in- law of Feis Levi SGL, head of family”. Lewin, however, renders this as “son-in-law of Feis Sets”. I checked the typed sheet from which I had taken this record and found that the transliterator had noted, with some care, that the name Feis was followed by an S and a ‘flourish’, denoting, according to her, SGL = Segan Leviah = Levy. Both transliterators would have studied the script with equal care and attention, but the writing may have been hard to decipher, or there may have been blobs on the page. Whatever the reason, they evidently “saw” the characters differently, with consequent differing conclusions. Since we, ourselves, do not hold copies of the original register. all we can do in such circumstances is advise the researcher to locate and capture the relevant record in the microfilmed register – no easy task since, in these early Hebrew-only records there are no indications in English for the year, let alone the family name – and then seek out readers of cursive Hebrew script for a third, fourth, or even fifth interpretation.
Another crucial difference between the SynagogueScribes, Lewin and Susser transcripts is the rendition of the Hebrew names: Synagoguescribes and Susser tend toward what I would loosely describe as an Anglicised version: Jacob, Abraham, Benjamin: whereas the Lewins tend to what I will call the Israeli: Avrahom, Yaakov, Binyamin. I have discussed with Henry Roche the possibilities of trying to find a uniform orthography for transcripts but I regret the sheer difficulty of the project has, thus far, defeated me.
Now, it would be surprising if, with such a vast number of records, the odd mistake did not creep in, and we are always grateful when people bring these to our attention. One of the advantages of electronic databases over print, is that we can correct the inevitable typos the moment we spot them. Equally, where new research has helped positively identify the English names in a Hebrew-only record, we can insert these in square [—] brackets. We can also add notes where queries over the Hebrew have been raised and reasonable proofs offered. But there is one thing we will never do and that is alter the original transcription. Our transliterator is no longer here to make the evaluation and it cannot be down to us to do it for her.
There is a dangerous philosophy, loudly voiced in some quarters that, once published, work such as that done by the Lewins and ourselves, becomes “Public Property” and can be republished, in part, or in its entirety, by anyone, anywhere, and even subject to amendment and alteration. Not surprisingly, I do not share that view! Petra Laidlaw’s inspired introduction of The Genealogy Quality Code is a first step toward preserving the integrity of published databases and other material, but we need to push for more education and a greater understanding of why the wiki-ing of such works is both damaging, dangerous, and just plain wrong. The question of ownership is fraught with difficulty and I will to return to it at the end of my talk..
I want to return now to the original records, and two sets in particular. On the Rumsfeld scale, I suppose that these could be defined as Unknown-Knowns. We know, in broad terms, WHAT they are. and we now know WHERE they can be found – in the archives of the Beth Din But, there are no transcripts and no public access, so we cannot know the details, let alone the names, of the individuals whose deaths and births they record.
The first of these are the un-filmed Burial Registers of the New Synagogue – three volumes or more. As far as I know, there is no published record of the years they cover and researchers, who believe they may contain a record of their ancestor’s burial, are obliged to place a request with the Chief Archivist, who will require detailed information of name and date range, and a fee will be charged.
Personal research problems are generally of little interest to others, but I feel one would be useful here to illustrate the importance of these, registers. I had been stuck for sometime on one of my ancestors. a Joseph Jacob or Jacobs, who would have been born around 1762 or earlier. In an interview given to the Jewish Chronicle on 24 September 1900, on the occasion of his Diamond Wedding, Joseph’s grandson, John Jacobs, stated that his father, Samuel Jacobs of London and Sheffield, was the son of Joseph Jacob of Gravel Lane, a founder member of the New Synagogue. And this information was repeated almost verbatim by Roth in his “Rise of Provincial Jewry” in the section on the Sheffield Community.
Unfortunately, we have tangible proof that John Jacobs was very prone to – well, let’s be kind and call it fantasising So, not surprisingly, we gave, the statement about his grandfather little credence. But an abstract of a Will dated 1826, prepared for the secular records section of out website by our friend and colleague, David Alexander, looked promising. The testator was one Joseph Jacob, tobacconist of Gravel Lane, with a son called Samuel. Promising? Yes! But very far from conclusive. A death record might help. A kind friend scrolled through the relevant Great Synagogue microfilm at Kew for me but, although there was a strict and very narrow timespan for the search, between a codicil dated 15 January and Probate dated 8 February, he could find no likely record. A request to the Chief Archivist ultimately produced a burialrecord and the unique patronymic, as verified for me by Henry Roche, clinched the identification. He was Joseph b Eleazer vav-vav-tet with an abbreviation mark (“) over the vav’s; a perfect match to the patronymic which appears in the Hebrew-only New Synagogue marriage record of Joseph’s son, Samuel a combination of characters, incidentally, I have not found in any other record. However, only very recently, Henry Roche has suggested a link between these characters and the word WASSERTRAGER (water seller) which appears in a handful of records, some of which can be linked to Jacobs families. I have not yet had time to work through the data but it looks very promising and, once again, the Hebrew records have provided a vital clue
We were lucky, in our approach to the Beth Din, that we had a limited date range for this search and the record was not Hebrew-only. Had either of those been the case. the charge would have been much higher and the time taken to effect it even longer than the five weeks that elapsed – indeed, if the Chief Archivist had been especially busy at the time, it may not even have been undertaken. Such dependency is deeply frustrating.
The importance of the second set of records in this Unknown-Known category cannot be over-stated since they date from 1771. I refer to what Roth describes in his catalogue as “a number of unbound birth fascicules”. Earlier this year, when Henry Roche asked me if I knew their whereabouts, I had to admit that, not only was I ignorant of where thry might be, I had never even heard of them! Nor, it seemed, had anyone else.
Henry first saw them In the late 1970’s at Woburn House where, with the permission of of the then Archivist, Reverend Sunshine, he was able to examine the Colyer-Fergusson, Hyamson & other collections. He was also able to consult the original Great Synagogue registers and, vitally, a set of birth records on unbound slips of paper from which he was able to copy the basic English details of the births of his ancestor, George Levi , and his 5 brothers. He returned in the mid-1980’s, by which time he had learnt to read cursive Hebrew, and was able to add the Hebrew information from those same fascicules – which, by then had all been pasted into a book and indexed by (he believes) Reverend. Sunshine himself. These records were, apparently, fully bilingual and covered births from as early as 1771 up to 1829, including many names absent from the microfilmed 1791-1852 Register. With more time on his hands, Henry thought it would be good to take another look at them and, this time, widen the scope of his searches beyond the Levi family. Having recently discovered that they were currently held by the Beth Din, he put in a request to the Chief Archivist, but I have yet to learn whether the results have been positive . So, progress, of a sort! But would it not be wonderful if you, or I, or other interested researchers, across the globe, could browse a full transcript of these unique records for ourselves!
I have no need to explain to seasoned Genealogists why these Synagogue Records are so important to pre-civil registration research: it is, of course, for the P-A-T-R-O-N-Y-M-I-C-S.
As I noted In an article I wrote for Shemot in September 2002, the range of family names in use in 18th and early 19th century Anglo Jewry was very limited and the registers are crammed with Levys, and Cohens, Phillips and, Benjamins, Solomons, Lazarus and Harrises, with few recognisable non-tribal, non patronymic surnames. And this limited name pool was coupled with an equally narrow range of forenames; Joseph, Henry, Elizabeth, Sarah. Impossible to know which of half a dozen contemporary Samuel Levys is yours. Fortunately, however, the patronymics at this period frequently contained useful additional flourishes – places of origin: Amsterdam, Mannheim, Courland . Occupations: schneider sopher, kesselflicker, and my favourite Taschenspieler –the juggler! There were also personal descriptions – small, tall, dark, blind hunchback. All of which, if repeated across more than one record, make for helpful identifiers which can be vital in eliminating “false” trails. And, they are of equal importance in the forensic examination of long-since published trees and genealogies that, in the absence of other sources, have come to be accepted by many as factual records
A classic example of this occurs in Roth’s 1950 publication “The Rise of Provincial Jewry” in the section on The Early Communities he writes:
In Deal, there were in 1814 three Jewish Navy Agents–Abraham Aaron, Emanuel Emanuel, and Moses Moses; here too lived Michael Levy, one of whose 26(!) daughters was Sir Sidney Lee’s other grandmother.
My interest in Michael Levy of Deal arose from an enquiry from a non-Jewish descendant of Lewis Levy, son of a Solomon Levy of Deal. Brothers, I supposed.?
In a fairly short space of time I had amassed a large cohort of data on Solomon Levy of Deal, But nothing on Michael Levy of Deal. Nothing, that is,. except the entry in Roth, a similar reference in Arthur Barnett’s History of the Western Synagogue, written 10 years later, with a preface by Roth, and, slightly less specifically, Eleanor Farjeon’s 1935 autobiography ‘A Nursery in the Nineties’ which opens with these words
“Benjamin Leopold Farjeon was born in 1838 of Jewish parents. His mother, Dinah, was a native of Deal; she had twenty-five sisters”.
Stern’s genealogy of the Abraham family http://americanjewisharchives.org/publications/fajf/pdfs/stern_p002.pdf shows Rebecca, the wife of Victor Abraham, as a daughter of Michael Levy of Deal . No reference to the tribe of sisters – although these are mentioned in the family papers, about which more later. Now, time is limited and, since this talk is about records, not research, I’m going to ask you to take the genealogy on trust and confine myself to the basic available data.
The 1839 will of Elizabeth Gompertz nee Levy names five daughters of her brother, Solomon Levy of Deal, and his wife Phoebe: these are Bella Levy, Fanny Lyon the wife of Lewis Lyon, Charlotte Spiers the wife of B.M. Spiers, Dinah Farjeon the wife of Jacob Farjeon and Rebecca, the wife of Victor Abraham. Of these girls, Isabella did not marry; marriages for Fanny and Charlotte have not yet been found; Dinah married at Bevis Marks: the record reads “Jacob Hay de Israel Farjeon and Triendla de Solomon Salman Levy
26 Tishri 5588 = 17 October 1827”; Rebecca Levy married Victor Abraham at the Great Synagogue (link to GSM 066/5) where her father is shown as Shlomeh Zalman Levy..
Separate newspaper announcements in the Kentish Press of 1810 give us two further daughters of Solomon Levy of Deal, Silversmith: these were:
Elizabeth, the ancestress of Sir Sidney Lee, whose name appears in the Roth quote referred to earlier, and who married Joseph Levy in Boston Lincs ( there is no synagogue record for this marriage) And Polly Mary, who married Moses Lyon also of Boston Lincs at the Great Synagogue London, where she is recorded as the daughter of Zalman SGL from Deal.
We have thus identified SEVEN of the TWENTY-SEVEN alleged daughters, said to have been sired by Michael Levy of Deal, romantically recorded in family papers as a Wrecker, but, who, on of examination of the facts, turn out to be. issue of Solomon Levy the Silversmith of Deal. In addition, we have found two circumcision records located in the Susser transcripts of the circumcision records of Rabbi Ash of Dover
On 1 April 1804 Meir b HaHaver Solomon Zalman SGL Deal – later Identified as Michael Levy and, on 22 August 1805 Ary[eh] Leib b R Solomon Zalman SGL Deal identified as Lewis Levy, later of Birmingham.
Enquiries re Michael Levy to the local Museums and Libraries in the Deal and Sandwich area have been totally unproductive. No listings in local directories. No mentions in the local press. Nothing!
A direct descendant of Victor Abraham kindly sent me copies of a Family History written by Lawrence Abraham, one of Rebecca’s great grandsons, which document is cited by Barnett in his History of the Western Synagogue, and appears to be the sole source for the works by Roth, and Barnett. And, on reading it through, I think I can see how at least one of the “mistakes” may have arisen: Lawrence writes that Rebecca was one of possibly 8 daughters of Michael Levy and, a few paragraphs later, speaks of Rebecca having given birth to some 16 to 22 children. My guess – and it is only a guess – is that the figures got confused, and somewhere along the line she became a sib of 27, rather than the mother of such a large brood. Lawrence also raises the possibility that the father of some, or all, of these children may have been called SOLOMON and, on the very last page, he quotes three birth records with very accurate dates down to the hour, for a son, Moses, another son Isaiah (named in the will of Solomon Gompertz as a son of Solomon Levy and a daughter, Fanny. (presumably the wife of Lewis Lyon mentioned in the Will of Elizabeth Levy Gompertz, as a daughter of Solomon Levy of Deal).Mention is also made of a son Hyman, who I have yet to locate. Whether there was a Michael Levy, with a close connection to Solomon Levy of Deal, remains a mystery. As does the wonderfully romantic story of him being a “Wrecker”, and a great deal more research will be required before the case can finally be marked “solved”
It is easy to dismiss this kind of unsourced “mis-information” when it appears in a personal Family Tree posted on Ancestry, much harder when the author is Cecil Roth, THE historian of Anglo Jewry, and then repeated by the almost equally eminent, Arthur Barnett, who seems to have regurgitated unverified data from a family memoir, written many years after the deaths of the main participants, and, seemingly, without checking its reliability. The Synagogue records were there for him to consult. Luckily they are still here today. But we have no guarantees that this will always be the case. I say this advisedly as, during my correspondence with Mr Abraham, he revealed a shocking event which should make us all sit up and take notice
It appears that after the death of Lawrence Abraham, his sister, Kathleen Joseph, donated all the family papers to – well, let’s just call it “a notable Jewish Institution”. But, some years later, enquiries by family members were met with firm assertions that the Institution concerned had no record of ever having received any such papers. The family were understandably distressed but, since they could find no actual correspondence, there was no way of proving the rights and wrongs of the case. Their valuable family archive had seemingly vanished into thin air and they despaired of ever seeing it again. So you can imagine their shock on being alerted to the site of an American auction house which gave details of the sale in 2005 of some of the items.
The online link to this sale is no longer live, however, the details of an earlier auction in June 1998 can still be seen on line – the sale of the Abraham Family papers, which were valued at between two to three thousand dollars, in fact realised over sixteen thousand dollars. Unsurprisingly, the auction house will not divulge any information regarding either seller or purchaser.
I took a quick look at items currently available on Judaica auctions and was flabbergasted to see just how much is out there. I wonder who purchased these items?
HEBREW MANUSCRIPT – Two Chalitsah Books (Hebrew registers of the authorizations granted, releasing men from the halakhic requirement to marry the widow of a deceased brother) one by the Knesset Israel community (United Synagogue) in the City of London (1874-1880), the other from an unidentified London synagogue. London, 1874-1920.
Who put them on the market? And were any checks made as to ownership rights?
And it begs the question: What else has “disappeared” in this way? And what else may follow? Since there is such a lack of clarity as to who owns what, and where the documents are housed, we may never know. And it brings us back to the difficult question of ownership.
The fate of the Abraham papers acts as a timely warning. Do not assume an institution will be a willing recipient of your family papers – storage and preservation can be costly and space is always at a premium. Make sure everyone understands the terms of the donation. And get something in writing.
Ownership of Historic Synagogue Reisters and other vital Community records cannot be dealt with so readily. Who owns them, for a start? Arguably, in law, the Mormon Church of Latter-day Saints can lay claim to “ownership” of the microfilms – but not, I would suggest, the information they contain. Nor, in my view, does that belong to the United Synagogue, the Beth Din, or any other institution, archive or Society, or titular keeper. That information surely “belongs” to Anglo-Jewry?
In an article in the August edition of Shemot, the eminent Anglo-Jewish genealogist, Anthony Joseph wrote “The need to check original sources remains paramount” I wouldn’t argue with that. But, today, the sheer number of researchers across the globe makes this impossible in practice: considerations of cost and organisation apart, delicate manuscripts could not support being handled to this extent. There is a New Synagogue Privileged Members Ledger held by the LMA, that was withdrawn about 18 months ago, simply because if was in such a delicate state. I was not surprised. Over the years I had been consulting it, the damp that had affected the bottom right hand corner of the volume had slowly crept further up the page, although the greater proportion was still serviceable. A recent exchange of correspondence with the LMA Archivist has resulted in the manuscript being made available once more, in exceptional circumstances. But, given the degree of damage, I fear its days are ultimately numbered. And, even if it were technically possible, the cost of restoration of this single manuscript alone would run into thousands of pounds.
The answer to the problem of universal access to, and preservation of, original historic manuscript records has to be the production of properly digitised copies. That may not suit the purists, but it would give all researchers the same opportunities that were once available to the lucky few who like Anthony Joseph,. started their research several decades ago.
But, and it cannot be stressed too strongly, such digitisation must be done to a professional standard, with the most up-to-date equipment. It beggars belief that in the 21st century we should have to trek out to some distant family History Centre, to peer at records microfilmed almost 65 years ago, using stone age hand-cranked viewers! And that we should be dependent on the LDS for the privilege! Any more than we should be dependent on the goodwill of the Chief Archivist of the Beth Din. What happens when the present incumbent retires? Will his successor have the time or the interest? What sort of charges will be made for us to have access to OUR records? How many weeks or months will we have to wait? That is, if the joint administrators of the United Synagogue and the Beth Din even permit it.
I am aware that stalwarts of the JGSGB have been negotiating with these organisations for many years and, I believe, they have had some notable successes. But , in my view, nowhere near enough.
Perhaps the time has come for a wider, more collaborative approach? Perhaps the manuscript and written heritage of Anglo-Jewry could be treated in the same way as that of the built environment – cemeteries, synagogues, etc. much of which is now firmly protected by English Heritage, with the possibility of assistance from outside funds ranging from the Government, through the Department of Culture Media and Sport, the National Lottery and a variety of other public and private sources. The Jewish Museum seems to have just such a programme under way with their “Judaica Europeana” project: would the Society be prepared to consider joining with them, or some other institution such as the Hartley Library at Southampton University, in a collaborative venture to digitise, database, and, make available to researchers, the records of Post- Readmission Anglo-Jewry?
I appreciate that getting a collaborative venture off this kind off the ground would not be easy but, with goodwill on all sides, ways and means could surely be found to make it achievable. There could be no argument over the objectives:
- The long term preservation of the manuscripts, coupled with permanent, cast-iron protection from financial exploitation or wiki-ing;
- An intensive and properly conducted exercise in transcription and databasing of the digitised records
- Free, or minimum cost electronic access to ALL researchers
These historic records belong to US.. They relate to OUR Ancestors. They contain OUR History. They are OUR heritage. Their future preservation should concern us all..
Angela Shire 27 October 2013