“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
― David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
The most challenging aspect of running a project called “Homestead Hebrews” is that I do not and will never know all the Homestead Hebrews. Take the case of Charles Sloane, an active member of Homestead’s Jewish community, whose Jewishness I did not discover until earlier this year. How many records pertaining to him have I overlooked in the past four years because his name is Charles Sloane? What about all the other Charles Sloanes, whose names similarly don’t tempt me into further research and whose Jewishness isn’t hinted on any record I’ve encountered? For example, there are 20,452 names in the 1920 census of Homestead. Though I have read them all, I cannot investigate every one, and I wonder if even a Homestead Hebrew from back then could have picked out all his coreligionists from the list. Consider Jacob Israel, a steelworker who lived on Fourth Avenue. In the quick mental math that I do sometimes hundreds of times a day when poring through such records, I thought, “Name: yes; profession: unlikely 1; address: possibly.” I decided he was worth a proper investigation and, after exhausting all the online sources, concluded that while Jacob Israel was probably born a Jew, at some point he stopped living as one. Or did he? When the synagogue leadership periodically assembled lists of their neighbors who weren’t members but should be, did they know about him? If I include him, am I affirming or subverting the choices he made in life?
This project takes its name from the town’s one synagogue, the Homestead Hebrew Congregation. Though the synagogue never represented the whole of Jewish life, today it represents nearly all of the community’s surviving records, which unavoidably tilts the story I have been telling you for the past four years in favor of this one mode of participating in Jewish life in Homestead. (How many of you consider your synagogue the organization that most defines your Jewish identity?) Over the decades there were numerous other Jewish organizations in Homestead — social, youth, charitable, political, and veterans groups, plus umbrella organizations to coordinate them all — but I don’t have a complete inventory of all the ways a person could have affiliated Jewishly in Homestead. Just last month I happened upon a piece scrap paper in synagogue records from 1918 with notes about a “Homestead Jewish Welfare League” that is mentioned nowhere else. Even of the organizations whose names I do know, membership lists survive for none. The evidence I have collected suggests that if such lists existed, I would find names of people I have seen documented nowhere else, and I would discover deep Jewish engagement for recognizable people who otherwise seem peripheral. Such realizations make me despair of ever being able to say anything definitive about this community or the people in it.
Leaving aside the intractable challenges with identifying “Hebrews,” even the “Homestead” part of this project is a problem, because fairly early on the bulk of the Jews of Homestead had moved outside of the official borders of the Borough of Homestead. Although many remained within the larger “Homestead District,” which included Munhall, West Homestead, Whitaker, West Mifflin, Lincoln Place, and Hays, over time most of them resettled across the river in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, while still maintaining their Homestead affiliation (well, at least initially). And yet, at the same time, the town’s Jewish organizations attracted some members who lived in none of these places, but centered their community in Homestead. A. Bleich of Webster, a tiny town 20 miles from the synagogue, was for some reason a member for 25 years despite the perfectly acceptable synagogue directly across the river from him in Donora. 2 Taking people like him into account, I must accept that despite my willingness to perform insane labors in the name of research, it is simply not possible to trawl all the records where undiscovered Homestead Hebrews might yet lurk.
Despite these insurmountable hurdles, I have for some time been pointing my efforts towards the goal of compiling all the names of Jewish people who ever lived in Homestead — or getting as close as I possibly can. 3 Though many records do not survive, many do — in Homestead far more than similar communities — and judging by the number of hapax legomena I have found (names only attested in one record), I suspect that expect for the earliest years, when everything is shrouded in fog, and for the later years, when the records fade away and then disappear altogether, I’ve found more than 90%, maybe more than 95% of the Jews who were there. I’d like to think that I’ve at least found everyone to whom the community mattered.
To find all these people, my basic procedure is to:
- Read as many Homestead-related records as I can get my hands on
- Identify names that sound Jewish (unless they’re obviously Jewish by context)
- Confirm (or refute) that person’s Jewish identity
It matters, I think, for you to know in some detail how I’ve done what I’ve done, so you can understand where I’ve gotten to and why. It certainly matters to me to tell you. But if you want to skip to the part that benefits you, click here.
A person lives a life, in one place or in many, and everywhere he goes, his path intersects with record keepers. He is born, and a town registrar or a religious official or both marks his arrival. He boards a ship to come to America, and several different clerks note his arrival and departure from the different ports through which he passes. He enrolls in school; he takes out a library card; he is drafted for the army; he falls seriously ill; he joins a club. Every time his name is set in ink on paper. Periodically men canvass his neighborhood to record his address and profession. In a flurry of paperwork he becomes a citizen, marries, has children, joins a synagogue. He starts a business, opens a bank account, buys furniture on credit, mortgages his home — and then his creditors come for him, or his partners turn on him, or something entirely different: his success is reported widely. More ink, more paper, even typeface now. The cycle continues with his children, where his name remains present, but secondary. And on and on, until his life ends and his earthly affairs are wrapped up in one last burst of ink. Finally, in the ultimate celebration of his existence, his name is at last etched in stone, perhaps also in bronze.
As he returns to dust, every record of every intersection he ever had with a record-keeper enters a strange second life. Some of these records will moulder in basements and some will decompose in a landfill; some will burn up in fires and some will be forever chilled in temperature-controlled vaults; some will transcend the paper of their birth and turn into film or bytes, technology neither the man nor the record-keeper could have ever imagined. Most will simply get lost. What survives survives by sheer luck, and who can say where it will land? This paper to that archive; this film to that library; these bytes to that website. The man’s wanderings are long over, but his name has spread all over the earth.
My job as a community historian is to collect these records from the four corners of the earth to re-assemble the life that was led. And I do mean the four corners — there is no rhyme or reason as to why things end up where they do. I’ve found court records of my Pittsburgh ancestors in Kansas City and synagogue records of my Philadelphia ancestors in Israel. Their names traveled to places they never saw in life, and I trail after them, decades behind. All of you who are reading are part of this story, too: I’ve found names in the family photo albums and scrapbooks you have taken with you to wherever your own life’s journey has taken you.
The easy part: So much is online! 4 I have collected names from my the comfort of my desk, my couch, even while lying in bed! In this way I have read through all the publicly-available censuses for the Homestead District and gotten about half-way through the city directories (think proto-phone books). I have assembled all mentions of Homestead and Munhall from Pittsburgh’s historic Jewish newspapers. I have even clicked through all the publicly-available birth certificates (don’t get too excited — this covers just 1906-1910).
The hard part: Let’s start with the untold miles of microfilm of Homestead’s newspapers I have skimmed. I’ve covered 1881-1925 so far. I can literally multiply out the miles I have to go before I sleep. Then there are all the physical records that exist in archives I’ve visited all over the country — tax records, liquor licenses, business directories, bankruptcy filings, all kinds of court records, and much, much more. I’m terrible at travel, but I love the adventure of cracking into a brand-new collection of records in a brand-new archive.
The most important records, of course, are the sixteen boxes of synagogue records housed at the Heinz History Center’s Rauh Jewish Archives in Pittsburgh. I moved to Pittsburgh four years ago simply to be near to them, the craziest and best decision of my life. Every name in these records needs to be collected. I’ve transcribed tens of thousands of entries from ledgers spanning 1900-1978, but there is much more to go if I want to be thorough.
I can’t help but focus on all the records that are gone. I dream about peddlers’ licenses. Someone told me that Homestead Borough unloaded all its historic records into a dumpster when it moved buildings. Someone else told me that some records were rescued by a local historical society from which I have never been able to get straight answers. And you, what do you have in your attic, and what fell prey to downsizing? My father’s full Hebrew name, calligraphed on a Bar Mitzvah certificate I once saw in the basement of my childhood home, was drowned in a flood not long ago.
Every unfamiliar name I encounter in a Homestead record poses a question: to research or not to research? As a Jew named Hepps (originally Hübsch), I am the first person to know that there are no rules for what is a Jewish name. And yet, with sometimes minimal context clues, what else is there for me to go on besides the name? All of us in the Jewish community have an instinct for what is and what isn’t — no? — and that sense, however imperfect, is what guides me.
Jews in Homestead were entirely of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) descent — the first generation being immigrants from traditional communities — which narrows the naming possibilities. Even after Shmuel became Sam, Moshe Morris, Chana Anna, Feige Fanny, or Leah Lena, their first names still hint at their Jewish origins because they chose from a small set of options, so narrow that even many then-common first names like Andrew, James, Anthony, Leroy, Elmer, Vernon, and Wayne did not appeal. Individually their new first names could have appeared in any non-Jewish family, but collectively they were quite distinct — which is to say, given the first names of two parents and a few children, I can predict with decent accuracy which families were Jewish even without consulting the last names.
Patterns of first names provide one other useful shortcut: Ashkenazi Jews like our Homesteaders do not name their children after living relatives. 5 I might happen upon a family with parents Louis and Bertha — common Jewish first names at the turn of the last century (likely nés Leib and Beile or Breine) — but if they had a son Louis or a daughter Bertha, I could rule them out. (Well, almost always. Why Samuel Fogel, who immigrated from Hungary to Homestead, named his firstborn son Samuel I do not know. The synagogue records called him Samuel Jr., which is perhaps preferable to how they called my great-uncle and his cousin Samuel Hepps No. 1 and Samuel Hepps No. 2. As I said, this was not a generation that valued creative names.)
These patterns in first names helped to overcome the difficulties with last names. Name-changing is the central challenge in Jewish genealogy; all of us have branches in our family where we know the last name wasn’t the original last name. Antisemites like Henry Ford claimed that this was “for purposes of concealment,” but in a small town like Homestead this accusation is absurd. Even when Markowitz became Markley (or Markle or Marks), Berkowitz Burke, Zasofsky Zane, or Kleiman Gordon, all of their neighbors heard them speak Yiddish and watched them attend synagogue, enact Jewish rituals, and socialize with other Jews. (Did you note the receipt from Jackson’s Furniture Store towards the beginning of this post? Do you think native English speakers would have had an easy time telling their friends about the bargains they found at Yachnovitz’s?) In reality, such name changes were the exception, but original last names are not necessarily any more Jewish-sounding. In Homestead there were Jewish and non-Jewish Glucks, Kleins, Weisses, Schwartzes, Davidsons, Weinbergers, and others, yet Kaplan, Rosenberg, Levy, Spiegel, Kaufman, and Steinberg were never Jewish — Germans all! 6 For both changed and unchanged surnames, I had to learn which surnames were or weren’t Jewish within this one community. In the beginning it helped a lot that the synagogue records are so complete. Half, Hausrath, Heilbron, Widom — these were all well-known Jewish families with last names as unlikely as my own. Should I ever be insane enough to accept the not-infrequent requests I get to repeat my Homestead project for some other town, I’d have to wipe away all these rules and start afresh. 7
If I get to this step with a name, often I start with little more than that name. I know the person lived in or near Homestead, and sometimes at a specific street address, plus I might also have a profession and/or a relative’s name. Sometimes I can estimate the age of a person based on the context. Then the search begins: I plug this information into my favorite genealogical websites to see what I can deduce from the records that turn up.
It sounds straightforward, but not when you’re talking about Jewish people who immigrated a century ago. The first problem is that our Jewish ancestors did not have one, constant name. I’m not back to name changes again; I’m bypassing the vexing mistakes of the record-keepers; and I’m ignoring orthography, which meant nothing to them or their record-keepers during this period (even at the synagogue, where friends were recording information about friends, the result is a jumble of Markowitz/Markovitz, Lefkowitz/Lefkovitz, Cutler/Kotler, Glick/Gluck/Glück/Glueck, Saievitz/Sajevitz/Shaievitz/Shiovitz/Shayovitz, and on and on and on to the point where longtime member Nathan Luterman’s name was never once spelled right). All three of these issues are frequent and real impediments towards linking a name to a person, but the problem is far deeper, for with all their languages and cultural contexts, our Homestead ancestors went by multiple names. 8
Rather than bore you with a catalog of all the possibilities, reasons, and examples, I’ll bore you instead with a poem, one of my own composition, inspired by “Each of Us Has a Name” by the Israeli poet Zelda. 9
Each of them had a name
given by their parents
at the time of their birth
in the village of their birth
in the language of their birth
And if that language
was not the holy language
each of them had a name
given by their parents
in God’s own tongue
for times of sickness
and for times of prayers
Each them had a name
in each of their neighbors’ languages
and offered to them as a wish
for they spoke their neighbors’ languages
but knew not their ways
Each of them had a name
a nickname for each of those names
for names were given to honor
and nicknames in love
Each of them had a name
given to them by their parents
to evade conscription
to assume another’s identity
to travel under false papers
(And if they did not escape
each of them had a middle name
and a number
given to them by–
May God blot out their memory)
Each of them had a name
given by themselves
in the language of their new home
after they left behind
Each of them had a name
given by their friends
and given by their customers
the surest sign
that home could be here
Each of them had a name
given by themselves
to trick the Angel of Death or the Evil Eye
in extreme cases
Each of them had two names
given at the end of all things
one from the beginning and one from much later
by the wise son who listened
or the simple son who did not
Each of them had a name
given to them by God
inscribed in the Book of Life and the Book of Death
the records that exist nowhere
but survive forever
Two very real examples: First, my great-grandfather Bernhardt (or Bernhard or Bernard — even he couldn’t pick just one). Remembered fondly as Barney, he also appears as Bernát, Bertalan, Dov Ber, and Beryl Dov. Second, a Duquesne rabbi whose son married the daughter of synagogue member Usher Cohen. For him I have four names from the four records I found him in: Ferdinand, Nandor, Nathan, and Yitzhak Mordecai. 10
Thus, the name I find first for a person may not correlate with the name on the majority of his surviving records. In such cases the genealogical search engines turn up nothing at all, when I know, I know! that somewhere out there this man’s records do exist! But under what name? What I wouldn’t give to identify Hersko Berkovics, “a Hebrew of Homestead” who in 1901 “renounced the faith of his fathers and united himself with the Greek Catholic Church at Duquesne” for “his sweetheart” (source). (There is also, of course, the case where there are too many people by the same name. For this reason I’ll never be able to conclusively identify M. Gross, S.K. Markowitz, or Joseph Schwartz, three of the Homestead synagogue’s 18 charter members.)
However, I’m not looking to match a person to his records just for the sake of the match. I’m specifically looking to identify if this person is Jewish and therefore part of the story I am telling. But the second challenge inherent in researching the Jewish identity of an American is finding any records at all that address the question.
I have to remind myself: Thank Gd it is so hard! This is is the very reason why our families immigrated in the first place! Just a couple weeks ago I watched a short film made by a group of American Jews from the Soviet Union in which a woman who looks my age described what went through her mind when she was asked for her nationality on a Soviet passport application. “For a minute, I thought, ‘What if I were to put Russian? Would all my troubles be over? Would I be able to attend the university of my choice?'” This recent example speaks to centuries of challenges for our ancestors. In being documented separately from the rest of their countrymen, they were excluded from the full privileges of citizenship. In America religion is not part of official government documents, which flung upon new doors for them. I wouldn’t have it otherwise.
That said, there are records that hint strongly. On ship manifests, Hebrew might be listed as a person’s race, and on censuses, Yiddish their native tongue. But the most reliable indicator I’ve found is the cemetery in which a person was buried. In this region during the period in question, Jews were buried in Jewish cemeteries, Catholics were buried in Catholic cemeteries, and Protestants in town cemeteries.
Even with all these challenges, it typically takes me just 5-10 minutes of research on a new name, if I don’t hit a dead-end, to determine if that person was Jewish. This reasonable investment of time makes me willing to investigate all the names that could go either way, and makes my conclusions far more reliable than previous studies like mine. 11 If I have been more successful, I can take credit only for my attention to detail and sitzfleisch. The truth is, I owe everything to the Internet in general and in particular to a rather small group of people, paid and unpaid, who have undertaken exhaustive efforts to digitize a slew of Pennsylvania-specific, Pittsburgh-specific, and Pittsburgh-Jewish-specific records. Most of the records upon which I rely simply do not exist online for other states, even for other cities in Pennsylvania. I could not, for example, apply my methodology to the Jews of New York City or even Philadelphia. Because Homestead exists within such a sweet spot of records, I can do crazy things like investigate every Jewish-sounding name, and because I can do these crazy things, I can get closer to the real picture of who was really in this community. 12
So. Today I present to you my first crack at that list of community members, posted online at Data.HomesteadHebrews.com. This website, running on software I developed myself, has as of September 9 more than 2,400 people in it with nearly 25,000 records linked to them. 13 You may be in it, and so may generations of your family before you. Feel free to search by name to see what records I have collected for your family members so far. You’ll mostly find the kinds of records you will not find on any other genealogical website: tax records, liquor licenses, business directories, Homestead newspaper articles, and lots and lots of synagogue records. What you’ll find is only a subset of all the information I have already collected, let alone all the information I still plan to collect, but I hope it proves valuable to you even at this early stage.
While one of my goals for this new website is to make it easier for you to share in all the wonderful discoveries I’ve made about your families, my larger purpose is to weave these individual discoveries into the richest possible history of our community. The truth is, once I follow the three steps above and identify a new Jewish Homesteader, my work is only just beginning. I must find all the information I can, online and off, to return to her name to the fullest possible reconstruction of the person she was. (Here’s the part where I come to you, because much of the best surviving information rests with descendants like you.) To make sense of all this information, I am organizing people by place of origin, date of immigration, profession, prosperity, Jewish affiliations, secular affiliations, family members, and much more. Only when I understand everybody together can I understand any one person or event in context. 14
With the tools I am building into the website to reconnect the isolated bits of information I extracted from so many historical documents, I can get at the patterns and narratives that tell us what this community was. I must acknowledge, however, that this step is where I hesitate, because so much of this correlation requires counting. How many Jews were in Homestead at a particular time? How many belonged to the synagogue? How many bought seats on the High Holidays? But this whole enterprise of counting Jews, as necessary as it is for me to make sense of the story, is contrary to Jewish tradition. A 19th century commentary, the Anaf Yosef, explains that
counting individuals creates a possibility that they will be judged in the Heavenly court. [Author Enoch Zundel ben Joseph] adds that this judgement has the potential for having devastating effects, more so than any other judgement, because usually G-d in His infinite kindness judges the Jewish people as a whole, rather than individually. This insures that even if an individual is not acting righteous, as long as the klal (the Jewish nation) is considered righteous, the individual will be judged as a tzaddik. However, when they are counted as individuals, Jews become “separated” and are subject to individual scrutiny. 15 (source)
I finish this essay on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year — also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, on which we stand before the Heavenly court, awaiting for the decree of our coming year to be inscribed. There’s a reason why we attend synagogue collectively, atoning together publicly. I feel all too strongly, this time of year more than any, how fragile I am alone. I don’t seek to fracture that aspect of our tradition in the name of documenting our tradition. I just don’t know how else to find confidence that I’ve found threads of truth in all this mess of imperfect data.
I could make the excuse that really I am counting names, memberships, purchases, countries, but the fact is I can see no way to get to meaningful knowledge of the Homestead klal without reassembling it from its individual people, and to understand each person, each family, I need to understand how each one contributed to or contradicted the general patterns of the community. For example, the synagogue’s historian wrote vaguely about the early 1900s, “The persecution in Europe kept on, and brought to us Jews from all parts of the world, they brought with them different customs, habits of thought, phases of religious beliefs, acquired and inherited prejudices, each group sought to dominate the others, controversies arose, and finally some decided to organize their own Cong.” Here is my first attempt at tabulating what was going on:
Now do you see what the secretary was saying without saying? And yet, without counting… impossible.
I don’t know who was in the Homestead klal without counting. I need to separate out the individuals to bring them back together the way they were in life. I don’t want to bring them back before the Heavenly court. I want to bring them back before us.
This klal isn’t a klal anymore. It has fragmented all on its own — into individuals, families, scraps of memory, traces of stories, far-flung records. A few of you reading know something real of what this community was because you lived its middle and end, but already my counting has shown me it went through a significant transformation in the 1920s when the Jewish population of the Homestead District dropped by half. There is no one left to tell us what the community was like in its first flowering, when hundreds of immigrant families concentrated in just a few blocks figured out how to be one community despite their nearly insurmountable differences. My heart quickens to imagine how they were all bustling around a century ago at this very moment in a final flurry of preparations before sunset. I sat at the cemetery this morning, where all the people I am counting rest in peace and remembrance, and the quiet there deceives me, and the calm along Eighth Avenue confuses me, and the truth lies somewhere in all this noisy data if I can be forgiven what I must do to reassemble it.
So, I will continue to gather records and extract the names. And I will count the names to understand the lives. And I will count the lives to turn them into stories. And I will count the stories to figure out what they all mean. After so many years of my doing this research, I have to believe that the labors of the record-keepers who came before me were meant for a moment just like this.
Yes, I know there were Jewish steelworkers in Homestead, including from my own family, but they made up a very small percentage of the overall workforce. ↩
A. Bleich stands out in another way, too. Though his name appears consistently and frequently in the synagogue records, I have been utterly unable to find him in any other record that would permit me to assign him a first name, let alone even the barest outlines of a life story. ↩
You’ll note that I say “lived” and not “worked.” To understand all the outside Jews who had businesses in Homestead is a future goal. ↩
Though the quality of the digitization is so poor in some cases as to be absolutely useless. (I am trying really hard not to tuck a rant four-years-in-the-making here in the footnotes where only my fellow zealots will see it, but Ancestry should be seriously ashamed of the quality of their transcription for the 1940 census that they rushed out in 2012 and have never bothered to improve. And don’t get me started on their Pennsylvania Death Certificates.) ↩
This is not true for Sephardic Jews. ↩
“Jewish or German” became the ironic game I played with myself whenever I encountered an unfamiliar borderline name. If a name I guess to be Jewish wasn’t, the person always was from Germany. ↩
Scanning records for Homestead Jewish surnames has now become a sort of ingrained reflex I can’t control. Every Shabbat at Beth Shalom, I look for our people in the yahrzeit list — they’re always there! And a couple winters ago, when I was in a shul in Buenos Aires admiring the unique design of their yahrzeit plaques, I realized I was scanning for Homestead surnames without meaning to. ↩
It’s worth pointing out that genealogical search engines, unlike most search functions, do not require letter-for-letter word matches. Instead, they use soundex algorithms to match names by how they sound, which means that minor variations in spelling are surmountable (but major changes like Leiderman to Luterman are not). ↩
Her poem is taken from the lines in Midrash Tanchuma, “Every time a man increases the number of good deeds he performs, he adds to his good name. You find that a man is known by three names: the name by which his father and mother call him, the name by which other men call him, and the one he earns for himself; the most important name is the one he earns for himself.” ↩
For my great-grandfather: Bernard is the most frequent spelling of his full first name in America, but I suspect he deployed Bernhardt on more formal occasions, like his sword and his tombstone. Barney was his nickname, though it appears on official records like a son’s birth certificate. Bernát is his first name on his Hungarian marriage record; Bertalan is his name in a Hungarian-language advertisement for his saloon in Homestead. Dov Ber is his original Hebrew name, but after his daughter married a Dov Ber, his Hebrew name became Beryl Dov to avoid the suggestion that his daughter married her father (a common superstition — my great-grandfather Jacob Wesoky became Jacob Mortimer after his daughter married Bernhardt’s son Jacob). For the rabbi: Ferdinand is on his immigration ship manifest. Nandor, a nickname for Ferdinand, is on his death certificate. Nathan is on his eldest son’s marriage license. Yitzhak Mordecai is on his grave. ↩
Correct your copies of the pre-Internet From Shtetl to Milltown: Litvaks, Hungarians, and Galizianers in Western Pennsylvania, an otherwise great book which you should really read if you care enough about this subject to make it to the footnotes. The Jacob Trautman of Homestead on p. 30 is not Jewish! ↩
Here’s what’s in that sweet spot of records, and here’s whom we have to thank:
- Pennsylvania death certificates, so crucial in determining where a person was buried, are all online and indexed through 1966 (there’s a mandated 50-year cut-off). Until four years ago I had to send a letter by post to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, accompanied by a check, and then wait the better part of the year to get any kind of response. For this progress, I must first thank the People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records Access, who succeeded in 2012 in having Pennsylvania pass one of the fairest records access laws in the country.
- Many other PA-specific collections that I have come to rely upon have gone online in recent years, including birth records (with a 105-year cut-off), marriage records, and veterans’ records. (A side-note on the veterans’ records: When I first researched the Jewish Homestead boys who died fighting in WWI and WWII at the start of this project, I hit mostly dead-ends for the WWI group. Only with the addition of the veterans’ records was I able to identify them.) All play an important role in helping me determine the family of a new person. For digitizing all these records I must thank my friend Quentin Atkinson at Ancestry.com and his team. When I visited their headquarters in February 2015, I met the two guys whose job it was to work just on Pennsylvania records. Thanks, guys!
- Pittsburgh newspapers and Pittsburgh Jewish newspapers are all online and digitized, making it easy to find obituaries (which also have cemetery locations) and other information of genealogical value. For the Pittsburgh newspapers, I believe the credit goes to the Carnegie Library of Oakland for partnering with Newspapers.com. For the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper project, I must thank Susan Melnick and Martha Berg, who recognized the value in these old newspapers, assembled the fullest possible run from a variety of sources, and most especially had the incredible foresight to digitize them long before this became trendy.
- The names of everyone buried in Western Pennsylvania Jewish cemeteries were collected and made searchable thanks to Susan and a team of volunteers. Often times my search strategy with a common name is to look in this database for the burials of all people so named, and then use the additional information in this database to figure out if any is a Homesteader. As backwards as this strategy sounds, it works surprisingly often. Lots of cemeteries are indexed all over the country, but I cannot think of any other region with complete coverage of all its Jewish cemeteries. It makes a huge difference.
If you’ve never done genealogical research, you may not realize the value of all these records. Suffice it to say, had I wanted to review all these records for one person in the pre-Internet era, it would have taken years and much travel and money. No sane scholar would have made it part of her research plan. But I can be insanely exhaustive in my approach because of the work of all these people and organizations.
Now that I’ve laid out my whole research strategy, you may be thinking: Tammy, your training in Computer Science! Surely you can do better! And it’s true that I have thought often about how cutting-edge strategies like intelligent character recognition, entity recognition, and machine learning could let me pawn off my work to our future robot overlords while I eat pastry, but while I may be a cutting-edge genealogist, I am most definitely not a cutting-edge Computer Scientist. Given the nascent state of all these technologies, which I hear about annually at the BYU Family History Technology Workshop, it seems easier just to keep to my old-school approach. ↩
I have a much more complete Jews-of-Homestead family tree on Ancestry.com with nearly 5,000 people in it. I am slowly working to transfer all of those names and records into the new website. ↩
This is actually why I began this project: More than just wanting to know if my father’s stories about his great-grandfather Bernhardt were true, I wanted to know if his accomplishments were really so great. It turns out that in owning his own business, becoming successful fairly quickly, sending all his children to college, and founding and leading a synagogue, he was one of a number men who did the same. What made Bernhardt so special were the intangible qualities that impressed him far more deeply into the memory of his descendants than his peers. ↩
Many people assume this attitude is a response to Holocaust, but actually it is far older — perhaps dating all the back to Exodus 30:12, when Moses counts the people not as individuals, but by the the half-shekels they donate, lest he afflict a plague upon those he counted. ↩