How to start a family search

It takes time, energy and access to the right tools to begin your genealogical journey. Here are some resources to help you on your way.

Talk to living relatives

Interview family members and gather critical information — birth, marriage and death dates, name changes, areas of residence, immigration papers, professions.

Visit cemeteries

Hebrew and English inscriptions offer clues about your ancestors’ parents.

Use free and low-cost resources

One of the best resources is the Mormon FamilySearch site (, which gives free access to the 1880 U.S. census and a host of other records, including New York City vital records. Marriage records usually contain birthplaces, and by clicking on “family,” for example, you may get the names of the couple’s parents.

Register with JewishGen: The Home of Jewish Genealogy. connects researchers worldwide, with a database of 350,000 surnames and towns. The free site (the group does solicit contributions) offers countless pointers and links to archives that can be accessed via the Internet.

The San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society ( has free monthly meetings. Membership is $23 a year.

The BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F., also has resources and free monthly workshops in conjunction with the genealogy society. Information: or (415) 567-3327, ext. 704.

Visit National Archives and Records Administration

The local branch is at 1000 Commodore Drive, San Bruno. (650) 238-3500. Census and naturalization records are on microfilm and occasional genealogy workshops are given.

Try other databases

Many public libraries as well as local Mormon family history centers offer free access to, which in turn provides computer access to extensive census, marriage and citizenship records, and family records. If you prefer to do your research at home, you can join also offers resources, including software. Both sites are owned by Another valuable Jewish source is

Consider the Ellis Island archives

If your ancestors arrived in New York from 1892-1924, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation database has records of 22 million passengers and other information at

There’s always Google

Googling a name may lead you to living relatives, historical records or genealogical sites.

Buy software

A number of programs are now on the market. However, until recently, not much was available for the Macintosh. Many software programs are available as downloads or at computer stores. FamilyTreeMaker, which allows the user to add photos and other information, is the No. 1 seller at $29.95. You can also find free downloads for charting a family tree.

Share your information

Write or e-mail living relatives and other researchers with your findings, but don’t be surprised if family members don’t believe everything you come up with, even if your documentation is solid. Old family legends don’t die easily.


Time traveling

History, connections propel German genealogists

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].