An obituary for Lewis Emanuel in our July 24, 1896 edition.
An obituary for Lewis Emanuel in our July 24, 1896 edition.

For an ol’ prospector of Jewish genealogy, J.’s new archives are a gold mine

Researching family history is a popular pastime these days, and television programs about genealogy and DNA testing have fueled that interest. Online database companies have made available billions (yes, billions!) of records that allow us to discover when and where our ancestors lived.

Documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, immigration records and city directories — in fact, almost anything that provides a list of names with dates and places — enable us to collect data fragments that add to a growing understanding of the pathways of our forebears.

What brings our skeletal compilations to life are stories. Some are passed down through generations, either orally or in well-preserved documents. Some have been lost or never known to us.

Newspapers are a wonderful resource that allow us to peek into the day-to-day life of our ancestors. They offer accounts of social activity in society pages, notices of lifecycle events (in the case of weddings, sometimes very descriptively), criminal activity, tragedies such as fires and shipwrecks, the ups and downs of business ventures, philanthropic gestures and even our ancestors’ vacation destinations.

Newspapers are an even more important source for those of us researching the genealogy of Northern California–based families, especially those who arrived during the Gold Rush years.

We suffer a “double-whammy” because burials of our family members may be missing from any records. In 1889, the San Francisco city fathers banned cemeteries from within its border. This is why there is a dense population of the deceased interred at the 17 cemeteries (four of them Jewish) in Colma … where there’s even a pet cemetery!

Even today, we’re still not certain that every person who was exhumed from a plot in San Francisco was actually reburied: Some of the earliest headstones may have been made of wood, which deteriorated, and some plots were missing headstones because the families could not afford to pay for one, or because there were no relatives who remained in the region to fund the erection of a new stone.

In addition, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake played a huge role in destroying many official records.

Newspapers can, therefore, provide a vital link in supplying potential missing history.

To further aid our process of discovery, or perhaps simply an interest in the Jewish history of the San Francisco Bay region, a new and very important tool has now been added to our equipment.

J. The Jewish News of Northern California recently completed a project that makes available, online at no charge, its own “family lineage” of periodicals. We have been given more than 100 years of newspapers stretching back to the last years of the 1800s.

The archives are hosted at the National Library of Israel and at UC Riverside’s California Digital Newspaper Collection, and can be accessed at jweekly.com/archives.

There is much to be found among these almost 27,000 pages.

My own interest includes learning about the genealogy of English Jews who came early for the Gold Rush and then made California their home. When I visited the Jewish cemeteries in Colma, I noticed that a number of headstones had an inscription that included “native of London” or “native of England.” I used these very phrases to search for people in the newspaper’s database, and was very successful.

This raises an important point: Although this new database begins with holdings dated to 1895, we must consider that, in practicality, it may take us back almost another 100 years — for it might include men and women who came to California in the early days (when they were already past their prime) or older people who arrived later to join younger emigres.

A case in point is that among my return hits for the earliest “native of London” entries, one was an obituary for Lewis Emanuel, who died in 1896, aged 67, meaning he was born in 1829 — 20 years before the Gold Rush.

There is, of course, no end to the variety of mentions one might find in these pages.

There are illustrations of early synagogues, mentions of High Holiday services, advertisements for matzahs, lists of Hebrew Benevolent Society members and items of interest in general — merchant advertisements, regional matters pertaining to the world of Jewry, and, of course, politics … local, national and international.

Both J. and the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society would be delighted to hear from anyone who is successful in finding a personal family connection within the newly available archives (contact J. at [email protected] and/or the SFBAJGS at [email protected]).

Consider it a modern-day version of panning for gold. There might not be any more “gold in them thar hills,” but there are genealogy nuggets to be mined in these pages.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Jeremy Frankel
Jeremy Frankel

Jeremy Frankel has spent over 35 years researching his family. He is the longtime president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.