Sunday, September 6, 2015

Local Jewish Cemeteries - Part 2

        by Rick D. Cauthen

       In my last blog regarding Jewish Cemeteries, I spoke of genealogical importance of  the Hebrew Inscription found on headstones. So why is the Hebrew Inscription so important? That is quite simple. It was Jewish tradition that you would inscribe the deceased’s Hebrew name along with the name of their father or sometimes mother. Now, I think you would have to agree that many genealogists working on non-Jewish lines of their family tree would be ecstatic if they could simply look at their ancestor’s tombstone and find that vital information.
But don’t get too excited, the names provided are formal Hebrew names that don’t provide surnames in the typical sense that you may understand. The Jews had essentially patrilineal or sometimes matrilineal names that changed with every generation. For example, if your name is Shem and your father’s name was Noah, you would have been identified Shem son of Noah. Often, daughters would also be addressed in a similar vain. Hannah daughter of Abraham. However, some Jews used a matrilineal naming, with respect to girls only, where it would have been Hannah daughter of Sarah. It seems to have varied somewhat with the naming of girls. I suppose it may have had something to do with the Synagogues they belong to and the Rabbis that officiated over them.
The reason I bring up this naming convention is that it’s important that you understand that you are not going to find the Surnames that you may hope to find. However, even a first name is better than no name. If nothing else, it will serve as evidence later corroborating a record that you may find among other records. For instance, if you discover that your grandfather whose name you know was Mose Goldstein, showed the inscription that his father’s name was Hyman, and you later find Mose Goldstein in the 1920 US Census with a Head of House by the name of Hyman Goldstein, then you know more likely that you have found the correct family. In other words as genealogists we always wanted to take any evidence that we find and use it to our benefit.
More often than not you will find the dates of death and birth according to the familiar Gregorian calendar (although at times you may find a Jewish headstone that only has Hebrew writing on it). You will generally also find in the Hebrew inscription those dates according to the Jewish calendar. Often this may be more than just nice to know information. For example, perhaps it gives the name of the deceased in the form of their English name and the dates as 1865 – 1913. So now you can readily determine that your ancestor passed away circa 1913, but no specific date. However, there is an excellent chance that the Hebrew inscription will provide that actual date of death according to the Jewish calendar, which in turn can be converted to the Gregorian calendar. A simple tool to do this can be found on the web at It will also provide you the Hebrew words to express that Jewish calendar date.
By now you are thinking, well all this information is great to know, but I still cannot read the Hebrew, so this is all for naught! Remember, I also stated this is a very common plight among genealogist tracing Jewish lines. So let’s discuss some strategies to get over this major hurdle. An internet page I would strongly recommend reading can be located within At, you will find some very sound basic information which will provide some assistance in breaking this Hebrew code.
Online networking is without a doubt the most powerful tool at your disposal. I would highly recommend joining the Facebook group “Jewish Genealogy Portal.” You can locate this group at This group is moderated by Randol Schoenberg, the famed lawyer whose story was recently told in the movie “Woman in Gold.” Simply take a quality picture of your ancestor’s headstone and create a posting including the image into this Facebook group. Just kindly ask for anyone who would be willing to translate the Hebrew Inscription into English. Within the group there are many who have the ability to translate for you and graciously do for others. Another Facebook group I would recommend would be “Tracing the Tribe.” You will locate it at Just like the “Jewish Genealogy Portal” group, there are numerous individuals who will gladly make the translation for you. One more suggestion I have is an area called “Viewmate” located within the site. The URL is This is a more formal forum where you may upload your image of the Headstone and should receive a reply within 24-48 hours. The benefit of using Viewmate is I tend to believe you will locate volunteer translators who have a greater skill level.
Lastly, if you really would like to master this skill of uncovering the meaning found in those Hebrew Inscriptions, I would highly suggest purchasing and reading the following book:

Segal, Joshua L. A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery: A Spiritual Journey to the Past, Present and Future. Nashua, NH: Jewish Cemetery, 2005.

This book provides an extremely detailed educational journey in learning and honing the skill of extracting all the vital information found on a Jewish Headstone. Not just the Hebrew words, but also decorations and symbols to be found on these headstones.
Symbols that are found on Jewish Headstones will also provide “nice to know” information in regards to your ancestors heritage. When you find the image of the hands with split fingers:

This symbol is representative of a Kohen (or Kohain), a member of the Kohanim, who were the high priests. Kohens are strictly of patrilineal descent, in other words the heritage was only passed from father to son. All Kohens are said to be direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who was the first Kohen. The high priests would put their hands over the congregation when performing certain blessings. If the positions of these hands seems familiar to Mr. Spock’s greeting, the character from Star Trek fame, this is no coincidence. Leonard Nimoy, the famous Jewish actor who performed that role for television and film, was heavily influenced by what he saw as a child going to synagogue during the high holy days.
The symbol of the water pitcher:

This represents those who descend from the tribe of Levi or as a group, the Levites. The Levites were also priests, part of whose role was to wash the hands of the high priests.
Images of trees with their limbs cut off, trees being cut down, or entire headstones in the shape of trees with broken or cut off limbs:

These were placed on headstones of individuals that were considered to be cut down in the prime of life. These were young individuals that were in their teens to late twenties and even perhaps early thirties. I suppose in truth, it was symbolic of the devastation felt by the surviving parents who had to face the cruel reality of burying their child.
The symbol of a lamb:

The lamb, also being a baby or a very young animal would be found on the headstones of infants or very young children. The lamb has a simple meaning of young innocence. This perhaps may actually be the most emotionally charged Jewish symbol you will ever find on any headstone.
Of course, the most common symbols you will find are the Menorah and/or the Star of David.:

Both of these symbols are for the most part pure decoration as they ultimately signify that the deceased individual was a member of the Jewish community. Often the Menorah is placed on stones of women as it is representative of the deed that only women, would perform by saying the blessing over the Sabbath candles. The Star of David, which may be placed above men on a double headstone for a husband and wife, often is found with the two Hebrew letters as shown here. The letters simply are an abbreviation for the words “Here Lies.” Even if not found inside the Star of David, you most certainly will find it inscribed on every Jewish headstone.
Lastly, you will also find the epitaph on every single Jewish headstone inscribed as:

These Hebrew letters are a conventional abbreviation meaning “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.”

If you have an interest in getting involved with the Jewish Interest Group of the Hamilton County Genealogical Soceity please contact Mr. Rick Cauthen at

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