Demoing Brick Walls – Lessons Learned from Researching Twelve Mystery Families #dna #education #general #rabbinic

Jeffrey Mark Paull

If you are a Jewish genealogist, chances are you have encountered the dreaded brick wall – the seemingly impenetrable barrier beyond which lie untold generations of unknown ancestors who represent a proud Jewish heritage that has become shrouded in mystery.


There are many causes for these genealogical barriers – the pogroms of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Czarist Russia, WW-I, the Russian Revolution, WW-II, and the Holocaust – to name just a few.  These traumatic events were followed by mass immigration to America and other countries, through which families were split, communication pathways between different generations of family members were disrupted, and more information was lost.


The incalculable loss of life resulting from these traumatic events, combined with the destruction of Jewish synagogues and cultural and religious institutions, has left a huge information void in its wake, and much Jewish genealogical information has been lost or destroyed.  This has resulted in many American Jews losing contact with their ancestral origins.


If the 19th and 20th centuries represented a period of loss of Jewish cultural and genealogical repositories of information and knowledge, the 21st century, with its technological advancements in genetic genealogy, and the promise of global online access to genealogical information databases, offers opportunities for rediscovering our ancestral origins, and for recovering at least a part of our lost Jewish heritage.


As Jewish genealogical researchers, we wondered what it would be like if we tried to demolish some of these brick walls. Could it be done, and if so, how?  We decided to embark on such a research study by focusing on a dozen families who all shared one thing in common – they all claimed descent from Rebbe Yehuda Leib of Shpola, a famed 18th-century tzaddik and early Chassidic leader in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) better known as the Shpoler Zeida. 


Although eleven of the twelve families had an oral history of descent from the Shpoler Zeida, none of them had a family tree or yichus document showing precisely how they descend from him.  The remaining family was unaware that they are descendants. We coined the term “mystery families” for these twelve families since how they descend from the Shpoler Zeida was a mystery.


In studying these mystery families, we began with the concept of being inclusive and accepted their family histories of being descendants of the Shpoler Zelda as genuine.  We then started with what the family knew about their ancestry and did our best to reconstruct their line of descent by thoroughly researching the paper trail. Our research enabled us to fill in the gaps in the lineage, connect the key ancestor to the Zeida lineage, and confirm the line of descent from the Shpoler Zeida for two of the twelve mystery families.


For five other mystery families, we present plausible hypotheses for how these families connect to the Shpoler Zeida’s family tree, based upon the available evidence while indicating the limitations and uncertainties involving their hypothesized connections.  Although we believe that we solved the mystery of how they connect to the Shpoler Zeida, their lines of descent should be considered provisional or conditional until they can be validated and confirmed.


For another five mystery families, we could not fill every gap in the lineage or identify every ancestral link in the chain with complete certainty, and the resultant uncertainty in their lineage prevents us from connecting their descendants to the Shpoler Zeida family tree at the present time. We reconstructed their line of descent to the extent possible, in the hope that making this information more widely available will result in a key piece of evidence being discovered which will help bridge the remaining gaps in their lineage.


In looking back over the lessons learned over the course of our research, we found that if we assembled all of the available information regarding what was known about each lineage, and then targeted our research toward filling in the remaining data gaps, we were often successful in reconstructing the line of descent.  Often, one key document or piece of evidence, such as a Y-DNA genetic match, a census record, a birth record, a tombstone inscription, or a naturalization petition, served to unlock the door and enabled us to reconstruct the line of descent.  Sometimes, the smallest detail, such as an obscure article in a Hebrew newspaper, or an entry in a family member’s biography, was enough to cause the wall to crumble.


We are planning to publish all twelve of these genealogical research studies, the first two of which have already been posted to “Solving the Mystery of the Greenberg Family’s Descent from the Shpoler Zeida,” and “Solving the Mystery of the Polonsky Family’s Descent from the Shpoler Zeida.”  We hope that the research methods provided in these research studies provide a useful model for other Jewish genealogists to follow.  Here are the links:

Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull, Dr. Jeffrey Briskman, and Susan K. Steeble


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