Reprinted with permission from A Guide to Jewish Genealogical Research in Israel – 1994
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The following article is reprinted here with permission from A Guide to Jewish Genealogical Research in Israel – 1994
Jews began to return to Palestine in increasing numbers during the 19th century, thus laying the foundations for modern day Israel. Some Jews had lived in Palestine for centuries, but poverty, natural disasters such as earthquakesו-disease,ו-the Turkish oppression of the late 19thו-early 20th centuries caused many Jews to reverse the tideו-flee Palestine in the same way that Jews were fleeing eastern Europeו-czarist Russia. Whether one is seeking information on relatives who went to Palestine during the 19th century or on those who left, the fact is that there is very little usable genealogical information available.
Civil records of this period are virtually inaccessible to anyone except a handful of scholars who can read the Ottoman Turkish script of that period. Perhaps the only practical source of data is the Montefiore censuses. Between 1839ו-1875, five censuses of the Jews of the Land of Israel were taken the request of Sir Moses Montefiore, perhaps the most famous of all British Jewish philanthropistsו-scion of an illustrious Sephardic Jewish family. The censuses were conducted in 1839, 1849, 1855, 1866ו-1875. In addition, a census of the Sephardim of Alexandria, Egypt, was taken in 1840.
The censuses were commissioned by Montefiore when he was approached to give philanthropic assistance to the destitute Jewish population. He first visited Palestine in 1827, which time there were between 500ו-600 poverty stricken Jews living in Jerusalem. The census documents originally were in the possession of Sir Moses, but later they became the property of Jews College, London, where they can be viewed today. The Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem has a microfilm copy of most, but not all, of the records; the condition of some sections is too poor to permit microfilming. The microfilms may be purchased from the Hebrew University for about $120 once permission has been obtained from the custodian of the records Jews College, Albert Road, London NW4 2SJ, England.
In 1987, the first census of 1839 was published in book form by Hebrew University’s Dinur Center. According to this source, 6,408 Jewish men, womenו-children resided in Palestine this time—fewer than the 9,000 Jews reported by the British consul the same time.
Beside the Ashkenazicו-Sephardic communities in Safed, Tiberias, Shechem (Nablus), Jerusalem, Chevron (Hebron), Jaffa, Haifa, Acco (Acre)ו-Sidon, later lists also gave the names of the members of various kollels. The term kollel, meaning “embracing all” in early settlements in Israel, applied to groups of Ashkenazic Jews who all came from the same country or district. Its members received from their home town or area funds collected for their support by shlichim, or emissaries. Most of the Jews of Palestine, this time, lived in the cities as scholarsו-spent their days in prayerו-study; they depended almost entirely on charity for support.
The census records are in Hebrew; most, although not all, are legibleו-a pleasure to read. They consist of lists of males’ names, ages, places of origin, years of arrival in Palestine, occupations, economic conditions, family statusו-number (often namesו-ages) of children. Similar widowו-orphan lists, together with listings of the religious institutions (schools, synagogues, study houses, etc.), also were compiled. Records often are grouped by kollel. Information was submitted by the Jewish officials of the various communities. Later, the pages were bound together along with lists of funds distributed to each kollel. Letters of acknowledgementו-appreciation often were attached to the lists.
Unfortunately, surnames usually are not included,ו-there may be a number of male members of a kollel with the same given name; some indicate patronymics (i.e., ben Soו-So). Occasionally, ancestral references are noted, e.g., the 1875 Safed Kollel Warsaw lists “Reb Yonah, grandson of the Gaon from London.” This is a reference to the famous Solomon Herschell (1762–1842) for whose will Sir Moses Montefiore was one of the three executors. The grandson was Jonah Berliner, and, according to the census, he was born in Warsaw in 1831. He came to Palestine with his father, Rabbi David Tebele Berliner, in 1840 according to the census, or in 1838 as noted in published book sources. The Jerusalem Kollel Warsaw of 1875 lists a “Menachem Nata, grandson of the Rabbi here.” Among the 1875 list of widows of the Jerusalem Kollel Perushim from Rassein (Raseiniai) are listed the widow of Joseph Saul Landau, grandson of the “Rabbiו-Gaon, Chief Rabbi of London, Solomon of blessed memory,” who is the same Solomon Herschell mentioned above; the widow of Rabbi Eliezer, grandson of “Our master, the Gaon of Vilna,” who had the surname of Landau
Another lesson one can learn is the evolution of a given family surname. New Yorkers may be familiar with the kosher symbol of the “triangle K” under the supervision of Rabbi J. Howard Ralbag. His great grandfather was Moses Eliezer Dan from Jerusalem, mentioned prominently in the Jerusalem Censuses of 1855ו-1875. Here he is noted as being “Ben HaRaLBaG,” i.e., son of the man named Ra(=Rabbi) L(=Leib) Ba(=son of) G(=Gabriel). This appellation is corroborated by a letter he signed that was printed in an 1886 edition of the newspaper, HaMagid.
The use of acronyms presents a problem, but if one knows the given name one is looking for, then the puzzle pieces often fall into place. An example is the Salomon family whose most famous member was Joel Moses Salomon (1838–1912), a founder of the Israeli town of Petah Tikvahו-also founder of the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem. The 1855 Ashkenazim Perushim Kollel in Jerusalem lists him as 16 years old, the son of Mordecaiו-his wife, Channah. The father, born in “the holy city of Safed” 44 years earlier, was outside the country raising funds for the kollel the time of the census.
Mordecai was the son of HaRASHaZ = HaRav (the Rabbi) Abraham Shlomo Zalman, from whom the surname Salomon derives. Knowing this acronym, we find his name where his wife, Hesia, is listed with the kollel widows of 1855. She had come from Keidaniai in 1812ו-was 70 years old. Since the family was already in Palestine by 1812, we can find them listed in the 1839 census for the same kollel. It states that, in 1811, Abraham Solomon Zalman came from Keidaniai, suggesting that he arrived before his wife did. At that time, he was 50 years old, owned 100 adumim of landו-had two children, Isaac, age 14,ו-Miriam, age 9. Thus, by referring to the different censuses, it is possible to construct family trees. Most importantly, the given names of the wives are invariably stated, a fact often missing from encyclopediasו-other books.
Since community leadersו-rabbis, kollel secretariesו-treasurers, etc., often certified the authenticity of the information supplied, an added bonus in the study of these records is the inclusion of signaturesו-official seals of these personalities. I found the signature of the Chief Rabbi Samuel Heller of Safed, who survived the devastating earthquake of 1837 although he was buried up to his neck in debris in the famed synagogue of the Ari HaKodesh in Safed. Heller lost his wifeו-children in the quake,ו-his own wounds were so severe that he was bedridden for six monthsו-lost the use of one arm for the rest of his life. Another signature of interest, together with his seal, dated Jerusalem, 1875, is that of Meir Anikster (i.e., from Anikst), grandfather of Asher Leib Brisk. Brisk is the author of Chelkat Mechokek, a book on the tombstones on the Mount of Olives.
Other interesting bits of history may be gleaned. For example, there is a short reference to a Rabbi Isser Yudel (Yehuda) in the book on the scholars of Brest Litovsk, IR Tehila (City of Praise), by A.L. Feinstein (published in 1886), which states that he “went the end of his days to the Holy Land where he died.” The 1875 census in Jerusalem of the Grodno Kollel lists Isser Yudel the top of the pageו-provides details of these events. He had come three years earlierו-was now 65 years old. He possessed 105 Russian rubles, studied the Torahו-was married to Miriam. Oddly enough, however, his published works, which give details on his family, emphatically state that he was married only onceו-that his wife, who now lies buried next to him on the Mount of Olives, was called Esther Rivke.
The microfilms are reproduced on three reels, numbered chronologically in this article as reels one, twoו-three. The various documents are recorded by manuscript numbers Jews College,ו-these are listed here in bold print.