Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Tracing my Jewish Heritage

I’ve known for quite some time that I have a Jewish heritage, as my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Vera Levy (although she always denied that heritage). And as I began building my family tree about 5 years ago, I had put together a partial lineage of her ancestors (*1). But I thought it was time to try and put together all the facts that I had and see what else I could discover.

My Starting Point

I have census records and a few other documents from the US going back into the middle of the 1800s, one of the key ones being a ship’s manifest showing the family coming here in 1851 and becoming naturalized citizens a year later in 1852. I also have some English census records for 1851 and 1841, as well as a few other documents from there – the oldest being records of my great*5 grandfather in 1733.

I went through all these, looking at any other information on these documents. The ones of most interest to me were the addresses where various family members were living during the 1841 and 1851 census in England. These included “10 Goswell St, Clerkenwell, Middlesex” and “St James Duke Place, Middlesex” as well as “Aldgate” and “St Botolph St”.

In addition, I have the occupations of family members at this same time. My great-grandfather was a printer, his father sold stationary, his father was a cigar maker, and his father was a watchmaker. All these were typical occupations of the European Jews of that period.

Finally, I have my DNA analysis which indicates that I am 22% Eastern European Jew.

Further Research in England

I began my search by looking for all the locations indicated in the various English records. All the locations are in east/north London. And more significantly, most of them are in the same neighborhood in East London. St James passageway is a small alley, just block long, off of Duke Place, and Duke Place ends at St Botolph St just a block away. The only other location on Goswell St appears to be where my great*2 grandfather moved sometime in the 1840s.

But how big was the Jewish population in London during this time period? After a bit of searching, I found some rather interesting information.

The first recorded Jewish settlement in England was in 1066. The number of Jews remained fairly small for the next century or so. Beginning in 1233, anti-Jewish sentiment was increasing, leading to their expulsion from many towns (*2). In 1278, Edward I imprisoned all Jews on suspicion of coin-clipping (with 293 being executed in London), and in 1290, all the remaining Jews were expelled from England. Except for a few who began to return in the early 1600s, there were no Jews in the country for the next 360 years.

In 1655, Menasseh ben Israel, a rabbi from Amsterdam, came to England and petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to return. The following year, parliament agreed that the Edict of Expulsion of 1290 only applied to the Jews who had been living in London at the time, thus clearing the way for immigration of Jews once again. The first were Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal.

This same source (*2), then notes a key date that begins to merge with the facts that I already had. In 1692, “the first synagogue of the Ashkenazi community in England is founded in Duke’s Place, in the City of London. This reflects the fact that Sephardi Jews are being joined in England by Ashkenazim, Jews of Central and Eastern European background, mostly from Germany.” For further information, see (*3), (*4) and (*5). Also note in (*5), that this included Polish Jews as well.

With this simple statement, the addresses of my ancestors, the content of my DNA, and the history of Jews in England all come together! This also establishes the approximate date that my Jewish ancestors settled in England and where in Eastern Europe they had likely come from. It also shows that they were among the very early Jewish settlers of the time, as (*4) notes that there were only 400 Jews in England in 1690.

The Jewish population in East London continued to increase over the coming years. By 1880 it had increased to approximately 46,000 and by 1919 to 250,000. But my ancestors had left England in 1851, long before the great immigration which was several decades in the future.

Further Research in the US

The Jewish population in the US was pretty much in line with that of England in the early years. According to (*6), there were only a few hundred here in 1700 and that had only increased to a few thousand by 1830. By 1850 it had increased to 50,000, but by the end of the century it had exploded to about a million. Most of the immigrants to both England and the US were from Eastern Europe where persecution of Jews was increasing (*7), but this was primarily after 1881. Since my ancestors came here in 1851, they were once again part of the leading edge of this wave of immigrants.

The head of the Levy family who came to the US in 1851 was my great*3 grandfather, Lewis. My great*2 grandfather, Alexander was 11 at the time. The family lived in Brooklyn where Alexander married in 1863. My great-grandfather, Maurice, was born in Brooklyn in 1870, but the family moved to New Milford, CT when he was only 2 years old. There he met Caroline Northrop whose family had moved to New Milford from Massachusetts at about the same time. Caroline was not Jewish. Maurice and Caroline married in 1893 and they moved back to Brooklyn. My grandmother and my great-aunt were born there in 1895 and 1899 respectively.

But Maurice appeared to want to move his family away from the tenements of Brooklyn. In May of 1899 when my great-aunt was just 3 months old, Maurice placed an advertisement in the Hartford, CT newspaper that read, “Wanted – Foreman, live printer, 16 years; best country and city experience; seeks steady position; A-1 make-up, stone hand, etc. MAURICE LEVY, 1135 Halsey st., Brooklyn.” But it appears that this advertisement was not taken up by anyone as the family remained in Brooklyn for the next 10 years.

In 1910, the family was still living in Brooklyn, but about 6 miles to the southwest on 72nd St. The census records indicate that two more children had been born since 1900, but neither of them survived childbirth. Then suddenly, in November of that year, Maurice passed away at the age of just 40. His wife and two children moved back to New Milford where all her relatives lived, and apparently left their Jewish connections behind, even burying Maurice in the Center Cemetery in New Milford instead of the Jewish cemetery which was in Fairfield.


It’s satisfying when everything comes together. In this case, all the documents that I was able to locate which had information on my Jewish ancestors, my DNA analysis, and the history of Jewish migrations and dates is all consistent. Since this branch of my family tree accounts for nearly ¼ of my DNA, I’m happy to be able to confirm my ancestral research.



  1. My mother always denied we were part Jewish but I always suspected My grandmother was. My 23 and me results showed that, yes, I was. Grandmother Irene always thought she was adopted because of her dark hair and brown eyes. My mom grew up to look like Auntie Vera so we know she wasn't. Where did you find all the information on the Levy's? I'd like to share this with my son.

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    1. Hi Alan,
      I just spoke to Dawn. It was interesting and I look forward to visiting her as soon as I am certain I do not have the flu.

      I just started reading your blog. Dawn says she can show me the family tree breakdown when I go to her home.I would love to know what my grandfather's profession was.
      Benjamin Harrison Isaacs
      Born:May 19.1895
      Died:Jan 29,1935

      bye for now,