28 March 2011

An Interview with Meredith Hoffman, “Who the Heck is Ida Gerskill?”

Meredith Hoffman is a professional genealogist, writer, educator and publisher. Her specialty is researching 19th and early 20th century Jewish immigrant ancestors. She particularly enjoys solving difficult Jewish name problems. She is Syllabus Chair for the 2011 New England Regional Genealogical Conference, which will be held April 6-10, 2011 in Springfield, Massachusetts. We spoke this week about performing Jewish genealogical research, the webzine Success! Stories and her upcoming class at NERGC, “Who the Heck is Ida Gerskill?” 

Researching Jewish Ancestors

Meredith explains that most ethnic groups deal with name changes, but Jewish individuals can have multiple names, even two or three versions of personal names, more with spelling variations. Jewish immigrants will have a holy or Hebrew name, a Jewish or Yiddish name and often also a name in the language of the country from whence they have come. All of these names can have different spellings. This requires researchers to know something about spelling variations within the different languages. Upon immigration to the United States, they might Americanize or modernize their names. There are no rules for how these changes occur. The same man can show up in various records with four or five different personal names. Similar changes occur to family names during immigration.

Success! Stories Webzine

Meredith is co-editor of the webzine Success! Stories. These are wonderful, heartwarming stories of families reconnected through resources found on JewishGen.org. For Meredith, this is a labor of love. She finds it emotionally satisfying because it matters. I asked Meredith about the most interesting personal family history connection she has made and she told me a wonderful story, to which I will attempt to do justice here.

Meredith’s paternal grandmother’s family name was Adler. When her father’s sister, Bessie, passed away, they found a collection of roughly 1000 letters her aunt had received since about 1915. Because Meredith’s grandmother had passed away when her children were small, her children had lost touch with some of their family. In reading the letters, Meredith discovered that Bessie had been doing some genealogical research and trying to reconnect with family. The letters included the names and addresses of the grandmother’s sisters, one of whom was in Mobile and two who were in Liverpool. The oldest letters were obviously tearstained letters of joy from these sisters. A continuing correspondence began between Bessie and her aunts and answers to questions were received, the big one being that the sisters’ family name was Rochaven, not Adler.

Bessie had done enough research to pull together a family tree and had been in contact with her aunts until the 1950s. She knew the names of the first cousins (Meredith’s father’s first cousins). This is where Meredith jumped into the research to search for the second cousins and ascertain the true maiden name of her grandmother. In 2002, she wrote everything she knew about the family, including the possible Rochaven surname, in a letter and posted it on the British-Jewry discussion list on RootsWeb. Three years after posting the letter, she received an email from a woman stating I think we are second cousins.”

The cousin, who lives in England, found Meredith because she had mentioned the possible Rochaven surname in her post. The cousin received the information about the same surname from one of her elderly aunts, then searched the internet and found the connection. That summer Meredith traveled to England and met twenty-two cousins from that branch of the family. Through her patient and diligent research, Meredith continues to strengthen the bonds of her family. Over the last eight years, Meredith has reconnected with 102 cousins. This summer when she attends IGHR at Samford, she hopes to meet several more cousins, who live near Mobile, Alabama. This is quite a success story.


JewishGen.org is Meredith’s go to site for about fifty percent of her online Jewish research. Meredith recommends that if you have a brick wall, write it up and post it on one of the many discussion lists. This is a great piece of advice and one this writer plans to act on in the very near future.

Who the Heck is Ida Gerskill?

Meredith’s upcoming class at NERGC is “Who the Heck is ida Gerskill? Researching Jewish Names” and takes place Saturday, April 9th at 8:30 AM. You can find it in the program on page 10.

According to the program, her talk will cover “personal, family, and place names and provide strategies for puzzling them out using linguistic and commonsense clues and cues” with examples. Those without Jewish ancestry will also benefit from learning these general principles for dealing with name inconsistencies.

As a linguist, this is a topic close to Meredith’s heart and her enthusiasm for her subject is readily apparent. This is the lecture she enjoys the most. She finds fascinating both the external name changes and the psychological aspect of how the immigrants dealt with their changing lives. “It’s interesting stuff!” 

Click here for more information about the 2011 New England Regional Genealogical Conference.

Hope you join us!

Scrappy Gen
Let's Remember!

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