Nu? What's New?
The E-zine of Jewish Genealogy
Gary Mokotoff, Editor

Volume 5, Number 19 | November 7, 2004

AOL Blocks Last Issue of Nu? What's New?
If you are an AOL user, you did not get the last issue of Nu? What's New?. You can read it at Part of AOL's solution to eliminate spam is rejecting messages that have Internet addresses that are "redirects." What happened was that an Australian website mentioned in the last issue changed its web address between the time I wrote the column and the time I sent it to subscribers. They changed their old site to -redirect- people to their new site. Therefore AOL rejected the issue of Nu? What's New?

Other Internet service providers may have similar rules. The last issue's lead article was about "A Conference for Convict Ancestors" describing a planned genealogy conference in Australia.

Ellis Island Site Improves Search Engine
Folks. I have given up on the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation (SLEIF) ever providing a decent search engine at their site for what is one of the most valuable databases for people whose ancestors came to the United States from 1896-1924. Two weeks ago, while I was in Salt Lake City, I received a news announcement from their public relations department advising me that they had made significant improvements to their search engine. I immediately went to their site located at, and my initial reaction was "quite good." They had mimicked the Stephen P. Morse site located at and even had some pluses compared to the Morse site

So a few days ago I sat down to prepare an article for Nu? What's New? on the pluses of the Morse site and the pluses of the SLEIF site. To my amazement, what I saw a few days ago was significantly worse than what I saw two weeks ago.

In April 2001, the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation (SLEIF) launched its online database of 24 million immigrants who came through the Port of New York from 1892-1924. The search engine had great shortcomings (see "Ellis Island Search Engine Has Great Shortcomings" published in Nu? What's New? at In less than three weeks, Stephen P. Morse, who has extensive experience with how the Internet operates, developed his own portal to access the EIDB. He called it "One Step" because his portal did in one step what took many steps (or was not possible) using the SLEIF portal.

Now, a mere three years after they opened their site, SLEIF has mimicked the Morse portal. What I viewed two weeks ago was a search engine that provided four sets of results: exact hits, close spellings, alternative spellings and soundex results. Not a bad concept. When I searched for Mokotoffs, I could see hits in both the exact and alternative spellings list. If the results were not successful in locating the immigrant, you could then use their Refine Search feature, which is essentially what Morse provides at his One-Step site.

That was two weeks ago. Now the SLEIF site provides as a result of the initial search only exact matches. If there are no exact hits, the system defaults to a list of 30 possible alternate spellings of the surname. Not necessarily a bad idea except you can request the result of alternate spellings only one at a time. You select the first option, slide down to the bottom of the page (because the list is too long) to click "Search on the Checked Name Source", the results are produced, and, if unsuccessful, you click the Back button, select the second option, slide down to the bottom of the page to click "Search on the Checked Name Source", the results are produced, and, if unsuccessful, you click the Back button, select the third option, etc., etc., etc. The two-weeks-ago version selected a number of the most likely alternative spellings.

Then there are problems with the SLEIF soundex option. Key in virtually any surname and you will get a message that there are too many hits. That makes sense. They are using the conventional American soundex system which has only 5,616 possibilities. If all the immigrants were kind enough to choose surnames that assured an even distribution within the possible soundex codes (it would include people who had surnames whose first four consonants were XRRR), in a database of 24 million people, each soundex code would have 4,273 hits. No wonder you get this message. The SLEIF site suggests adding additional qualifiers such as the sex of the person. That would cut the number of hits in half--a mere 2,136 hits. (For the record, the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex System has in excess of 168,070 possibilities.)

The conclusion is that the newly designed SLEIF site is significantly more difficult to use than the Morse site. But we genealogists are patient people. We will go to any lengths to find documentation of our ancestors. So let's ignore how the SLEIF system operates and focus on its functionality compared to the Morse site.

One way our society grows is that some institution comes up with a good idea and makes it available to the public. A competitor looks at the new product and makes available its own improved version. The first institution then looks at its competitor and produces a revised version of their original product that includes all the features of the second institution's product and then some. A good example was the Netscape/Internet Explorer wars. Thus society grows.

In the case at hand, SLEIF came up with a portal to its Ellis Island Database. Dr. Stephen P. Morse saw he could create a better portal and made available his One-Step portal. Now SLEIF should have taken all of Morse's ideas, made them their own, and produced something superior to the Morse site. Unfortunately that is not the case. The SLEIF site does not include everything available at the Morse site and does have certain insufficiencies.

1. The Morse site defaults to displaying the first 50 hits with the option to display even a larger number (I am not sure of the limit but I have displayed as many as 200 hits at a time). The SLEIF site only display 25 at a time. This can be frustrating when browsing through large lists.
2. The most significant difference is the way the two sites handle ranges of age, arrival year and year of birth, Morse allows any start and end values. For some incredible reason, the SLEIF implementers elected to allow only specific ranges (exact, ±1, 2, 5 or 10 years). The Morse method is the way we humans think. Ask a person when their grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, they will say "sometime between 1900 and 1905." They do not say "1903
±3 years." The SLEIF system also may force the user to provide inexact information. Since there is no ±3 years option for the above example, the user must state 1903 ±2 years (hoping the person did not arrive in 1900) or state 1903 ±5 years and get people who arrived in 1898-1899 and 1906-1908, all false positives.

So what is good about the SLEIF site.

SLEIF has developed their system for the general public, not genealogists. Their portal is very simple. It only requests Last Name and optionally first name, approximate year of birth and gender. The Morse site design might be intimidating to the public. It immediately provides you with a One-Step form that begs the user to provide everything known about the immigrant. To that extent the SLEIF site is well designed. The Refine Search can only be invoked once you get at least one hit from the basic search.

The press release states there is the ability to easily notify the Foundation of transcription errors via an e-mail link on the Passenger Record page so that they can be corrected once confirmed. I could not find such a link. It may be my error.

In the course of using the SLEIF site, I found a significant error in the database itself. Using the Soundex search for the name "Mokotoff," the first hit is "Vincenzo M Stefano." The means the database considers "M Stefano" as the man's surname. I confirmed this at the Morse site. Searching at the Morse site for Vincenzo Stefano did not locate the record for this man, however searching using the surname "MStefano" located the record. This means there are many records in the Ellis Island database where there are persons with middle initials who are alphabetized erroneously to include the middle initial as the first letter of the surname.

Searching the database by town name is still a problem because of the huge number of spelling variants for towns. About two years ago I volunteered to lead a team of genealogists with different ethnic backgrounds to clean up the database. SLEIF turned me down.

Information About 25th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy
The host society, Jewish Genealogical Society of Southern Nevada, has placed on the Internet site preliminary information about the 25th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy. It will be held at the Flamingo Hilton Hotel from July 10-15. Room rates are a remarkably low $61.00 per night plus tax, good from July 5-19. Information can be found at

Registration on the web will start about November 25th; the registration form will also be available online and in downloadable format.

Carole Montello, program chair, has issued a Call for Papers for people who would like to give lectures at the conference. They will consider proposals until December 21, 2004. Submit a 50-word biography and a 150-word synopsis to The program committee will advise you of their decision by January 31, 2005.

Preference is for lecturers who have done extensive online or in-person research in the following areas: Eastern Europe, South America and Israel. Other areas of interest that will be considered are emigration/immigration records, specifically from Hamburg, Bremen, Rotterdam and Liverpool. Methodology and little-used or little-known resources will also be considered for presentation at the conference. Submit questions as to subject matter to Carole Montello at

News from Salt Lake City
I recently completed my annual trip to Salt Lake City where Eileen Polakoff and I assist Jewish genealogists in their research. This year 34 people joined us. The annual trip reminds me of why I call the Family History Library the "candy store." As Barbara Berman, one of the attendees said, "Because it is all there." Rieke and Peter Nash of Sydney, Australia, joined us this year. They spent a total of 17 days in Salt Lake City. When I left they were into day 14 and said they still had not run out of things to do at the Library. Rieke is the president of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society.

Mary Barkan of Las Vegas has been coming with the group for 11 of the 12 years we have had the event. She is part of the planning committee for the 25th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy that will be held at the Flamingo Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas from July 10-15. She disclosed that the room rate will be $61.00 per night, good from July 5-19. So plan to arrive early, gamble at the tables, attend the conference, and then stay longer and spend your winnings.

I enjoy the trip because it gives me the opportunity to use my 25 years of experience in genealogical research to help others. This knowledge does not always involve the Library. One person found a town name on a passenger manifest that she believed to be in today's Slovak Republic. We could not find it in "Where Once We Walked" (WOWW) so I e-mailed Jordan Auslander of New York to help solve the problem. Avotaynu will shortly be publishing a gazetteer of the Kingdom of Hungary that Jordan has been compiling for the past five years; he is an expert in towns of that area. Within 24 hours, we had an answer, and we were able to locate the town in WOWW. It is now in Ukraine.

Another situation involved Michael Goldstein of Israel, who was part of the group. He complained to me that he was getting a lot of false positives while searching the JRI-Poland database at one of the many computer terminals in the Library. The surname he was searching had the same soundex code as a very popular Jewish surname, however, the last letter of the name was different than the popular name. I made Michael aware of an undocumented feature of soundex searches on JewishGen. If you place a letter of the name in brackets [], it tells the search engine that the character is not to be soundexed but must be the exact letter shown. Using that feature eliminated the popular names in his search.

Half the people who work in the Library are Mormon volunteers, many of them retirees. They are given limited training but are so anxious to help the patrons that a lot of stories arise from incidents where they try to help. Typical was a woman volunteer who virtually accosted me in her desire to help. I politely told her I was doing fine by myself. When I told her I was Jewish, with a warm smile she told me that I -must- try a web site that has lots of Jewish genealogical information called [sic].

In another incident I overheard a conversation between three volunteers. A Mormon lady, clearly over 70 years of age, told two male Mormon volunteers, clearly in the over-80 set, that what they just said was "meshuggah." Both men looked puzzled, struggling with this new-found word.

"Mmmmmeshegah?," one of the men stuttered.

"No, it is pronounced "meshoo'gah." It is a new word I learned. It means "crazy," the woman said with the confidence of someone who just discovered she had superior knowledge to her peers.

"Meshoogah," replied one of the men.

"Now you have it," the woman answered with a Mormon smile. Both men returned the smile with a smile.

Next years' trip will be from October 27-November 3, 2005. You can find information about the trip, plus a picture of the graduating class of 2004, at

Status of Passenger Arrivals Indexes plans to index Baltimore passenger manifest lists 1892-1948. They have completed 1913-1948 with 1903-1912 “coming soon.” The company has completed its index to New York arrivals 1851-1891. It is an everyname index with an estimated 11 million persons. The index includes the immigrant's name, arrival date, age, port of departure, and ship name. Images of the ships' manifests will also be accessible. At present only a picture of the ship is displayed.

These databases are part of's fee-for-service. Those who already subscribe to their service may pay an additional fee to access these databases.

Any reader who has an interest in what new databases are being added to should subscribe to their daily e-zine, "Ancestry Daily News." I receive it and only post to Nu? What's New? those items that I think might be of general interest to Jewish genealogists. There may be others that may be specific to your needs. For example, on a continual basis, is posting to their site city directories for many U.S. cities. Also, "Ancestry Daily News" has a daily feature column worth reading that discusses some aspect of genealogy methodology. These columns are written by some of the best professional genealogists in the U.S. Some may apply to your research. You can subscribe to "Ancestry Daily News" at

New Avotaynu Catalog Being Mailed
Avotaynu has mailed out its latest catalog to people on our mailing list. It includes 62 books of interest to people researching Jewish families. There is a 10% discount offer for any book in the catalog to persons who subscribe to our journal, AVOTAYNU, The International Review of Jewish Genealogy. The offer expires erev (eve) Chanukah. If you think you are not on our mailing list and want a catalog, send a message to Include your postal address.

Featured books in the catalog are our latest works including:
* Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy
* A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia
* The Lurie Legacy: The House of Davidic Royal Descent
* Polish Sources at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People
* Chinese Exile: My Years in Shanghai and Nanking
* Where Once We Walked: Revised Edition
* Sephardic Genealogy

You can view all books offered by Avotaynu at

Avoid This Scam
There is a new Internet scam where you are offered a small (less than $100) gift by merely going to an Internet site to claim the reward. We bring up this scam only because one person has informed me that an offer sent to him was "a $10.00 certificate on my next order from AVOTAYNU."

If you go to the Internet site, you are immediately asked for marketing type information such as name, e-mail address, postal address, age, etc. Often it is under the guise of "Where do you want us to send the prize," "What is your e-mail address so we can confirm the prize was shipped," etc. After giving this information, you are sent through a series of additional web pages asking whether you are interested in buying various products or other annoying questions. Clearly the intent is to wear you down to the point where you abandon the free offer. The net effect is that the marketing company has relevant information about you they can sell and you have nothing.

Avoid these offers.
Nu? What's New is published biweekly by Avotaynu, Inc.
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