You May Not Be As Sephardic As You Think

Forward Magazine - - Opin­ion - Alexan­der Bei­der

Dur­ing my child­hood in the 1960s and ’70s in the USSR, the only books pub­lished about Jews were ide­o­log­i­cal works that crit­i­cized Zion­ism, Is­rael and what the Sovi­ets con­sid­ered the “na­tional Jewish men­tal­ity.” Thanks to these books, many of us had a to­tally dis­torted pic­ture of our true ori­gins as Jews.

Many of my Jewish friends in fact be­lieved they were Sephardic. They be­lieved that their an­ces­tors came to Rus­sia from Spain, with a de­tour through Ger­many af­ter the Jews were ex­pelled from Spain in 1492.

My friends and I were un­aware of the ex­is­tence of flour­ish­ing Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in western Ger­many that had been there since at least the 11th cen­tury — way be­fore the Jews were ex­pelled from Spain. And we were not aware that Jews had lived in Slavic coun­tries since at least the 10th cen­tury.

But most of all, we did not know what many peo­ple don’t know: that no group of Sephardic Jews ever mi­grated to Ger­many, with the ex­cep­tion of one Sephardic com­mu­nity that made its way to Ham­burg.

In­deed, this mis­taken be­lief, that many Eu­ro­pean Jews have Sephardic ori­gins, is not lim­ited to us in our Soviet-im­posed naiveté. De­spite the preva­lence of stud­ies and text­books, many Jews liv­ing in Is­rael, North Amer­ica and Western Europe be­lieve that some of their an­ces­tors spent the Mid­dle Ages in Spain. And it’s sim­ply not true. The term “Sephardic,” de­rived from the me­dieval He­brew word mean­ing “Span­ish,” has mul­ti­ple mean­ings. In a larger sense, it refers to com­mu­ni­ties that fol­low the re­li­gious rites and tra­di­tions of Jews from me­dieval Spain. This would in­clude North African Jews.

In a nar­rower sense, a “Sephardic” Jew has an­ces­tors who lived in me­dieval Spain. Nu­mer­ous Jews with roots in Morocco, Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia and Libya con­sider them­selves Sephardic for this rea­son.

They are not wrong. Lots of his­tor­i­cal, lin­guis­tic and ono­mas­tic ev­i­dence in­di­cates that this be­lief has solid ground. Rab­binic sources dis­cuss the ar­rival of a num­ber of Jewish fam­i­lies in the Maghreb in North Africa right af­ter the mas­sive per­se­cu­tions of Span­ish Jews of 1391. Span­ish Jews found their way to Al­ge­ria from the King­dom of Aragon. Thou­sands of Jews came to Morocco from Spain af­ter the ex­pul­sion in 1492.

This bur­geon­ing com­mu­nity grad­u­ally cre­ated its own id­iomatic lan­guage, Judeo-Span­ish, also called Hake­tia, and rab­bini­cal texts from the 17th and 18th centuries from all parts of Morocco still con­tain Judeo-Span­ish texts. Later, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, hun­dreds of Jews with Sephardic roots mi­grated from Italy to Tu­nis, Tripoli and Al­giers. More­over, since all these coun­tries (ex­cept for Morocco) were in­side the Ot­toman Em­pire be­fore the 19th cen­tury, a num­ber of Ot­toman Jews, also mainly with Sephardic roots, mi­grated there. At the time of their mi­gra­tion to the Maghreb, Jews from Ibe­ria, Italy and the Ot­toman ), Ora (gold) and Plata (sil­ver).

This is not to say that the Jewish pop­u­la­tion of North Africa is ex­clu­sively due to Sephardic mi­grants. His­tor­i­cal sources in­di­cate that Ibe­rian mi­grants im­me­di­ately be­came the cul­tural elite in Al­ge­ria at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. But noth­ing sug­gests that these mi­grants were more nu­mer­ous than the lo­cal Jews were. We know about im­por­tant re­li­gious de­bates be­tween the Span­ish-Jewish new­com­ers and in­dige­nous Jews that took place dur­ing the 16th cen­tury in Morocco, where these two groups had sep­a­rate com­mu­ni­ties. In Tu­nis, the com­mu­nity of Ital­ian-Jewish mi­grants (mainly Sephardim from the city of

The be­lief that many Eu­ro­pean Jews are Sephardic is based al­most in­vari­ably on sur­names.

Livorno) lived separately from the in­dige­nous Jewish comm unity un­til 1944, and ac­counted for only 10% of the city’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion.

But that is the ex­tent of the Jews who can rea­son­ably claim to be Sephardic.

The mis­taken be­lief that many Eu­ro­pean Jews are Sephardic is based al­most in­vari­ably on sur­names. For ex­am­ple, we find fam­i­lies called Paes in Belorus­sia and Pais in Ukraine, while Pae or Pais is also a com­mon sur­name in the Sephardic com­mu­ni­ties of Am­s­ter­dam and Lon­don. Or take the sur­name Min­des (also from the Rus­sian Em­pire), which re­sem­bles the Por­tuguese Men­des and the Span­ish Men­dez. Se­veal sources claim that the fa­mous Yid­dish writer Isaac Leib Peretz had Sephardic an­ces­tors, since nu­mer­ous Sephardic Jews are called Perez or Peres.

But none of this is strong ev­i­dence. And in a ma­jor­ity of cases, what we’re deal­ing with are for­tu­itous pho­netic co­in­ci­dences. For ex­am­ple, Paes sim­ply means “of Paye” in Yid­dish and was cer­tainly as­signed to a per­son whose mother (or wife) had the per­sonal name Paye, the Yid­dish form de­rived from the bib­li­cal name Zip­po­rah. More­over, Por­tuguese Catholics called Pais and Span­ish Catholics called Paez are named for a de­riv­a­tive of Paio, an Ibe­rian ver­nac­u­lar de­riv­a­tive of the Latin male first name Pe­lag­ius. These names are found in Sephardic fam­i­lies whose an­ces­tors were or posed as Catholics for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions be­fore be­com­ing openly Jewish out­side the Ibe­rian Penin­sula.

Usu­ally, the shorter the name, the big­ger the chances of for­tu­itous co­in­ci­dences with et­y­mo­log­i­cally un­re­lated names. Still, co­in­ci­dences are pos­si­ble even for rel­a­tively long names. My fa­vorite ex­am­ple comes from me­dieval Spain, where we find Jews bear­ing the sur­name Chi­catiella. It sounds like the Span­ish word “chiq­ui­t­illo” — which means “tiny.” Af­ter the ex­pul­sion of 1492, cer­tain mem­bers of this fam­ily moved to Morocco.

They would prob­a­bly be less than en­thused to learn that Chikatilo was also the sur­name of the se­rial killer with the largest num­ber of vic­tims in the his­tory of the USSR. His fam­ily has noth­ing to do with Jews, though; his sur­name comes from a Ukrainian nick­name chekotylo, or “one who chirps.”

I am not claim­ing that Jews from East­ern Europe could not have had an­ces­tors who lived in Spain. There are sources from the Rus­sian Pale of Set­tle­ment from the 19th cen­tury with sur­names like Abar­banel, Abu­gov, Abu­lafyev; these are Rus­si­fied forms of Abuhab and Abu­lafia. We also find Karo (Caro), Kuriel (Curiel) and Don Yahia, as well as Sfard, Por­tugejs and Sh­panier (“Spaniard” in Ger­man).

And a sur­name without Sephardic roots does not nec­es­sar­ily im­ply that the fam­ily can­not have Sephardic an­ces­tors; Be­fore the end of the 18th cen­tury, in­di­vid­ual Sephardic Jews join­ing Ashke­nazic com­mu­ni­ties in East­ern Europe from Italy or the Ot­toman Em­pire had chances to “lose” their sur­names be­cause hered­i­tary fam­ily names were not used by lo­cal Jews, apart from the cases of a few rab­bini­cal fam­i­lies.

The fewer than 20 Sephardic-orig­i­nated sur­names in East­ern Europe rep­re­sent a tiny group within my dic­tio­nary of Jewish sur­names from the Rus­sian Em­pire, which in­cludes more than 70,000 sur­names. And the cases where Sephardic ori­gins are now ob­scured et­y­mo­log­i­cally are hard to con­firm, and likely small in num­bers.

An hon­est look at the data sug­gests that, de­spite what we may be­lieve, very few Sephardic Jews ever made it to East­ern Europe.

NIKKI CASEY

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