Book Review: Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames

Guilherme Faiguenboim, Paulo Valdares and Anna Rosa Campagnano, Dicionario) Setaradi de Sobrenomes / Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames (Revised second edition). Sao Paolo: Editora Fraiha, 2004, 528pp.ISBN 85-85989-20-3

This is a beautifully presented reference work. With its many outstanding illustrations, its quarto format and the fact that one can dip into it to look up a particular surname of interest, it can also take pride of place on any coffee table. We are fortunate that the Brazilian authors and publishers have chosen to release this book in English as well as in their native language, making the material that it contains readily available to a wider readership-Australians among tihem-who may have little if any familiarity with Portuguese. In places, however, the English is awkward and occasionally difficult to understand. Thus, I am not quite sure what to make of the following sentence: “Unlike the aristocracy and the general population, who stirred and rebelled, the Jews were explored with no chance to complain” (page 42). Should “exploited” be read for “explored”?

After two chapters which trace the long history of the Jews in Spain and Portugal and their subsequent dispersal, the book proceeds to record the surnames from several sources:
– Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal prior to the edicts of expulsion respectively in 1492 and 1496;
– their descendants in colonies a far apart as Tangiers, Izmir and Panama;
– Jews in Spain and Portugal who had accepted Christianity whether as sincere or nominal converts-along with names found in inquisition records; and
– communities such as Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Hamburg and London, founded by con versos who reverted to Judaism when they were free to do so, that is when they could escape the clutches of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and the inquisition.

All of the above groups had lived at one time in the Iberian Peninsula and could be counted as “true” Sephardim. The authors have also included names from “certain communities and individuals who in a strict sense would not be Sephardis, but culturally are” (page 108). such as the Jews of Italy, North Africa, Iraq, Yemen and Aleppo in Syria, with whom “pure” Sephardim had frequently intermarried.

The inspiration for this book has come from the work Dictionary at Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire by one Alexander Beider, which was published in 1993 and has become an essential resource in the examination of Ashkenazi surnames. Basing his work on voter registration records in the Russian Pale of settlement from 1906, 1907 and 1912. Beider was able to identify most of the names of Ashkenazi Jews. The authors of the present work however report that they found their task far more complex than Beider’s, because of the wide dispersion of Sephardi Jews, and the fact that Jews in Spain and Portugal were already using surnames In the fourteenth century. This preceded the formalisation of the Spanish and Portuguese languages and standardisation of their orthography. Austrian Jews were the first Ashkenazi group to adopt hereditary surnames in 1787, but the same names might be spell in accordance with the spelling conventions of different languages.

“The letters ‘f,’ ‘x’ and ‘j’,” we are told, ‘had other phonetic values in the past” (page 136). “F” was associated with “h,” leading to names such as Fernandez and Hernandes, Ferrera and Herrera. “X” was frequently sounded like “s,” giving names such as Xarafi and Sarafi. Xuarez and Suarez. By the sixteenth century. it was pronounced like English “sh” In names such as Ximenes. “The letter ‘j’ may have the sound of ‘y’ (Jehuda ~ Yehuda; Jachia ~ Yachia). or of the aspirated ‘h’ (Jazan ~ Hazan; Jalfon ~ Hallon). or of the ‘dzh’ (Javes, Jamal)'” (page 138).

This orthographic “anarchy” is intensified when bearers of the one name pass through countries using different spelling rules. Thus “Amariglio, Amarillo and Amarilho sound the same if read obeying, respectively, the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese rules” (page 140).

The authors have recorded a remarkable “16.914 names, presented under 12,087 entries” (page 102), gleaned from 335 different sources (page 20), with names appearing from languages as diverse as Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Berber, French, Turkish, Bulgarian and Dutch. Even so, they acknowledge that this is a fragmentary listing, given the fact that the 335 sources do not represent every community where Sephardi Jews or conversos had settled. ‘.

Going through the pages of the dictionary, I was struck by the fact that virtually every conceivable Spanish or Portuguese name is recorded here. In many cases, these would be names that were used by Jews living as Jews in Spain and Portugal. Others. particularly names such as “Cruz, Santos, Santangel, Santa Maria, De Los Reyes (and) Ramos” which have Catholic religious referents (page 128), would presumably have been adopted after conversion to Christianity.

A valuable feature of the dictionary is the information concerning the original meaning of the name given alongside many entries, and the placing of the names in categories such as Toponymic (having a geographic referent), Patronymic (from the personal name of a male ancestor), Occupational, Biblical and Rabbinical. I have no doubt that the authors are likely to be correct with regard to most of the Spanish and Portuguese names that appear in the dictionary, and found it fascinating to learn of the origins of such names.

However, my personal familiarity with Iraqi Jewish names leads me to question the accuracy of their categorization of names from Arabic. My surname, Samra, appears in the dictionary because of the fame of David Samra, the leading judge of Iraq’s Court of Cassation for over quarter of a century. The name appears without an explanation of its source or meaning. In fact, the name is both a word in Arabic (“”dark-skinned female”), and the name of a female ancestor. Perhaps if would have been appropriate to include a category for “Matronymics.”

Loulou/Lulu is identified as a toponymic name, after an oasis known as “Ain Loulou.’ Yet luiu is Arabic for “pearl,” and is commonly used as a girl’s name; one could surmise that some families with this surname might be named for an ancestress, or possibly for an ancestor associated with the pearl industry. The name Sa’atchi, for which no explanation is given, means “watchmaker” in Iraqi Arabic, and so should be identified as an occupational name.

The name Kadoorie, a common Iraqi name made famous through Baron Lawrence Kadoorie of Hong Kong, is also shown as toponymic, the source supposedly being a place called Kadur in India. However, many Iraqi Jews who had no connection with India bore this as either a personal name or a surname. I understand the name to be associated with the Arabic word khudher meaning “‘green.” The prophet Elijah was popularly known as “Eiias al-Khudher” in Iraq, so that the name Kadoorie or Khadhurie would be a substitute or nickname for Elias or. Elijah.

This quibble over Arabic names aside, the book as a whole is a valuable resource for anyone interested in Sephardi history and culture. The list of names does not immediately assist with tracing members of a particular family, as it is clear that members of different lineages, originating in separate locations, may have adopted the same surnames. It would, however, be useful in genealogical research by identifying a large number of Sephardi names, pointing to the range of locations where a particular name has been found and indicating alternative forms of a name, forms which might be pursued to advantage.


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