Sephardi Genealogy Comes of Age
Jewish genealogy is no longer the sole realm of Eastern European Ashkenazim.
Many begin the quest for information about their Sephardi ancestors each day, assisted by increasing new resources.
Modern Sephardi Jewry includes descendants of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition as well as Oriental or “Mizrahi” Jews who lived in the Middle East, Near East and Central Asia – all non-Yiddish speaking, non-Ashkenazi Jews. Researchers, assisted by DNA projects, are also investigating the Sephardi roots of some Eastern European Jews.
Metro conducted interviews with some leading Sephardi genealogists, who revealed many insights into their research.
Sephardi genealogy research wasn’t so important in the early 20th century, relates Dr. Yitzhak Kerem, a specialist in Greek Jewry, who sees genealogical research as “another way to learn history.”
When Jews began expressing ancestry interest after the success in the 1970s of Alex Haley’s Roots, American Jewish culture was Ashkenazi – Sephardim weren’t the Jewish mainstream. Shelomo Alfassa of the International Sephardic Leadership Council says the issue was a numbers game, as the American Sephardi population was exponentially smaller than the Ashkenazi one.
American Sephardim were busy blending in, offers Dr. Jeffrey Malka, a Virginia-based author and researcher. “They didn’t want to draw attention to being different; many were ignorant of their own history,” while genealogist and businessman Alain Farhi disagrees: “Sephardi genealogy always existed, but wasn’t publicized or discovered by the masses or the American genealogist.”
While “Ashkenazi research focuses on civil-registry documents – researchers generally know what records are available and where they are kept,” says Dr. Daniel Kazez, adding that Sephardi researchers must contend with linguistic and civil restriction barriers, informal archives, decentralized small Jewish communities, unusual handwriting, and archivists who speak Greek, Turkish or Arabic. Kerem adds that the necessary research languages are often daunting to students and researchers.
All these experts agree that the Internet gave Jewish genealogy a jump start – particularly for Sephardim – by increasing the amount of readily accessible information, guidance, and resources.
The Internet made it easier to extend the reach of genealogy and collect data beyond national borders, says Farhi, while Harry Stein of Sephardim.com says that those with similar interests could share generations of family lore.
Perhaps it took longer for Sephardi genealogists to go public, adds Stein, because they tried to keep their identity low-key or secret. The Nazis and the Catholic Church were threats, and they remembered the Inquisition, alive in the New World into the 19th century, he adds. “Hiding identity has been a converso/anousim tradition for more than 500 years.”
Stein took up genealogy after he married a Sephardi woman and wanted his children to understand their heritage. His friends kept telling him how lucky he was to have married an Abravanel. “Frankly, I didn’t know who or what that was. I had to get the facts.” The quest for information is just beginning, he says. Experts say there may be more than 20 million people of Sephardic ancestry in the American Southwest and in South and Central America. “The region is bursting with curiosity,” he says. Stein’s Web site includes some 2,000 global forum members. The Internet “has opened doors never before available to researchers,” he declares.
Farhi adds that now, generations of family lore can be shared with others who may have heard the same stories.
“In 1979, after my father’s death, I discovered among his papers a handwritten tree compiled by my grandfather, who died in 1940,” he relates. Farhi collected information and distributed copies of the tree. As related families sent data, he created an extensive database. He’s solved some unanswered questions and has organized major DNA projects. One endeavor close to his heart is safeguarding the civil records of the Egyptian-Jewish communities in Cairo and Alexandria.
Sephardim are also quite individualistic, notes Jerusalem-based Sephardi genealogy pioneer and researcher Mathilde Tagger. When she asked families to share information, many responded, “My genealogy has no interest for someone outside the family.”
Tagger’s became interested in researching her family after the funeral of her grandmother at 97, which was attended by relatives from all over the world. Her uncle commented, “If we had a family tree, they’d all be together, at least on paper,” and told Tagger: “You’ll build this family tree.” Many of her important indexes and databases are now posted on Dr. Malka’s SephardicGen.com site.
Many of her important indexes and databases are located at SephardicGen.com. Two recent databases, based on various onomastic studies, are “Jewish Surnames in North Africa” (more than 12,000 names) and “Jewish Surnames in the Balkans” ( over 5,300 names), annotated indexes of major publications, indexes of rabbis buried in Salonika and Izmir and more.
In the mid-1990s, relates Malka, there were few internet-based Sephardi genealogy resources.
He caught the genealogy bug as he helped his father edit his memoirs, Jacob’s Children in the land of the Mahdi: The Jews of the Sudan. On JewishGen, he found help researching his mother’s Ashkenazi family, “but they told me there was no way to do Sephardi genealogy because there were no records.” He kept searching for Sephardi resources, and discovered information in obscure academic texts, which led him to more resources.
As he learned more, he created the Resources for Sephardic Genealogy Web site, which includes articles on genealogy, history and links; his mailbox filled with questions and requests, prompting him to write Sephardic Genealogy: Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and Their World (Avotaynu, 2002) to provide answers and encourage others interested in tracing their roots.
To enhance JewishGen’s Sephardi presence, the Sefard Forum discussion group was launched in 1998 and was later supplemented by Malka’s Web pages. Malka says that Sephardi genealogy is now deemed a serious topic, as evidenced by his recent appearance before a non-Jewish forum at the Library of Congress. He recently placed extensive resources on www.sephardicgen.com, and hopes to organize a Sephardi genealogy conference in Spain.
Shelomo Alfassa of the International Sephardic Leadership Council in New York says the Internet has enabled researchers to network, strategize and communicate. It is responsible, he says, for exponential sharing of raw data, last names, geographical information, cemetery data, etc., and has provided a hook that led thousands to the satisfying pursuit of gathering leaves on their family trees.
Catalan author/journalist Pere Bonnin’s book Sangre Judia, which sold out three editions and whose expanded fourth edition is now available, caused a minor revolution in Spain. Bonnin is a Chueta of Mallorca – Jews forcibly converted 100 years before the Expulsion, never accepted by the Old Christians and discriminated against ever since. The book includes an introduction to Judaism, Spanish-Jewish history, a history of anti-Semitism, and thousands of Jewish family names and places found in pre-Expulsion and Inquisition records.
“The book was painful in that it stirred up the feeling of being discriminated against for something that you did not do, but because of who you are,” Bonnin says. But it also brought great satisfaction, he adds, as readers asked how they could discover their Jewish ancestry and return to Judaism. Another reward is observing how today’s young Chuetas are not ashamed, as were earlier generations. Readers are “touched” when they find their names, suspect they should be there and want to know more. Others, upset to see their names listed, deny Jewish connections, “are angry, filled with hate, because they feel trapped by an identity they would prefer to erase,” he explains.
Dr. Stanley Hordes of the University of New Mexico calls his interest in Sephardi genealogy “purely academic.” He has no Sephardi roots – to his knowledge. He became fascinated with the Latin American history of the Inquisition and crypto-Jews, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on 17th-century crypto-Judaism in Mexico.
As New Mexico’s state historian, Hordes became interested in crypto-Jews on the far northern frontier of Mexico, today’s Southwest. He conducted genealogical research on early 15th-18th century New Mexican settlers, Hispanic New Mexicans who claimed a crypto-Jewish past, and examined genealogical links to Jews and conversos. His findings are documented in his recent book, To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico. His latest project focuses on crypto-Jews in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Hordes is excited about new developments among Sephardim in terms of both openly practicing and crypto-Jews. Malka’s work, he says, has provided “unprecedented” resource access, development and expansion of databases enabling researchers to investigate what was impossible a few years ago.
What do these researchers see for the future?
Stein wants to focus on the descendants of Spain’s anousim in the US and in South and Central America. He would like Spain to fully disclose its records of the Inquisition, but doubts that it will happen.
Hordes seeks greater collaboration among genealogists, historians, social scientists, geneticists and physicians studying autoimmune diseases. Recently discovered genetic diseases among Hispanics in the US Southwest and Latin America mirror diseases appearing more frequently among Jews than in the general population, a phenomenon that has attracted the attention of Sephardi genealogists. Most Jewish disease literature refers to Ashkenazim; in many cases, testing never included Sephardim, leaving the mistaken impression that the diseases in question were unique to Ashkenazim rather than common to all Jews.
Alfassa, like Malka, would also like to see a conference. His future plans include examining Ladino-language newspapers published between 1890-1945 in Salonika, Izmir, Istanbul, New York and elsewhere. The papers were written in letras kuadradas (Hebrew letters); “They are a language-locked archive ripe for picking,” he says. Ottoman Empire records in Istanbul and Ankara archives are accessible to scholars, but few can read Osmanlica (old Ottoman Arabic). “At least they’re protected,” Alfassa points out.
Kazes wants to recruit more volunteer typists for Turkish-Jewish projects, and also seeks to progress in his research on his great-grandmother’s native town of Aleppo, Syria.
Kerem stresses that a cemetery project is needed in Greece, Turkey, former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria; his monthly Sepharad e-letter has over 4,000 subscribers, and he’s in the process of organizing the first Sephardi March of the Living to demonstrate how the Holocaust impacted Sephardi communities.
DNA testing for genealogy has resulted in interesting connections. CEO Bennett Greenspan of the Houston, Texas-based Family Tree DNA, the field’s pioneer company, says the Ashkenazi gene pool was always easier to access; most initial testing took place there. But it is now clear that all worldwide Jewish populations must be tested. A complete set of databases will be available – possibly in 2008 – to compare Sephardi and Mizrahi populations with existing Ashkenazi databases.