Tracing My Crypto-Jewish Ancestors

The Jewish genealogist working in a Sephardic milieu has it easier than one who works with an eastern European family tree The Jews of Spain acquired family names beginning with the 10 th or 11 th century Most Eastern European Jews did not adopt family names until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19 th century Napoleon ordered the Jews and others of the countries he conquered to take family names so they could be easier to locate to pay taxes and to draft ablebodied males into his army

Sephardic family names can be divided into three categories: Spanish accounting for the majority of names with about 40 per cent Hebrew is next with about 20 per cent The rest is divided between Italian Arabic Berber and French names (a) Spanish names amongst Sephardim are the same as those used by Christian Spaniards For example Leon and De Leon are the most widely used family names among Sephardim Other popular names are Mendes Henriques Pinto Toledano Pardo Franco Pereira and Da Costa The Jewish genealogist must take care to ensure that he is within a Jewish line and not a Christian one Starting with the 16 th century those lines become blurry for Sephardim Some family names were simultaneously used by cryptoJews sincerely converted Jews and practicing Jews It was not unusual to have all three groups represented within a single family Some Jews when they escaped from Spain or Portugal wanted the world to know that while they bore Spanish or Portuguese names they were Jewish They added a Hebrew family name and thus became Cohen Henriques Aboab Fonseca or Levy Maduro

Aware of all these historic facts a decade and a half ago I set out to learn something about my ancestors I studied two families from my father’s side: the Castros and the Ezrattys and two families from my mother’s: the Nehamas and the Samos The result was a deductive analysis based upon the history of the times and the dates as to when three of these families first surfaced in the seaport city of Salonica of the Ottoman Empire following the Expulsion of 1492

The family name of my maternal grandfatherSamo is a mystery I have been unable to determine anything about his name or its origin He was born in Bulgaria once part of the Ottoman Empire Over 95 per cent of Bulgarian Jews were Sephardim I suspect that the family changed its name in an effort to assimilate The only Samo I was able to find in Bulgaria belonged to upper class nobility I even located a family crest for Samo I can hardly accept that my Jewish grandfather was the descendant of Bulgarian nobility There was never any family legend about such a fact That he was the son of a prosperous land owner was something everyone knew true or not

I concentrated on the three remaining families Castro is obviously Spanish and was the easiest to document The family were cryptoJews and returned to Judaism sometime early in the first half of the 16 th century Ezratty and Nehama are Hebrew names Ezratty means “my help” and Nehama means “patience” or “consolation” (b) All three of these families came to Salonica in the first decades of the 16 th Century the Castros from Portugal the Ezrattys and the Nehamas from Italy It was with these last two families that I had to use some detective work in absence of solid documentation

The tradition in my family is that prior to 1492 the Castros lived in Toledo There were Castros all over Spain but Toledo was a city well known for its concentration of Jews much like New York City or Los Angeles Before 1492 it was the capital of Spain and an important metropolis It was well located and was home to important academic institutions administered jointly by Jews Christians and Moslems Toledo was a city that Jews found comfortable to live in

In 1492 Jews had to make a choice: leave Spain or convert to Christianity The Castros chose to leave Instead of going east to the Ottoman Empire with most of the exiles they went west to Portugal In their new home in Lisbon they were permitted to practice their religion In 1497 the royals of Portugal and Spain contemplated marriage between their children Isabella of Spain would not give her consent unless all the Jews of Portugal were expelled Portugal ’s King Manoel reluctant to do that solved the problem by forcing every Jew to convert Jewish children were baptized by force Their parents were told that if they did not convert their children would be taken from them Thousands of adults were dragged to the baptismal font to have holy water poured over them When it was over Portugal was a vast Jewish prison Of course many considered themselves still Jewish resulting in a large underground cryptoJewish culture A century later many descendants of these anusim were able to leave Portugal Most went to Holland and England They were known to the world as “The Portuguese Nation” Amongst Jews they formed an exclusive club and called themselves La Nacion “The Nation”

The Castros did not wait that long to get out They left Portugal some time before 1520 How they managed to leave I cannot explain since the Portuguese did not allow converted Jews leave the country Perhaps as Christians they returned to Spain where they were not so closely watched This was a popular ruse In any event their arrival at the city of Salonica was possibly as late as 1520 and perhaps as early as 1510 The Castros belonged to the Lisbon synagogue founded in 1510 and which was also known by its popular name ” la sinagoga de los marranos ” So in the city of Salonica the Castros were known among their fellow Jews as marranos (c)

Synagogue records of the time are important sources of information for investigators The Ottomans required all Jews to belong to a synagogue so that they could tax the community The synagogues and there were many of them were organized around the cities or regions from which the exiles had come eg Kehillah Kedoshah

Aragon Kehillah Kedoshah Catalan Kehillah Kedoshah Castillia etc Jews were forbidden by law to leave one synagogue to join another without special permission which was difficult to obtain Each synagogue was taxed according to the wealth of its members The Lisbon synagogue was the wealthiest in Salonica so we may conclude the Castros would not have sought special permission to become members

The Castros went on to produce generations of rabbis in Salonica Some wrote commentaries on Cabbalistic texts (d) My great grandfather Shaul Castro was a Dayan or a rabbinical judge Since the Ottomans did not wish to interfere in Jewish internal affairs the Jews of Salonica were allowed to maintain their own courts to resolve divorces domestic relations and commercial controversies between Jews If a Moslem or Christian consented he could submit to a Jewish court There was a synagogue named for my grandfather (Campagne Beth Shaul) which the Nazis dynamited on July 23 1943 (e )

The route the Ezrattys (spelled Ezrati in Salonica) and Nehamas took to Salonica requires deduction and an understanding of the turbulent history surrounding the Jews of the period The Ezrattys trace their origins to the Hebrew poet Moses Ibn Ezra who wrote in Hebrew and Arabic during the 11 th and 12 th centuries (f) Ibn Ezra lived in Granada the region Spaniards call Andalusia The Arabs called it Al Andalus “to the west” History tells us that Ibn Ezra fled southern Spain for the north when a fanatical sect of Arabs made life difficult for both Christians and Jews The poet roamed throughout Christian Spain unhappy that he was forced to leave his home During this period Jews Christians and Moslems fled from one kingdom or principality to another when wars or tyrannical rulers made life difficult for them

By 1391 family tradition has it that the Ezrattys were living in the region of Catalonia It matters little where they resided because in that year the centuries of relatively peaceful life for the Jews of Spain came to an end as did the famous “Golden Age” With the blessings of the church mass antiSemitic riots engulfed every corner of Spain including the island of Majorca Ezrattys were probably victims of forced baptism or they fled to Sicily as Jews They next surface in the city of Messina on the island of Sicily The island was a possession of the Spanish kingdom of Aragon

Either the Ezrattys came there as cryptoJews or were baptized in Sicily The reasoning is clear The Expulsion order of 1492 did not apply to the Jews of Sicily who were subjects of Ferdinand of Aragon (g) History does not tell us why Ferdinand delayed a year But the Ezrattys did not get to Salonica until 1575 the year their synagogue was founded It would have been impossible for them to have remained in any Spanish territory openly as Jews I must therefore conclude that they were cryptoJews either in Spain as a result of the 1391 riots or certainly during their stay in Messina The Ezrattys belonged to the Kehillah Kedoshah Sicilia which was also known as el cal de los pescadores the fishermen’s synagogue(h) There were two Sicilian synagogues Yashan (Hebrw for old) and Hadash (Hebrew for new) The Ezrattys belonged to the “New Synagogue” which lends credence to their late arrival in Salonica

Nehamas belonged to the Kehillah Kedoshah Italia (i) Its members did not come from southern Italy but from the north We first find the Nehamas in Toledo using a variation of the name Nahmias We do not know when they left Spain but they next surface in Venice an Italian CityState that was not affected by either the Expulsion of 1492 or 1493 Some Jewish merchants with connections in Italy left Spain in 1391 for some of the Citystates where they used their commercial connections to gain entry This could probably apply to the Nehamas since their synagogue was also considered one of the wealthiest in Salonica Synagogue records tell us that the Venetians were cryptoJews who were able to leave their citystate freely (j) If that is so then the Nehamas may have left Venice with a sizable portion of their wealth Like the Sicilian synagogue the Italian synagogue had an old and a new section The Nehamas belonged to the new congregation which was founded 1n 1550 The Italian synagogue was one of the few that did not have a popular or nickname

(a)The Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames; Faiguenbom Valadares and Campagnano SaoPalo Brazil 2003 p134

(b) Seven Language Dictionary Ed David Shumaker New York 1978pp 301 314

(c)Les Juifs de Salonique a la fin du XVI par Michael Molho ClermontFerrand 1991 p38

(d) Rabbi Avraham Castro published Chaim Vital’s Ashmoret ha Boker (Morning Shift) (1854) ; Chaim de La Rosa’s Torat Chacham( The Wise Man’s Torah) (1848); wrote commentaries on the Zohar (1852) and Chaim Vital’s Responsas (1862)

(e) Central Archives and Research Institute for the History of Gedolei Israel Jerusalem ;

Homages aux Victimes Juives des Nazis en Grece par Michael Molho augmente par Joseph Nehama Thessalonique 1973 pp 111112

(f)Jewish Museum of Greece Newsletter Vol 31 Spring/Summer 1991 Athens p3; Vol 32 p6

(g) Royal Edict of Ferdinand of Aragon January 12 1493

(h) Les Juifs de Salonique op cit p41

(i) ibid p 21

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