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Who Are The Jews Of France? Their Last Names Give A Clue

In my previous article, I wrote about the mysterious Jews of Italy, who seem to be neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. So it was natural to turn to a neighboring West European country, France, where the history of the Jewish communities is also quite non-linear. These communities pose a similar difficulty to the simplistic and popular dichotomy of Jews as being either Sephardic or Ashkenazic.

In this article, we will discuss the geographic roots of French Jews, with names taken as illustrations. French Jews pose a greater quandary than Italian Jews, for the history of French Jews is discontinuous; when discussing their origins, we need to address the different periods separately.

During the first medieval period, there were two large groups of Jews who were living in the territory of modern France. The first group dwelled in northern provinces including Ile-de-France (Paris area), Champagne, and Normandy, and spoke French in their everyday life.

In medieval rabbinical works written in Hebrew, this area is designated as Sarfat. Its Jews were closely related to their coreligionists from the Rhine area in Germany. The strength of their cultural influence can be seen in similarities of religious rites and pronunciation of Hebrew. Apparently, numerous Jews from Sarfat migrated to west Germany at the turn of the First and Second Millenniums. Their legacy can be observed in a series of Yiddish words such as oren, meaning to pray (known only in Yiddish of Western Europe); leyenen, meaning to read, tsholnt, the famous Sabbath meal, and teytl, meaning date (fruit).

Certain Ashkenazic given names, such as Beyle, Bunem, Toltse, and Yentl, are also of Old French origin.

The second Jewish group lived in the territory that today corresponds to southern France. Its Jews spoke the local language, Occitan, as their daily idiom. Their religious rite was significantly different from that of their northern French coreligionists. In the Middle Ages, the western part of that area, Languedoc, with such important communities as Narbonne and Montpelier, belonged to the French Kingdom. The eastern part (covering Marseille and Arles) was a separate state of Provence that was incorporated into France only at the end of the 15th century.

Yet in the medieval Jewish culture, despite these administrative borders, the whole southern area (including Languedoc) was known under the name of Provence.

Jews were first expelled from France in 1306. This event was fatal for the formerly prosperous communities of Languedoc. Numerous families migrated to neighboring Kingdoms of Majorca, Aragon, or Navarre (these territories today are mainly in Spain, with a notable exception of the area around the city of Perpignan, now in France), bringing with them surnames like Nassi (according to the local tradition, the ancestor of this leading family from Narbonne came there from Babylonia), Besiers, and de Carcassona.

When nine years later the French king revoked the expulsion law, the families in question usually did not return to Languedoc. The communities in northwestern France (including Normandy) were not reestablished either. It was only in northeastern part of the Kingdom that Jewish life was, at least partly, restored.

But in 1394, all French Jews were expelled again. Some of them (including the Treves, the family of the Chief Rabbi of Paris) went to the County of Savoy (today in France, but in the Middle Ages, a separate state) or states in northern and central Italy. Others joined Ashkenazic communities in Alsace, Switzerland, and Germany. Among them was another branch of the Treves family.

In 1501, after the incorporation of Provence to the French Kingdom, all Jews of Provence were also expelled and no person openly professing Judaism remained in France.

The medieval communities in northern and southern France, distinct culturally, were not isolated from each other. For example, several male given names common in the North were originally brought by migrants from the South, among them Senior and Vives (the ancestors of Yiddish given names Shneyer and Fayvush, respectively), as well as Bendit (also later used by Ashkenazim).

Since the end of the 13th century, an enclave belonging to the Papal States existed in the Avignon area (today in southern France), with important Jewish communities in Avignon itself and neighboring Carpentras. Until 1791 (when the area was integrated to France), local Jews were not concerned by the French legislation. Isolated from other Jews, these communities mainly remained endogamous. When in 1808 a law signed by Napoleon forced all French Jews to take hereditary surnames, local Jews retained the family names they used for many centuries such as Crémieu(x), Milhaud, Monteux, Naquet, and Cohen. Of the total of about 2,000 persons, a huge portion was covered by only a few dozens of surnames.

The Jews from this Papal enclave are the only families whose presence in the territory of modern France was non-interrupted for many centuries.

The history of Ashkenazic Jews from Alsace-Lorraine is different. In mid-16th century, only a hundred Jewish families were present in all of Alsace. These German-speaking territories were annexed by France in the 17th century. Despite the formal interdiction of Judaism in France, the French authorities did not bother the local Jewish population.

Quite on the contrary, the number of Jews increased dramatically in Alsace in the 17th and 18th centuries because of the stable situation resulting from this annexation and the arrival of numerous migrants from Central Europe after the devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The Alsatian Jews used the Western dialect of Yiddish in their vernacular life, and during the 18th century, many families’ surnames gradually became fixed.

Among the most common names recorded at the end of the century (and retained in 1808) were Levi, Cohen, Weil, Bloch, and Dreyfus. The name Weil belonged to a rabbinical family whose founder in the 15th century originated from the German town of Weil.

Bloch represents the Yiddishized form of Polish włoch, meaning ‘Italian’, and signifies family members who moved from Italy to Poland. Dreyfus descends from the branch of the rabbinical Treves family mentioned above, who has been expelled from France in 1394. Treves turned to Dreyfus due to the phonetic phenomena internal to Western Yiddish — a shift from /v/ to /f/ (thus Vives became Fayvush) and the diphthongization of /e/ in open syllables.

During the last decade of the 18th century, the Jewish delegation to the French revolutionary parliament was composed of the representative of three different cultural groups: those from Alsace-Lorraine (by far, the most populous), those from the Avignon area and the Sephardim from the cities of Bordeaux and Bayonne, in southwestern France.

The history of the last group stands apart. During the 17th-18th centuries, numerous Portuguese and Spanish migrants, mainly descending from Jews converted to Catholicism during the 1490s, settled in the area in question not far from the Spanish border. Since the turn of the 17th-18th centuries, members of these congregations ceased to hide their attachment to Judaism and started to profess their religion openly.

Despite the formal prohibition of Judaism in France, local authorities did not prevent this practice. The congregations (about 1,500 persons in Bordeaux and 1,100 in Bayonne) established synagogues and cemeteries, and started to circumcise the newborn boys and use only Jewish personal names — mostly Biblical.

But they retained the typical Iberian Christian surnames that they had used when they were nominally Catholics, such as Fernandes Dias, Furtado, or Henriques de Castro. Sometimes the ending of their names was slightly changed to make these names look more “French”; thus, Pereire instead of Pereira, or Fonsèque instead of Fonseca.

Important changes took place in the structure of the French Jewry during the 20th century. During the first third of the century, Jewish artists from various countries (Modigliani from Italy, Pascin from Bulgaria, and Chagall, Soutine, and Zadkine from the territory of modern Belarus) were prominent members of the famous School of Paris.

Between the two World Wars, thousands of Ashkenazic migrants from Eastern Europe came to France bringing there such surnames as Charpak, Krasucki, Krivine, Perec (all from Poland), Leibovici, Klarsfeld, Moscovici (all from Romania), and Levinas and Hazanavicius (both from Lithuania, the corresponding forms used in the Russian Empire before 1917 are Levin and Khazanovich, respectively).

A significant number of Jews from the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, mainly from Turkey and usually of Sephardic origin, also moved to France. Among these families were the Arditti, Mallah, and Strumza.

Statistically speaking, these recent migrant families from Eastern Europe and Turkey were the main Jewish victims in France during the Holocaust.

The most dramatic change took place during the 1950s and 1960s, when almost all Algerian Jews (French citizens since the so-called Crémieux Decree signed in 1870) and large groups of Jews from Tunisia and Morocco, also French-speaking, migrated to France after the corresponding countries became independent. The total number of migrants, about 250,000, was close to the total number of Jews, of various origins, present in France before their arrival.

Due to their more traditional attitude to Judaism (and therefore a relatively small number of mixed marriages), close family relations, and very quick integration into the French society, Jews from North Africa became the most vital force of the contemporary French Jewry.

These families brought to the French land numerous surnames unknown there before the 20th century. The large majority have Arabic roots and/or suffixes (Attali, Dray, Halimi, Lelouch). Some include Berber elements (Aflalou, Ouaknine). Other surnames belong to Spanish Jewish exiles to North Africa (14th-15th centuries): Almosnino, Cohen Solal, Stora, Trigano.

One surname from the last group is of particular interest: Sarfati. It means ‘Frenchman’ in Hebrew. The ancestors of this family (or these families, because nothing indicates that we are dealing with only one lineage) migrated from Northern to Southern France where they received this nickname. During the 14th century, bearers of this name were present among Jews from Languedoc who, after the expulsion of 1306, joined communities in the territories of modern Spain.

When Spanish Jews were expelled in 1492, some Sarfati migrated to Morocco. It is also plausible that at least one branch moved from Spain to southern Morocco even before 1492.

During the next centuries Moroccan migrants brought the name to Algeria and Tunisia too. As a result, numerous bearers were living in mid-20th century in all regions of North Africa. Many of them moved to France.

With this step, the family route represents a circle, starting and finishing, about 650 years later, in the same country — France.

Alexander Beider is a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish. He lives in Paris.

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