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.” As you might imagine, 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, who had lived there since at least the 11th century — way before the Jews were expelled from Spain. Neither were we 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 a single 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 naïveté. Despite the prevalence of studies and textbooks, many Jews living in Israel, North America and Western Europe believe some of their ancestors spent the Middle Ages in Spain.
And it’s simply not true.
Let’s start with definitions.
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, for example.
In a narrower sense, a Sephardic Jew is someone whose ancestors lived in medieval Spain. Numerous Jews with roots in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya consider themselves Sephardic for this reason (if they do not adhere to the theory of Judeo-Berbers).
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 from the Kingdom of Aragon to Algeria. Thousands of Jews later came to Morocco from Spain after the expulsion in 1492.
This burgeoning community gradually created their 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 Empire were already bearing hereditary surnames. Spanish-based personal names such as Blanca (white), Luna (moon), Ora (gold), Plata (silver), and Rica (rich) were commonly used by Jewish women in North Africa.
This is not to say that the Jewish population of North Africa is due exclusively to Sephardic migrants. Historical sources indicate that Iberian migrants immediately became the cultural elite in Algeria at the turn of the 14th-15th centuries. But nothing suggests that these migrants were more numerous than the local Jews. We know about important religious debates between the Spanish-Jewish newcomers and indigenous Jews that took place during the 16th century in Morocco, where for many years these two groups had separate communities. In Tunis, the community of Italian-Jewish migrants (mainly Sephardim from the city of Livorno) lived separately from the indigenous Jewish community until 1944 and accounted for only ten percent of the city’s Jewish population.
But that is the extent of the Jews who can reasonably claim to be Sephardic.
The Jews of Eastern Europe faced an entirely different history than their North African coreligionists.
The mistaken belief that many European Jews are Sephardic is based almost invariably on surnames borne by members of their families. The examples that produced this case of mistaken identity are numerous. For example, we find Paes in Belorussia and Pais in Ukraine, while Paez/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 sounds very close to the Portuguese Mendes and the Spanish Mendez. OR take the name Rappaport, which some believe was taken by a rabbi from Porto (Portugal). Then you have several sources which claim that the famous Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz is said to have Sephardic ancestors, likely due to numerous Sephardic Jews called Perez or Peres. And many other surnames of Jews from Eastern Europe sound close either to surnames borne by Sephardic Jews and/or Iberian Catholics, or to some Romance words or place names.
But none of this is strong evidence. Some surnames derived from Hebrew first names are shared by Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews because these given names were shared by both groups, like the Ashkenazic Peretz and Sephardic Perez. But none of the other examples checks out. The second part of Rappaport, for example, comes from the town of Porto in northern Italy (where this Ashkenazic family dwelled), and not the city in Portugal. And in a majority of the other cases, what we’re dealing with here 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 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 of 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 of this comes from medieval Spain, where we find Jews bearing the surname Chicat(i)ella. 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 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, which 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.
There are always exceptions to the rule. Indeed, several readers erroneously believed my previous writing on Khazar and Berber origins implied that conversions to Judaism never occurred when, in fact, I argued that mass conversions never occurred, while individual conversions certainly did, most notably in antiquity, when several major figures in Jewish history were converts.
Yet, the less than twenty 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 very few Sephardic Jews ever made it to Eastern Europe.
Alexander Beider is a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish. He lives in Paris.