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I would like to start by stating that I am not a professional genealogist. As I worked at developing the family tree on my Sephardic side I gradually discovered that there were fertile areas of research that were different from the sources I used for my Ashkenazi half. Furthermore, these sources were far less known than the sources for Ashkenazi genealogy. The purpose of this article is to help others also attempting to research their Sephardic ancestry and maybe reduce their frustration levels in discovering these sources. By no means is this an exhaustive list of sources. It is just a sampling to get you started and encourage others to share their knowledge as we all grow and learn together. For a much more complete treatment of Sephardic Genealogy, with country by country resources, see my book on the subject.
Differences in Sephardic and Ashkenazi genealogy
Areas of the
Among the most obvious differences in researching Sephardic and Ashkenazi ancestry is that they lived in different areas of the world. Ashkenazim lived primarily in Europe and eastern Europe whereas Sephardim lived in countries around the Mediterranean, the Ottoman empire, which welcomed them after their expulsion from Spain, and in the Americas particularly south America. A lot of Jewish genealogists have focussed on researching eastern European government records and US naturalization related records. Though sometimes helpful, these sources are of relatively less value to Sephardic researchers who would be more interested in early Iberian notarial records, Inquisition records in Spain, in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Old family names
Whereas most Ashkenazi surnames are of relatively recent origin, many, though not all, Sephardic surnames go back many centuries and sometimes a millennium or more. Whereas it is dictum in Ashkenazi research that a family name is of less importance than the name of the ancestral shtetl, this is not true when dealing with Sephardic names. Sephardic family names do suggest kinship, though the common ancestral link may have lived 5 or 600 years earlier. As such, the implication is that as we go further back in the centuries it becomes more likely that the person found bearing that surname is a common though distant ancestor but this does not hold true for contemporaries or in the recent past. Although one needs to strictly follow the genealogist's rule of going from known to unknown when building a personal family tree, there is some validity in researching an ancient Sephardic family name and this coupled to the fact that many Sephardim can list several generations in their family, sometimes back to 1492 the date of the expulsion from Spain, makes such research of added interest.
Researchers of Sephardic genealogy also need to be aware of the differences in child naming patterns among Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The most singular difference being the Sephardic tradition of naming children after their grandparents, especially if alive to honor the grandparent whereas Ashkenazim avoid naming children after living relatives. For more information on naming patterns go to my page on this topic.
So how does one go about researching Sephardic ancestry. Some of the traditional sources used by Ashkenazi genealogists still apply here. Among these are:
Interviewing the eldest members of your family is definitely where to start. Not only can names of previous and related generations be obtained in this manner but also information on countries they resided in and hints about other sources for documentation. As usual and especially here, one must be careful of family legends and try to document and verify the information received.
Marriage registers, cemetery records, old letters, diaries and photographs are other classic sources for Jewish genealogic information that are just as useful for Sephardic genealogists as they are for Ashkenazim. Since these are detailed in great depth elsewhere (such as on Jewishgen), I will not discuss them here.
US naturalization records, turn of the century passenger lists and similar are just as useful for Sephardim. During the large Jewish immigration to the U.S. from eastern Europe around the turn of the century, many Sephardim came to the US at that time and that is the period when such records are of the most value. Sephardim also came many centuries earlier or in the mid 20th century as part of the exodus from Arab countries resulting from the Arab Israeli wars.
Holocaust records such as the Arolsen records at the International Red Cross or Yad Vashem and the Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem can be useful for Sephardim too because a significant number of Sephardim from places like Salonika and elsewhere were also victims of the Nazis. The recent decision by Yad Vashem to finally create a listing of the names they have of Holocaust victims and making it available in an electronically accessible database possible is therefore excellent news to genealogists. It is a great shame that Arolsen records at the International Red Cross are not yet available to searching families unless these families can provide the exact first and last names (reminiscent of the recent Swiss banks stance to release records to relatives). Let's hope this will change sometime soon. Again these sources are well discussed in forums such as Jewishgen and I will not get into it further here. However I would like to mention Serge Karlsfeld's "Memorial de la Deportation des Juifs de France, 1942-1944". Paris, 1978.
Sephardic researchers have many other sources to draw upon and I will discuss some of these in more detail here.
Notarial records in Spain These are extremely voluminous and useful. I have discussed them extensively in another section to which the reader is referred.
Inquisition Archives in Spain I have
discussed in another section to which the reader is referred.
Inquisition Archives in South America I have also described these elsewhere and would refer the interested reader there.
Ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts) are obviously of great value in Jewish genealogy. Sephardic Ketubbot frequently, though not always, may document several generations on both sides. Such finds are obviously of wonderful value to the genealogist. An interesting example of the value of Sephardic ketubot can be found in my description of the Sephardic "Grana" community from Leghorn (Livorno) that settled in Tunis in the 16th century.
Alliance Israelite archives
In the 19th and early 20th century the Alliance Israelite made a massive effort in setting up schools and aiding Jews in North Africa, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Palestine and wherever the need was noted. It's archives in Paris (49 rue Labruyere, 75009 Paris) therefore hold tremendous and, until recently, relatively little tapped genealogic data and is a fertile field for researchers.
Synagogue records are obviously of great value to the genealogist. Those of Jews in Sephardic countries are no exception and in countries like Egypt can go back many centuries. Unfortunately access to these records is often hampered by political and other considerations.
Cemetery tombstones can also yield information of great value and a systematic listing of this information would be of great value. Such an effort is in process through Jewishgen and Sephardim who have access to cemeteries in Sephardic countries need to provide what information they can provide before time and politics ravages this source further.
Passengers to the Indies. The passenger lists of Spaniards who left for the Americas from 1500 to 1800 is preserved in an archive in Seville, the Archivo General de Indias. Besides listing all passengers who sailed in every ship to America up to 1800 but they provide such data as the passenger name and place of birth, name of parents and their brithplaces, the job and destination of the passenger after arrival in the Americas.
This information is electronically searchable
databases which can be easily searched by the archivists. Requests for
information should include the passenger name and the approximate date of the
trip to America and should be addressed to:
Archivo General de Indias, Avda. Constitucion s/n, SEVILLA - SPAIN
Phone: +34-95-4500530. Fax: +34-95-4219485.
A partial List of passengers has been published in about 12 volumes, but not in searchable electronic format so far.
Books and Journals
It is essential to know the history of the period one is researching. Not only does the knowledge of the history allow an understanding of the why of the events that occurred to the families researched but it also points one in directions one would not otherwise have considered. This is true both in Ashkenazi and Sephardic research. The difference is Sephardic history is often more ancient and thus less likely to be known without study.. The reader is therefore advised to acquire a good working history of the period and may wish to peruse the section on Sephardic books and my brief history of Sephardim before the expulsion.
Selections of Notarial records
Although only a tiny portion of Notarial and Inquisition records can be accessed through books, there are some books that contain excerpts of these documents. I have listed some of them in my section on books. Among these that can be of considerable value to the armchair genealogist are books such as:
Assis: Jews in the Crown of Aragon (Part II 1328-1493); Regesta of the Cartas Reales in Archivo de la Corona de Aragon. Ginzei am olam:Central Arch Hist of Jewish People, Jerusalem
Beinart: Conversos on Trial. The Inquisition in Ciudad Real. Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1981
Raphael: Expulsion 1492 Chronicles. Carmi House Press
Tello: Judios de Toledo - 2 Vols. Instituto B Arias Montano. Consejo Sup de inverstigacions Cientificas.
The reader is encouraged to review my section on books.
Sephardic names studies
I have already pointed out the value of researching ancient Sephardic family names. It is important to differentiate between contemporary or recent past individuals who share your researched ancient family name as compared to an individual who carried that same family name 700 years ago. Assuming we are dealing with an ancient Jewish name rather than an area name, the recent individuals are usually not related closely enough to matter, whereas the individual 1,000 years ago has a mathematically high chance of being a legitimate ancestor.
Some of the most useful books in Sephardic genealogy are some of the books on onomastics (the study of names). Prominent among these is Abraham Laredo's book "Les Noms des Juifs du Maroc". This terrific work lists names of Jews from Morocco with explanation of the origins and variants of the name and provides information extensive lists about rabbis, authors and other notables who had carried the name and complete source references.. Similar but less extensive are such books as Toledano's "La Saga des Familles", Moissis's "Les noms des Juifs de Grece", Abecassis's "Genealogia hebraica: Portugal e Gibraltar, secs XVII a XX",, Eisenbeth's "Les Juifs de l'Afrique du nord", etc. Extensive name lists giving sources can also be found in this website and on the internet.
Just like Avotaynu is the premier Jewish genealogy journal, ETSI is a new journal dedicated to Sephardic genealogy and history. Published in Paris by a group of Sephardic genealogists that include Abensur, past president of the French Jewish genealogy Society, and his wife Laurence Abensur-Hazan, organization chair of the 1997 Paris seminar on Jewish genealogy, and several others, it is the only journal dedicated specifically to Sephardic genealogy and a must for Sephardic genealogists and Jewish genealogy libraries.
Information about subscription can be obtained at the ETSI site.
The internet is a great resource for information about Jewish and Sephardic genealogy but it is important to verify information obtained in this manner by checking out the sources of the information. That said, among these resources are:
Jewishgen at www.jewishgen.org is a tremendous resource for the Jewish genealogist and a great resource to learn proper techniques for genealogy.
There was a time when it was difficult to find anything of use to a Sephardic researcher. This has fortunately changed and there are now numerous sites of interest to Sephardim if one knows where to look. I have made a listing of such sites on my Websites by Country pages (see index at bottom of this page).
Family Finder (JGFF)
Jewishgen has an extremely useful database listing researchers and the families they are researching. Listing the family names and towns you are researching allows other genealogists researching these families to discover you and share resources. It is therefore highly recommended that you register there which can be done very easily at their site.
Namelists giving you sources where these family names are mentioned can also be very useful while remembering the importance to work methodically in developing your family tree. Such lists exist at:
Newslists are internet discussion groups where questions can be asked and answered in a spirit of helping each other. A list of Sephardic newslists can be found in my newslist page.
There are several sites on the internet (like www.google.com) that allow you to find peoples' names and email or snail mail addresses. This is a good way to find the addresses and phone numbers of people having your family name. Usually these people are unrelated, but occasionally one can be lucky and discover an unknown distant cousin. I have not found it useful but some have.
Sephardic Jews had lived in Palestine long before the European Zionist movement. They have therefore left traces of their lives in the cemeteries, chevrot kadisha (burial society) records, books written, etc and this too can be a fruitful source of research. For settlers in the more recent past Batya Untershatz is an invaluable resource. She can be reached at Batya Unterschatz, Director, Jewish Agency Bureau of Missing Relative, P.O.Box 92, Jerusalem 91000 and can be of tremendous help because she has access to the government immigration records back to the early 20th century. Resources in Israel can be found in my Israel page.
Obviously it would be of great value to research the local resources of the countries where your ancestors had lived. I have discussed the resources in Spain, but there are resources in many other countries where Sephardim have lived such as countries in North Africa and the Ottoman empire. I discuss this information in my recent book on Sephardic Genealogy.
Shalom and good hunting.
Other World Regions
Archives and Genealogy Topics