Getting started in Sephardic Family History

Rembrandt, Het Joodse bruidje, around 1667
During 2014 I shall be moving the contents of this site to a new home at SephardicGenealogy.com. The new site is built in more complicated software, so please excuse the mess whilst I am learning.

Spain is now offering passports to the descendants of Spanish Jews expelled in 1492. Actually, they have been offering Sephardim citizenship for over a decade, but the media just notices. Also, Portugal is offering citizenship to descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. Clearly these moves are well-intentioned, but just a little odd.

Welcome! This website is to help people who, like me, are researching their Spanish and Portuguese Jewish roots. It is a work in progress. I am trying to understand how the jigsaw of Sephardic life fitted together during what historians call the Early Modern period (1492-1750).  I am not a professional genealogist - I am not even a very good amateur genealogist - but hope that sharing what I know may save you a little time. 

The challenge faced by the Sephardic genealogist is that everyone went everywhere, had a dozen different names (which were the same as their cousins), were sometimes involved in clandestine trade, and what they told the Inquisition was often a sophisticated ruse. Simply looking a births, marriages and deaths doesn't work. The Sephardic family historian needs to develop an understanding of history, geography, international trade and a smattering of several languages. Difficult? Yes. Rewarding? Absolutely.

My original plan was to focus on those whose ancestors moved from Spain to Portugal in 1492 and were forced to adopt Catholicism in 1497. These Portuguese 'New Christians' later re-established themselves in Spain and more or less everywhere else, becoming the world's first globalised community. Of course, this group overlapped with those Spanish Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire, and with pre-existing Mediterranean and mizrahi Jewish communities. Some Sephardim settled in Germany and eastern Europe and evolved Ashkenazi Jewish identities.

Before the 19th Century, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish genealogy have little in common. The stereotypical Ashkenazi experience is of someone escaping persecution in eastern Europe for a new life in western Europe or America. It's a classic migrant story of self-improvement through a single journey.
Madrid auto da fe, 1680

The Sephardic story is more monumental. It is nothing less than the ending of the Medieval world and the creation of the Modern. How our Sephardic ancestors dealt with the new situation they encountered after the Expulsion of 1492 - and the new identities and strategies they created - helped define how everyone lives today.

The die-hard Jews who tramped across the Portuguese border in 1492 (others left for Italy or Islamic lands, many converted and stayed) were anyway forced to convert three years later, but weren't yet monitored by an Inquisition, as in Spain. These 'New Christians' (or conversos, or anusim, or marranos, or the 'Portuguese Nation', or the Hebrew Nation, or the Nation, or 'Jews') developed complex identities from fanatic Catholic to fanatic Jew, and everything in between. Others abandoned religion and embraced the European Enlightenment. The Portuguese 'New Christians' quickly re-established links with their converted relatives across the Spanish border, and with unconverted Jews in places like Antwerp, Venice and the Turkish Empire

Trade routes were established and - spurred by persecution in Iberia - this small community spread around the world. Their family networks and ability to operate across national, cultural and religious borders gave them an advantage in international trade  until the establishment of a more settled and controlled global system in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Unlike the Ashkenazim, the New Christians did not migrate from an Old Country to a New. More like a game of musical chairs, they moved around the world, often as part of a global network. Where they eventually settled depended on where they were when the music stopped. The 'music' was often a war that disrupted the trade route. Those family members who ended up in Spanish or Portuguese territory generally ended up as Catholics, and those in other countries as Jews (although the wealthy would often quickly assimilate into the host population).

At a time when most people never went more than a day's walk from home, there were New Christian communities strung along Europe's Atlantic seaboard and all around the Mediterranean. There were communities in West Africa, the Caribbean and North America. 'New Christians' could be found in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, India, the spice islands, the Philippines and even Portuguese outposts in China and Japan. Relatives were scattered around the various ports of the family trading network. Much of this history has now been forgotten, and a complex global diaspora of 250 years is reduced to a simplistic story of a single migration directly from Inquisition Spain to liberal Amsterdam or London.

Bevis Marks
The Portuguese
conversos - the Nation, as they called themselves - were the world's first globalised community. Rather than seeing them as either Jews or ex-Jews I think they are easier to understand as a network of inter-related families, containing members of a variety of affiliations and identities, but seeing themselves as different from the surrounding population. There can be few parts of the known world they had not visited or lived by 1700. They helped to establish new industries and created a recognisably modern way of living. 

As well as uncovering our personal histories, I think Sephardic genealogy can help us understand how our modern world was born. It requires more reading of history than 'regular' genealogy, and a lot of lateral thinking, but is immensely fun. Do you remember studying Brownian motion at school? Individual smoke particles - buffeted by atoms - moved in a haphazard motion around a glass jar. Well, one of those smoke particles is your ancestor. You just have to identify him or her from all the others, and keep track of their movements. Simple!

I hope this site helps you, and maybe encourages you to share your family history online. I have benefited from a lot kind people and useful books. I want to mention the most useful book for western Sephardic genealogy on the front page: Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames (Dicionário Sefaradi de Sobrenomes) by Guilherme Faiguenboim, Paulo Valadares and Anna Rosa Campagnano. I have never met them, but they have saved me months of time. Thank you!