Do I have a Sephardic surname?
‘Sephardic surnames’ were invented by a well-meaning, if confused, Ashkenazi amateur genealogist in the 1990s. He argued that if a New Christian or Jew had used a specific surname then the SURNAME was Jewish and therefore people using the surname today are of Jewish descent. This is equivalent to claiming that anyone who has ever eaten Chinese food is Chinese. The claim was plastered across the young Internet in 2001. It has set back Sephardic genealogy by a generation. Every time it seems this nonsense is about to die, someone new picks it up. Now, probably hundreds of people around the world mistakenly believe they are of Jewish descent, and some have even made major life changes as a consequence.
So, what’s the truth? If your surname is Cohen then you are probably descended from a priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. A Levy is probably descended from the tribe of Levi. These are Jewish surnames. Jews were a minority in Spain and Portugal, and adopted the same surnames as everyone else. Sometimes they adopted their Old Christian godparents’ surname, and sometimes probably a surname was chosen for other reasons. It figures that most people with a specific apellido (surname) today will not be of patrilineal Jewish ancestry. A New Christian or Jew once using your surname does not suggest you have Jewish ancestry unless you can prove your descent from that person.
Depending on jurisdiction, your family surnames may not have been fixed until the late 18th Century. That is to say, the surname you have today may not have been used by your ancestors.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. The surname Israel was reportedly used by some converts to Judaism. I suspect Jessurun may be an invented surname.
Most Common Surnames amongst Portuguese Jews
It is reported that the most common Sephardic surnames in Portuguese Inquisition documents are:
These are also common names amongst Portuguese Old Christians. There is no such thing as a Sephardic surname. You need genealogical evidence.
Various Jewish communities around the world have naming traditions. So, for example some Ashkenazi communities will name a child after a recently deceased relative, whilst some (not Western) Sephardic and Mizrahi/Magrebi Jewish communities name the child for a living one. Some communities have very fixed systems with the first children named after specific grandparents.
Within practising Jewish communities, a boy or man who is very sick may be given the second given name Haim (‘life’, in Hebrew) to confuse the Angel of Death. I am not clear if women were given the name Chaya (female of Haim). The records are much more interested in men, which always strikes me as unjust as it was the women who kept the show on the road.
I am not aware of evidence that the Western Sephardim – who mostly had little knowledge of Judaism during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries – knew or followed these tradition. Anyway, most of them had Christian rather than Hebrew names.
On embracing Judaism in Amsterdam it has been argued that many first generation male returners took the name Abraham, with their sons being Isaac. I am not clear if it is claimed that first generation women became Sarah. I am not entirely persuaded by all this. Maybe it is what happened for a period in early 17th Century Amsterdam. In my family the male names David and Daniel, Jewish heros, tend to repeat down the generations.