RIO DE JANEIRO, April 1 (JTA) A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames, a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants. Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese “New Christian” or Marrano ancestry. According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had over 16,000 names. According to the authors, the job was inspired by Alexander Beider’s Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, published in 1993. However, the Russian book dealt only with Ashkenazic family names. The percentage of Ashkenazim and Sephardim among Brazil’s estimated 100,000 to 130,000 Jews is not clear. “There are no statistics, and any data about it will have a broad margin of error,” said Jayme Blay, president of the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation. According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal’s major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World. “The recent wish of Christians to seek so-called Jewish roots has always intrigued me. This phenomenon is not only Brazilian,” Faiguenboim told JTA. In conversations with scholars worldwide, Faiguenboim says, he often hears similar stories. “I can’t explain it. I don’t believe that Judaism is ‘in.’ There are many serious people seeking Jewish roots, and some will find it,” he says. Following its release in Sao Paulo in early January, the dictionary is scheduled to be released in Rio in June by the Rio de Janeiro Jewish Museum, the only Jewish museum in Brazil. “The museum has the role of guarding the Jewish community’s memory, and the dictionary has everything to do with us,” Max Nahmias, the museum’s president, told JTA. “And it’s not merely a dictionary, it’s a book that tells the history of the Jews.” Nahmias said numerous non-Jews have visited the museum to investigate the possibility of Jewish ancestry because of Sephardic family names in their genealogical trees. Since its founding in 1994, the genealogical society also has received letters from non-Jewish Brazilians telling and asking about their supposed Sephardic roots, Faiguenboim said. Most of them presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names such as Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians. Some of the names are known to be of likely Sephardic descent mainly those that refer to trees and animals but the dictionary may reveal unknown and unexpected origins to some bearers of New Christian surnames. Brazilian diplomat Marcio Souza, talking to a cousin about Souza’s ancestors’ surname of Bentes, was told that it belonged to a family of U.S. confederates who had sought refuge in the Lower Amazon River basin after the American Civil War. When he told his cousin that the surname in fact was Jewish, Souza said, the cousin stood up and left the table. “And he never spoke to me again,” Souza said. The story is featured in the book’s preface. Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry. “But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there,” he said. The Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames is divided into three parts. The first features a historical introduction, written by Hebrew University historian Reuven Faingold, who explains the trajectory of Sephardim from ancient times until their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. The second part, written by Valadares, tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names’ origins. For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name’s subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history. For Nelson Menda, president of the Rio de Janeiro-based Sephardic Council, “The dictionary is an essential work that proves the long Jewish presence in Brazil.” The council is formed by Rio’s Sephardic institutions including synagogues, welfare houses, a cemetery and women’s groups. Born to an Ashkenazic mother and Sephardic father, Menda is proud to be Sephardic. His surname Menda comes from the Spanish region of Galicia, where his paternal family lived until they were expelled in the late 1400s, he told. “I believe that the expulsion was the best thing they could have done to Iberian Jews, who ended up meeting new cultures, learning new languages, new types of work, and mainly learning to live in harmony with people from other religions,” Menda told JTA.
Marcus M. Gilban is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals.