Research Query: Spanish-Portuguese Jews and Christian Names

Deborah Koren's picture

Hello,

Simcha Assaf, in an article in Volume 5 (1933-1934) of the journal Zion on Anusim of Spain and Portugal in the Responsa Literature (Hebrew) wrote (pp 20-22) such statements as (loosely translated) "at the time of conversion every convert received a Christian [given] name and even their family names were changed, and the government enforced that converts should not use their Jewish name, and would punish for doing so." He cites the Ribash, who made such a statement (so that would be before the Inquisition). There are other statements along these lines that he makes regarding names of conversos, with citations in the responsa literature (the point of his article). I'm looking for corroborating material - is there other evidence that conversos were obligated to change their names - particularly their given names, or was it actually a phenomenon more in line with either being a sincere convert or wanting to hide one's continued secret Jewish identitly by taking a Christian name? Testimony abounds about conversos, many who were true anusim and came out as Jews when they could, who had Christian names (and often retained their Jewish names). But I'm looking for any evidence for something methodical, official. And any detail about which names might be accepted (for example, Abraham is a no-no, but maybe David is OK) would be of interest.

Thank you

Deborah Koren
Jerusalem

Cοntact Prof. Avi Gross Head of the International Institute for the Study of Anussim at Netanya Academic College. His email is: agross@bgu.ac.il

Shana Tova

Dear Deborah,

According to Anita Novinsky, “The Myth of the Marrano Names,” Revue des Études Juives, 165,3–4 (2006), pp. 445–456, it seems that the usual case was, as you put it: "wanting to hide one's continued secret Jewish identity by taking a Christian name".

Admiel Kosman
Potsdam University

Dear Deborah,

See Dora Zsom, "'But the Name of the Wicked will Rot' (Prov. 10:7): Names Used by Conversos in the Responsa Literature," Hispania Judaica Bulletin, 8 (2011): 193-213; David M. Gitlitz, "Anousim Surnames: Myth and Reality," Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews, 2 (2010): 21-36; idem, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews (Philadelphia, 1996), 200-202; and compare Gitlitz's approach in "Anousim Surnames" to the study reported here: Nitzhiya Yaakov, "'You Don't Look Jewish': New Study Traces Lost Sephardi Names" (ynet, August 9, 2020), https://www.ynetnews.com/article/rkXYVADWw.

On Ribash, responsum #43, the one quoted by Assaf: see Zsom, "'But the Name of the Wicked...,'" 196-199.

Regards,

Liran Yadgar (Monterey, CA)

In reply to Admiel Kosman on purportedly crypto-Jewish last names:
My research in Tras os Montes, Portugal in 2009 found that all families of crypto-Jewish descent had been Christian for 100s of years, and had no recollection of any Jewish tradition, except where amateurs (and at least one purported PhD) had visited and given them information long documented for some crypto-Jews, in various epochs, in other places. They were informed that these were their ancestral practices, but I could find no evidence of it. One purveyor of such enlightenment was right ahead of me that summer, contaminating my research site to the extent that I had to exclude Belmonte and Covilha from my study. The communities I finally worked with in 2009 had so far been spared.

Although the families I studied were all Christian by the mid-1700s, intermarriage remained generally forbidden, helping preserve lines of descent and family names confirmed in baptismal records and on gravestones. The prohibition against intermarriage existed along with other elements of discrimination (where descendants could live within the village perimeter, where they could sit in church, etc.), until roughly the 1960s. Since then all villagers had been intermarrying, resulting in a predictable exchange of last names. Elders remained where they were traditionally entrenched in the largely poverty-stricken village. There was movement out of red-lined locales, but usually by younger generations moving up in life, and out of the village proper into more cosmopolitan environs.

What I was able to learn confirms Admiel Kosman's observation. I found no pattern of discernibly crypto-Jewish last names, and no names peculiar to descendants of crypto-Jews as opposed to any other families. A few family names of crypto-Jewish descendants were almost shockingly "Christian," incorporating names or phrases like "de Jesus"; or "de la Cruz," etc, etc. In short, last names were effectively useless as a means to determine who did, or did not, descend from crypto-Jews. It seems only reasonable that these names were originally taken to provide religious camouflage, or in some cases, as a sign of sincere conversion and Christian fealty. As one participant volunteered, by way of introduction "Soy de la raza judaica, y vivo para la gloria de Cristo." (I am of the Jewish race, and I live for the glory of Christ).

Judith Neulander
Dept. of Religious Studies
Co-Director, Judaic Studies Program
Case Western Reserve University

Just to add an anecdote, my maternal Dutch grandmother, a religious Jew, carried the name Santcross, certainly a "shockingly Christian name". They kept it (and some descendants of that family still do) though for quite a few generations fully leaving as Jews.

Someone contacted me saying the information was interesting, and asking why the fellow spoke Spanish instead of Portuguese. I was up at the northern border with Spain, where everyone was bi-ligual--except me. I'm fluent in Spanish but insecure in Portuguese. My initial contact was the local priest, who had made it known who I was, and that I preferred Spanish if anyone wanted to talk to me.

Judith Neulander
Dept. of Religious Studies
Co-Director, Judaic Studies Program
Case Western Reserve University