Sephardic Surnames

Excerpt from Sephardics of Curacao by Frances P. Karner
Published 1969 by Van Gorcum and Company, Assen, Netherlands

Although this description of Sephardic Surnames was written with reference to Curacao, all of these name structures were also used by the Jewish community of Nevis.

Many of the Jewish surnames are directly related to geographical locations and were acquired as a consequence of the forced wanderings caused by persecution or denied opportunities. By taking the name of a community or a region, a place of origin could always be traced no matter where in the world the Sephardic would find himself in later years. In addition, it possibly also created a sense of some security, a knowledge that one had a "home base", roots somewhere, even though it was of a psychological rather than an actual nature.

Names of Arabic derivation, e.g. Abenatar, Abensur, also occur and can be related to the Iberian peninsula from where the Sephardics came. During the long Moorish occupation of Spain and Portugal, much of their high civilization became embedded in the Sephardic Jewish sphere as well. This fact should not surprise us since name borrowing occurs time and again in instances of prolonged culture contact between different peoples.

Yet in other cases, we find that the Curacao Sephardim bear surnames of pure Hispano-Portuguese - and hence Christian - derivation -, e.g., Alvares, Castro, Gomes, Senior.

These were allotted to them during their sojourn on the Iberian peninsula. Scholars remain divided as to whether these names were originally Jewish and then introduced into Christianity at the time of their enforced conversion or whether the names derived from Iberian sources and were given to the Jews when they were made to renounce Judaism. We shall not attempt to answer this question here; for our purposes we need only to state that these types of names date back to the days of the imposed changes of religious affiliation by the Inquisition.

Of interest, moreover, are the double family names which essentially fall into two categories. The first type again relates to the time of religious change which has figured so prominently and dramatically in Sephardic history. Of the two names composing the double family name, the first dated from the pre-conversion period, and it was therefore typically Jewish. Furthermore, this was the name which later was used among co-religious members only. The second one was of Christian origin and was given to the "New Christian" or Marrano upon his conversion. This latter name was for official as well as business usage. Some examples are: Cohen Henriquez, Levy Maduro, Shalom Delvalle. The fact that these names were used simultaneously is a result of the fact that whereas in Curacao the Hebrew name could be used freely and by itself, in relations with the Spanish American Mainland, the Christian name had to be employed. For the sake of avoiding confusion, and also in order to maintain the cherished family coherence, the two names were used in conjunction.

In some instances "aliases", or totally new names were adopted. Thus David Israel Bernal became known as Francisco Henriquez and Moses Baruh Louzada adopted the name Juan Hernandez Louzada. This was especially predominant during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries among Portuguese Jewish merchants who resided in Amsterdam, but who still had familial ties with the Iberian Peninsula. The reasons for taking on a new surname, and sometimes even a new forename can be traced to the rigor of the Inquisition and the dangers involved for the relatives and friends of the Sephardic refugees. Conversely, the comparative scarcity of aliases in Curacao can undoubtedly be ascribed to the freedom of religion and security enjoyed by the Sephardics.

The second type of double name which we also find represented in Curacao, is unrelated to the reasons cited above. Instead, they stem from a custom much in use in all Iberian countries where a son would supplement his own paternal surname with his mother's maiden name, e.g., Lopes da Fonseca and Jesurun Sasportas.

The Jewish Community of Nevis Archaeology Project | The Nevis Synagogue Archaeology Project
Nevis History | The Nevis Jewish Cemetery | The Cemetery Resistivity Survey

Michelle Terrell's Homepage | terre011@tc.umn.edu | Revised November 2001


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