20 August 2006

At the ICJG: Sephardim in Eastern Europe

Does your Yiddish-speaking, seemingly Ashkenazi family have an oral tradition of a Sephardic origin?

My research into the Talalay family has turned up indications of some 20 families of Sephardic origin in Mogilev, Belarus, among them Abravanel, Don Yakhia, Pines, Abugof/Aboaf and Talalay. Spelling variations are many.

"This was our name when we left Spain" was my family's longtime explanation for the unusual name. While people may have thought we were kidding, research on our family name has produced a document dated 1353 from Lerida, Spain, mentioning Mosse (Moshe) Talalaya, a kosher winemaker. There are six additional family mentions and we’re attempting to track down supporting documents.

Dr. Dan Laby (de Cavalleria), a Harvard pediatric opthamalogist and avid genealogist, recently came across his earliest document yet, dated 1204, also from Lerida. We share the same researcher and I was there when his document was found.

So how did Sephardim end up in Eastern Europe?

Dr. Rose Lerer Cohen, formerly of South Africa and now Jerusalem, offered a fascinating ICJG talk on this. Her interest began when she met a man who called himself a “litvishe frank,” a Litvak Sephardi.

In 1388, says Cohen, area Jews received permission to live in Brest, joined by others from Italy, Crimea, Germany. In 1391, anti-Jewish riots in Spanish cities encouraged migration north and east.

Jews from Spain went to Holland and Germany and continued east (Russian Jewish Encyclopedia), while Sephardim settled Zamosc, Poland, with King Casimir’s permission in 1588 (Encyclopedia Judaica).

Cohen presented maps, subscription lists and books, including a Sephardic community list naming places in Belarus, Lithuania, Hungary and others. Sephardim be eretz lita (Sephardim in Lithuania) by Shlomo Katzav, lists Sephardic synagogues and minyans across the region.

Her search of “Where Once We Walked” (www.avotaynu.com) by Alexander Beider, produced Sephardic names as Maimon, Frank, Shub, Di Leon and others. Krakow Sephardim, says Cohen, included Hispanus, Kalhora (Calahorra), Wolchowicz Szafardi, Fortis di Lima and Rosanes.

Bottom line: Never discount family oral tradition, but do the research to support it.


  1. WOWW was written by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack.

  2. Dear Napobo3,

    You are absolutely correct. The gremlins were working overtime on this one. My apologies. Beider is the author of a series of other Avotaynu-published books on surnames of the Russian Empire, of Poland, and others.


  3. Anonymous12:04 AM

    In my family, which emigrated to the US from Belerus, the oral tradition,described the family name as, Guzman, or de Guzman

  4. Anonymous6:31 PM

    I'm a spanish who was born in Calahorra. There we conserv as a proud of our jewish ancestors a very old TorĂ¡h as a part of our most apreciates tresors.

  5. Anonymous8:25 AM

    My family surname is Perla. Its origin is either Spanish or Italian. In my case, my ancestors came from Spain around 1600's and first went to Cuba, then Panama and finally El Salvador. How many Perlas in Eastern Europe have oral traditions of Sephardic ancestry? I have information from surname experts that this surname first appeared in Poland in 1389. The first great expulsion from Iberia before 1492 was 1391. I would be grateful if anybody who thinks they have sephardic ancestry in Eastern Europe contact me. I am very much interested in this subject.

    Thank you

    Ninfa Magdalena Perla

  6. Dear Ninfa,

    I've seen your postings on www.sephardim.com. The discussions of the possible origin of your name have been very interesting. You should also know that there is a new Geographic DNA Group at Family Tree DNA, called "Iberian Surnames of Ashkenaz." You can email the administrator, Judy Simon, for more information at IberianAshkenaz@yahoo.com


  7. Anonymous9:54 AM

    Thank you so much Schelly! I will write to Judith Simon. I don't know why it took me so long to come back to visit your blog. Great work you are doing!


    Ninfa Perla

  8. Anonymous10:24 AM

    Not all Ashkenazim came from or are related in some magical way to Sephardim. Most Ashkenazim are converted Khazars. Check out The Kuzari.

  9. Anonymous4:40 AM

    I've heard that a Polish surname Abramczyk is connected with a Sephardi tradition. It is claimed to come from Mizrahi Jews who arrived to Poland in the time of the Turkish Sephardim migration to Eastern Europe.