Sephardic Genealogy: An Introduction
Dr. David Sheby
annotated by David Sheby and Shelomo Alfassa)
Introduction provides tools, techniques, and resources for researching
genealogy of Ottoman Sephardim. In this Introduction the following definitions
Ladino speaking Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian peninsula
prior to the 1492 Expulsion. It is not a term for non-Ashkenazi Jews.
(Notes:  A variant of Ladino is "haketia" that is spoken by Sephardim
of Moroccan and other North African communities.  There are differences
among scholars on the appropriate name for the language spoken by Sephardim.
Professor Isaac Jerusalmi (USA) prefers "Ladino", Professor Haim-Vidal
Sephiha (France) prefers Judeo-Espagnol (or Judeo-Spanish), and Professor
David Bunis (Israel) prefers "Judezmo".)
having a quality associated with Sephardim.
objects/themes of a Sephardic nature. Usually referring to memorabilia
genealogist: a generic term for a person engaged, or interested,
in the process of reconstructing one or more Sephardic families' lineages
(i.e., identifying the places of, dates of, and participants in, the
chain of child-producing cohabitations comprising the lineage) extracted
from contemporaneous records and/or artifacts such as inscriptions,
dedications, tombstones, dairies, community records, commercial transactions,
correspondence, government documents, etc.
1.0 of this Introduction covers resources, tools, and techniques for
Sephardim living in those regions of the Ottoman Empire comprising
the Balkans, western Turkey ("Turkey-in-Europe", and the western
coast of Anatolia) and the Aegean Islands.
is a work in progress. The data is this Introduction is accurate through
Accepted conventions of transliterating Arabic and Turkish words are
not followed in this Introduction.
material of interest to a Sephardic genealogist is spread over a great
variety of sources, much of which was originally published without intention
of being used for genealogical research. Such material resides in the
vast literature of (non-genealogical) Jewish studies, Ottoman economic
history, and Ottoman philately (i.e., stamp collecting).
example, studies in Ottoman economic history often mention the interaction
of Jewish merchants with European counterparts from the 17th through
early 20th centuries. How were the identities and numbers of the Jewish
merchants in such studies established? The answer is in the archives
of diplomatic and commercial correspondence, identifying these merchants
by name, that were accessed by the original research. But in the subsequently
published studies in academic journals specific names were not required
for the purposes of the papers and were omitted. One task of a Sephardic
genealogist is to revisit many of these studies to identify relevant
archives. Such a strategy is discussed, with examples, in this Introduction.
identification of useful material for the Sephardic genealogist is a
continuing and evolving process. Consequently this Introduction cannot
claim to present all relevant tools, techniques, and resources of use
to the Sephardic genealogist as the useful source list has not been
finalized. Nonetheless, this Introduction attempts to:
identify a set of tools for working with some of the important written
material that the Sephardic genealogist is likely to encounter;
identify available material of high Sephardic-genealogical content
useful for obtaining information about specific families or communities;
provide, by example, methodologies for identifying new sources containing
Sephardic genealogical information.
Reading (Core Material)
genealogical material (such as articles and/or book reviews of specific
family or community histories) is often embedded in publications dealing
with Sephardic culture in general. A prime example is found in the
catalogue (for the Israel Museum's exhibition on Ottoman Jewry at the
Jewish Museum of New York): Juhasz, Esther (Editor), Sephardi
Jews in the Ottoman Empire: Aspects of Material Culture [ISBN
965-278-0650, 280 pp., 391 illustrations 111 in color, text: English]
[referred to as (Juhasz (1990)]. This
volume provides broad and indepth coverage of the material objects used
in the life cycle events of the Ottoman Sephardim. Many of the illustrated
items, understandably, are not described for their utility to genealogical
research, but for their artistic or stylized characteristics.
personal information contained in dedicated ritual items is often not
indexed separately undocumented for interested genealogists. Figure
1.0 (taken from Juhasz (1990), p 79, "inner and outer Torah ark curtain"
from the Etz Hayyim synagogue in Izmir) reveals, for example, some information
about the Politi family: a) that Raphael Politi was a member of that
congregation in 1921; b) his father was Nissim Politi; and c) his paternal
grandmother was Rosa Politi (maiden name not provided). Hence an index
of the Juhasz book, indexing its genealogical content would be a useful
exercise for a Sephardic genealogist to undertake. Examples of the genealogical
data extractable from the Juhasz book are discussed in this Introduction.
1.0: Example of genealogical information (for the Politi family)
extracted from a synagogue tapestry (in Izmir). Source: Juhasz,
Esther (Ed.), Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman Empire, The Israel
Museum, Jerusalem, 1990, Figure 17, page 79.
of core set material providing important guidance for the Sephardic
genealogist exists among the following publications and Internet web
ETSI (a Paris-based, bilingual French-English periodical) is devoted
exclusively to Sephardic genealogy and is published by the Sephardi
Genealogical and Historical Society (SGHS). It was founded by Dr.
Philip Abensur, and his professional genealogist wife, Laurence Abensur-Hazan.
ETSI's worldwide base of authors publish articles identifying
a broad spectrum of archival material of importance to the Sephardic
genealogist. ETSI's web site (containing subscription information)
is located at the follwing address:
useful feature of ETSI is the listing, on the back cover, of all Sephardic
family names, and places of origin, cited in the articles contained
in each issue. ETSI publishes specialized bibliographies of material
written about a particularly community. ETSI is undertaking a
variety of important archiving tasks, i.e.,:
a listing of all known Ladino-language newspapers and the libraries/archives
which have copies of those publications;
identification of all known Sephardic ketubot and the universities/museusm/archives
in which they are contained; and
listing of its membership's family/city interests.
An important guide for Sephardic genealogists is the article:
Laurence: "The Current State of Sephardic Jewish Genealogy",
vol. XV, Number 1, Spring 1999, p. 37-38
is important to emphasize that a genealogist should never assume that
what he/she is reading is known to other genealogists. Notes should
be taken on family names, archive sources, place names, and types of
data available (maps, census results) that can be shared with others.
Internet sites are rapidly taking on the much need role of centralized
repositories where individual researchers can deposit their research
notes as well as individual memorabilia (such as photographs) to rapidly
build specialized collections and databases available to a worldwide
readership. There are several web sites which pioneered Sephardic genealogical,
historical, and cultural content on the Internet. These sites are labors
of love, and have become important repositories of information
gathered by the owners/authors and a wide network of corresponding Sephardic
Jeff Malka's "Sources for Sephardic Genealogy" at http://www.orthohelp.com/geneal/sources2.HTM.
(Also see: Malka, J: "Using the Internet as a tool for Sephardic
Genealogy", ETSI, No. 2 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 10-12).
Harry Stein's "A Research Tool for Sephardic Genealogy / Jewish Genealogy"
genealogical data is available in the family trees / newsletters that
are available through the Internet. Because of the personal nature of
their contents they are not itemized, or described, in this Introduction.
Additional reading material is described below in this Introduction.
Ottoman Birth Certificates
1.1 shows an Ottoman birth certificate with superimposed English
translations on important sections. [Note: This certificate was
generously made available to this Introduction by its owner, Mr.
Nick Demetrion. The birth certificate is of Mr. Demetrion's mother
Penelope (née Vassiliadis), whose family were members of
the Millet-i Rum (i.e. Greek community)]. The text is printed
in Arabic lettering. The Ottoman Turks, like the Persians, adapted
the Arabic alphabet for their non-Semitic language. To capture
certain sounds (like "p") absent in Arabic, the Ottomans
borrowed some of the Persian's letter-innovations for the Arabic
alphabet. The Ottoman Turkish language written in Arabic script
is referred to as osmanlica ("Osmanli" means
birth certificate for a citizen of the "Musevi" (Jewish)
millet, translated by a different translator, is shown at: http://www.sephardicstudies.org/otto_bc1_front_marked.jpg)
Sephardic genealogist can learn to read Ottoman type-set text (such
as the printed form of Figure 1.1) by studying "how to" books on Arabic
script. It is the handwritten entries that are very difficult to read.
Arabic script can be written in a variety of styles. For handwriting,
the Ottoman Turks used a style called "riq'a" or ruq'ah. Arabic script
is different from most alphabets in that some of the letters can take
on as many as 4 different forms based on whether the letter appears
at the front (initial) of a word, the middle or end of a word, or in
an isolated position. These variations in handwritten script is complicated
by individual's short cuts to abbreviate certain vowel signs and individualize
letter combinations known as ligatures. The interested Sephardic genealogist
is referred to the book Mitchell,
T. F.: Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to the Ruq'ah Script,
Oxford University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-19-815150-0 which contains
particulary valuable charts (pages 138-148) showing the appearance of
letter-triplets. Thirty-seven (37) pages of osmanlica with the equivalent
word transliterations into Latin characters can be found in: Jerusalmi,
Isaac: From Ottoman Turkish to Ladino, Ladino Books, Cincinnati,
Ohio, 1990, ISBN: 1-878-191-01-2 and
is very good for practicing one's reading (not comprehension) of legible
the reader may notice a number of references in this Introduction to
Ottoman philatelic (stamp collecting) publications/sources. Ottoman
philatelists share certain common interests with the Sephardic genealogist.
Ottoman philatelists need to: (1) decipher Ottoman dates (for postal
markings, hence are keenly interested in the Ottoman calendar system);
(2) know where certain towns were located (to identify post offices
and alternate town/city names during and after Ottoman administration),
and (3) to have knowledge of Ottoman writing styles (to decipher notations
on postal material and to read postal cancellations) and documents (which
may have certain types of "revenue" stamps affixed).
Tughras (or Tugras)
ornate design on the top of the birth certificate is a tughra, which
is a highly stylized and individualized signature (or monogram)
of the reigning Ottoman Sultan.
tughras for the Sultans whose combined reigns covered the period 1876-1922
are shown in Figure 1.2, 1.4, and 1.5
For a breakdown on the line structure comprising the inscriptions embedded
into the tughra of Sultan Abdulaziz (reign: 1861-1876: formal name:
Abd ul-Aziz han bin Mahmud el-muzaffer daima (from: Birken, Andreas:
"The Tughra of Sultan Abdulazia (1861-1876)" Journal Oriental
Philatelic Association of London (OPAL), volume 174) see: http://home.t-online.de/home/A.Birken/tughra.htm.
Tughra of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909)
1.3 Example of the Tughra of Sultan Sultan Mehmed V on an
Ottoman Turkish coin of 1911 CE.
Tughra of Sultan Mehmed V (1909-1918)
Figure 1.5 Tughra
of Sultan Mehmed VI (1918-1922)
can be found on coins (Figure 1.3), stamps (Figure 1.8), and craftwork
(such as silver coffee pots or serving dishes). They are useful
for dating an item to within the reign of a specific Sultan.
The tughras for three Sultans of the early 20th century are shown
in Figure 1.2, 1.4 and 1.5. If the tughra consists of a smaller
symbol to the right of a larger design (as in the tughras of Sultans
Abdul Hamid II, and Mehmed V), then the smaller design is an "adjective"
describing a virtue of the Sultan. The larger motif contains
the Sultan's name and is used for dating. (Note: for a translation
of Sultan Abdul Hamid II's tughra see: http://home1.gte.net/eskandar/hamidtughra.html).
The tughra in Figure 1.2 is that of Abdul Hamid II who reigned from
1876 to 1909. (NOTE: All the Ottoman Sultans' tughras are illustrated
and analyzed in: Umur, Suha: Osmanli padisah tugralari,
Cem Yayinevi, Istanbul, 1980, 327 p. : ill. (some col.), facsims.
; 29 cm, Library of Congress Classification:
NK 3636.5 Z6 T848 1980.) There are two ways to date this birth
By direct translation, which will yield precise birth date and place
of birth information, which requires an ability to read handwritten
Ottoman Turkish (Ottoman documents from the 19th and 20th centuries
are usually printed, and filled in with handwritten text; or
By using the tughra for approximate dating together with any revenue
stamp at the bottom of the document: a stamp's issue date and the tughra
provide an earliest, but not precise, date for the document.
1.6 Demonstrates areas of the Tughra which are unique
and aid in identification. Notice how A1. has a larger circle
then A2. Also observe that the area of B2. has horizontal lines,
compared to a similar area which has a circle near B3.
Numerals and Years
1.7 Arabic numerals 1-9 and 0 showing variations in the numerals
"2" and "3" encountered in handwritten text. Unlike most tables
of Arabic numerals, shows the two distinct variations of the numerals
"2" and "3" that are often encountered in handwritten texts. Arabic
words are written right to left (and sentence read right to left),
Arabic numbers (and years, and days of month) are read left to right.
The "5" is circular, and the "0" is a dot-shaped. Adapted and reprinted
(with permission) from: Rose, Richard B: "Reading Ottoman Dates"
(Oriental Fiscal Calendar 1867-1923). March 1988, OPAL (Oriental
Philatelic Association of London) ISSN 0267-8071.
1.8 An example of an Islamic style date (1327) taken off
an actual Ottoman stamp.
Republic of Turkey (modern Turkey) adapted the Gregorian calendar in
1926. Before that the major change in the Ottoman calendar occurred
in 1789. At that time (1789) a "fiscal" or "civil" calendar was introduced
that ran simultaneously with the Islamic (or religious) calendar. From
1789-1926 this fiscal calendar was tied to the "JULIAN" Year, not the
Gregorian calendar, because of the many Greeks/Slavs within the Empire
who used that calendar. The names of the months for the fiscal calendar
are different from the names of the months for the Islamic calendar
as listed below. The fiscal calendar was eventually used by the Ottoman
post office, but not on all official documents. (There are cases where
the post office would switch the use of dates).
if readers of this page submit copies of their family birth certificate,
this page will be able to make a more substantial statement about the
dating used on the birth certificates. The Islamic calendar is 4 digit
calendar, typically starting with the numeral "1". Sometimes this numeral
is dropped for convenience and the date is represented as a 3 digit
numeral. This is usually in Arabic lettering. An approximate means to
get from the 4 digit Islamic calendar year to the Gregorian year is
to add "584", i.e., 4 digit Islamic year + 584 = 4 digit Gregorian year.
Table 1.1 lists the Islamic/religious months in both their Arabic and
Turkish names. Table 1.2 lists the Turkish names of the months in the
new calendar system also known as the "maliya" calendar.