Last week the 35th Intl. Conf. on Jewish Genealogy took place in Jerusalem (July 6-10), organized by the Intl. Assoc. of Jewish Genealogy Societies. I drove up to Jerusalem with the resident genealogist, Yael Cohen, and the administrator, Adina Moryosef, of the Intl. Inst. for Sefardic and Anousim Studies at Netanya College. I went only for the first day, which I chose because there were two presentations about the Jews of Holland from where my mother’s family originates and I am interested in tracing our ancestry.
One thing that struck me immediately was the tremendous international nature of this conference, there were people from all over the world (Brazil, Spain, Hungary, Latvia, USA, Israel and so on) and furthermore it was very well attended. Unfortunately the method of registration on site was primitive, you had to fill out a form and give it in when you got to the end of a long line and then a clerk filled out a receipt by hand with your information, and then she handed that to you and then you went to another line where they gave you the program. Haven’t these people heard of computers? Nevertheless, by going early, we managed to get to the first lectures.
Of course, I attended only a small selection of the lectures, and I don’t claim to be anything more than an interested amateur in this area. First some background about Holland (the Netherlands) and what is now Belgium, that had been colonies of Spain for hundreds of years. As they became more Protestant their desire for independence grew. They proclaimed their independence from Spain in 1581, although it was not achieved until 1648. The reason many Portuguese and Spanish Jews settled there was that they were welcomed by the Dutch who considered them allies in their opposition to Catholic Spain. Note that many of the Portuguese Jews had originated in Spain from where they were expelled in 1492.
The first lecture on the Jews of Holland was given by Ton Tielen, a professional archivist who spoke about the archives of the famous Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, that was built in 1675. Holland was the only country in Europe at that time that allowed free religious expression and worship. The archives of the Portuguese Synagogue spans the complete period from 1616 until today. They are a major source of information on the Jewish community of Holland, although they are written predominantly in Portuguese. At the beginning there were about 5,000 Sefardi Jews (from all Iberia) in Spain, most in Amsterdam. They were followed by another ca. 5,000 Ashkenazi Jews in 1630, although they were not allowed to join the guilds (early unions). The Jewish population swelled to 140,000 in 1940, although most of these perished in the Holocaust.
It is possible to follow the lineage of many families from the archives, including births, marriages and deaths. Although the archives are now available on-line, because they are in Portuguese and quite faint it is best to search the original archives in Amsterdam. One interesting item about the Amsterdam Jewish community was that because it was the only free, independent and wealthy Jewish community in Europe for hundreds of years, many Jews seeking safety and help moved there. The archives contains entries about these Jews, who were usually given payments and sent off to other parts of Europe or America. The other talk about Dutch Jewry by Max van Damm was more general and included addresses of useful web-sites. The main one is wiewaswie.com (who was who), that is in Dutch. In 1811 Napoleon occupied the Netherlands and introduced a general population surname registry and in 1890 these became cards that are available on-line in English.
The other talk I want to describe was that on “The DNA of the Jewish people,” by Max Blankfeld, of Family Tree DNA, Houston TX, a company that specializes in Jewish DNA analyses. He pointed out that a section of the human genome that is statistically common to all Jews, both Sefardi and Ashkenazi, is a haplotype called R1a. This is not found to any extent in western populations, but is found widely among Middle Eastern (Arab) populations. This puts to rest conclusively the conclusions of Arthur Koestler in his book “The Thirteenth Tribe” 1976, in which he speculates that European (Ashkenazi) Jews are descended from a Turkish Central Asian tribe called the Khazars. This point was taken up recently by Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv Univ. in his 2009 book “The Invention of the Jewish People.” The DNA evidence conclusively disproves this leftist political theory and proves that all Jews are of Middle Eastern origin and share a common genetic heritage.
I also went to talks on “Sephardic Jewish onomastics and genealogy research in Inquisition trials and tax records,” by Ricardo Munoz Solla of Salamanca University, Spain, and “Jewish names, red herrings, and name changes,” by Phillip Trauring, but there is no space to describe these here. Suffice it to say that the enhanced interest in Jewish genealogy world-wide represents a part of the renewal of the Jewish people in our time.