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Jewish Journal

What’s Portuguese for Cohen?

by Marcus Moraes

April 29, 2004 | 8:00 pm

A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the "Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames," a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants.

Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese "New Christian" -- or Marrano -- ancestry.

According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had more than 16,000 names.

The first part of the book features a historical introduction. The second tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names' origins.

For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name's subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history.

According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal's major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World.

Most non-Jewish Brazilians presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names -- like Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all -- often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians.

Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry.

"But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there," he said.

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