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The Sephardi truth about Ashkenazi origins

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Jewish News

Think you’re a pure blood Ashkenazi of Litvak origin? You may have to think again. Surprising though it sounds, a good portion of South Africa’s Ashkenazi community are in fact descendants of Sephardi stock, their blood a blend of kreplach and kubbeh.

“A percentage of Ashkenazim who believe that they are 100% Ashkenazi actually have Sephardi roots,” says Lucia Goy Mastromiechele. “People who think that their family is entirely Russian or Polish may find that their family is originally from Spain or Egypt.

“Just because your family comes from Poland doesn’t mean that they were necessarily Polish to begin with.”

A managing partner at the Spanish international legal firm Goy Gentile, Mastromiechele has a keen interest in immigration law, devoting much of her time to helping people from around the world secure passports to which they are entitled. Having dealt extensively with Jewish clients, she has learned much about the actual family origins of numerous Jewish families and helped trace family trees back across numerous generations.

“We’re talking about more than 2 000 years of migration, a movement of communities across continents taking place very often,” says Mastromiechele. “The communities not only interact with each other, but they marry into one another, settle together, and create new lines of blood in their family trees.”

She says that if one were to trace a family name back far enough, it’s not entirely unlikely that an evidently Ashkenazi sounding surname may once have been something particularly Sephardi sounding.

“It’s possible that a surname varied over time,” says Mastromiechele. “Because Jews were often on the move, they may have adopted or changed a surname to reflect their movement. Jews often settled in places where they could practice their profession or find work, bringing about a mix of Ashkenazim and Sephardim from different locations in one place.”

Changes to a family name could be caused not only through marriage, but also for ease of pronunciation in a new country. Some families were forced to adopt new names at the instruction of non-Jewish rulers, while others voluntarily adopted less Jewish sounding names in order to fit in. Depending on local customs, some families may not even have had a surname to begin with, later adopting one in order to become part of society in their new home.

“Names could evolve over time,” says Mastromiechele. “One surname could have one pronunciation in a certain place, and be said differently somewhere else. Remember that people could also be illiterate, meaning they didn’t have a standard spelling for their surname, pronounced it a certain way, but changed it when it was written down.

“Jewish people tended to change their names quite a lot, no matter where they came from.”

Sephardim and Ashkenazim were often brought into the mix together, creating bloodlines that blended various countries and extractions. Although their migration could often be voluntary, historical events such as the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the subsequent Portuguese expulsion, and similar events on the continent also caused considerable shifts amongst Jewish communities. This would in turn affect their family names.

“When Jews were expelled from Spain, many of them had professions that were beneficial to the Spanish crown,” says Mastromiechele. “A plague hit Spain after the expulsion, and the rulers asked Jews who were doctors to come back. They refused, and many of them actually changed their names as a sign of protest to show that they were never going back, adding ‘no’ onto their surnames.”

Similar examples abound across the world, bringing together Ashkenazi and Sephardi bloodlines. A prominent Sephardic group from North Africa with the surname of Sarfati claims descent from the Ashkenazi sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, (better known as Rashi) who was born in Troyes, France. This is because when Jews were expelled from France in the 13th century, many of his descendants relocated to Spain and North Africa where they soon became Sephardicised, taking on exclusively Sephardic customs.

Although she isn’t Jewish herself, Mastromiechele finds the history and heritage of Jewish people fascinating.

“I work closely with our three in-house historians at the firm, all of whom are Jewish themselves,” she says. “The history we uncover when researching people’s ancestry is incredible.

“Jewish people have travelled around the globe for centuries, continuing their way of life in spite of the shifts in their lives and the changes they had to live with. Their backgrounds are often rich and diverse. Helping people to discover their real origins is always incredible.”

Although Mastromiechele believes that the percentage of South African Ashkenazi Jews with Sephardi blood is relatively small, it certainly remains a possibility. As part of her work, she offers clients a service which traces their ancestry and helps them to determine whether they have a case for Sephardi ancestry or not.

“It depends on the size of the family,” she says. “For every 10 family trees I review, at least two will have some Sephardi sounding surnames. However, seeing is not always believing in many of these cases. We often need to find further, concrete proof of family origin and surname. A Sephardi sounding surname doesn’t always mean you have a solid case.”

A family tree going back at least four generations is necessary to begin a preliminary investigation. Based on this, the team of in-house historians can undertake a basic study at no cost, determining the likelihood of Sephardi roots and a client’s chance of success. It is then up to the client to decide whether they wish to apply formally to claim Sephardic ancestry and the potentially accompanying passport.

“We won’t charge if your case isn’t approved,” says Mastromiechele. “This is a historic right people need to know about, and we want to make sure they don’t lose the opportunity to claim passports to which they are entitled.

“If you aren’t successful, at least you have the chance to know what your family’s origins actually are, whether you are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or both.”

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The ‘Imperial Tour’ that cemented the Jewish Commonwealth

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Exactly one century ago the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, Dr Joseph Hertz, arrived in South Africa on the first leg of a global tour which lasted almost a year.

Arriving in South Africa on 27 October 1920, he spent more than three months in the country. He then went on to visit significant Jewish communities in other dominions: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The entire tour covered 42 communities and 40 000 miles (64 000km).

Hertz, who became chief rabbi in 1913, got the idea of conducting a tour after seeing the Prince of Wales’ visit to Canada following World War I. He wanted to do something similar, and visit smaller communities, saying he was “enthused to come into personal touch with the distant communities under my ecclesiastical jurisdiction”.

Earlier on in his career, he had served as rabbi to the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg (from 1898 to 1911). During this time, he publicly challenged the Kruger regime, and supported the administration of Lord Alfred Milner, who recommended him to Lord Rothschild for the vacant post of chief rabbi of the British Empire.

Hertz set sail from the United Kingdom (UK) on 8 October 1920, and reached South Africa almost three weeks later. The tour was branded a “pastoral tour”, but the agenda was also to raise £1 million for Jewish education as a memorial for those who had died in the Great War. Indeed, a letter in the United Synagogue archives reveals correspondence from a man in South Africa to Hertz, aggressive in tone, asking whether the trip was for the purpose of Jewish pastoral care or if it was to raise money for the Jewish War Memorial.

The chief rabbi replied, “Let me assure you, dear Mr Ehrlich, that I am coming to South Africa on a purely Jewish mission. It is true that there will be an accompanying appeal for the Jewish War Memorial, but I regret the ‘war’ part of it as much as you do.”

South African Jewry had a population of 66 000 at the time. Hertz travelled throughout the country, covering 5 000 miles (8 000km) by railway. His first public engagement was a sermon at the Great Synagogue in Cape Town on Shabbat 30 October 1920. He was impressed by the shul, describing it as “the largest and most impressive Jewish house of worship in the empire”.

He also warmed to its minister, Rev A P Bender, whom he said was “a most popular and respected figure, not only in the Jewish, but also in the general life, of [the] Cape Colony”. Bender was a part-time professor of Hebrew at Cape Town University. In the following days, the chief rabbi was given a banquet at City Hall, delivered a sermon at New Synagogue, and attended a reception of the Cape Town University J-Soc.

Hertz then travelled to Kimberley, where the community dated back to 1869. It was there that he sounded a warning about assimilation. In a sermon, he said that there had been “too much drifting in religious life”, and the perils faced by South African Jewry were the same as those confronting Jewish communities in England, Australia, and Canada.

After a trip to Bloemfontein, which brought back memories of consecrating the synagogue in 1902, Hertz moved on to Johannesburg. In this city, he received a rapturous welcome, with crowds waiting for his arrival at the railway station.

The Sunday Times reported afterwards, “There can be no doubt of the warmth of his welcome from his old congregation. He comes here not only as the high priest of English Jewry, but as an old friend who through long years of unselfish work among us endeared himself equally to Jew and Gentile.”

The next stop was Pretoria, where Prime Minister Jan Smuts gave a speech praising the contribution of the Jewish community and looking forward to it flourishing in the future. In his remarks at the reception, Smuts declared, “The Jews in South Africa are welcomed in every walk of life, and have achieved the greatest successes. Nobody grudges them their success because they deserve it. Let them bring their resources and talents to this country.”

At his next destination, Bulawayo in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he said he found “Jewish hearts throbbing with enthusiasm for all forms of Jewish endeavour”. Hertz spent a final few weeks in South Africa visiting Pietermaritzburg, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, and Oudtshoorn.

One of the things Hertz noticed about the Jews of South Africa was how charitable they were – a characteristic still identifiable today (even among those who now live in Israel, the United States, and the UK). He was struck by the care shown in the orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg. He was also impressed by the community’s raising of £450 000 for the War Memorial Fund, remarking that it was “a record of generosity that surpasses even that of American Jews”.

Afterwards, Hertz wrote about the success of the visit. “Thank G-d it has been justified by the results, which in view of the extraordinary financial position prevailing in this country, are very gratifying indeed.”

After this ground breaking world trip lasting almost 11 months, Hertz arrived back at Southampton on 30 August 1921, and had a private audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace in November.

The “Imperial Tour” is one of the things Hertz remains most famous for, along with his commentary on the Chumash. It solidified the bonds between the UK and her then dominions, and gave him and his office profile on the world stage.

A century on, the historic ties endure. The sun may have set on the British empire but, 100 years after Hertz’s landmark tour, the ties between Jewish communities across the Commonwealth remain strong.

  • Zaki Cooper is on the diplomatic advisory board of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.

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Beth Din dispute with manufacturer foments discontent over pricing

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Local manufacturers of kosher food say they are looking overseas for alternative kosher certification following the furore caused by the Beth Din’s removal of a company’s kashrut licence last week.

A longstanding relationship between the Johannesburg kosher department and Honeyfields, an ice cream, sugar cone, and chocolate manufacturing company, turned sour, resulting in it being stripped of its kosher licence.

The Beth Din claims it was because of a contractual breach following “ongoing non-compliance” with its stringent kosher model, in which it has a zero-tolerance policy for non-compliance.

Honeyfields claims it all comes down to money, saying that the Beth Din took its kosher certificate away because it steadfastly refused to accept the “exorbitant spike” in Beth Din kosher fees.

However, the Johannesburg kosher department insists it has nothing to do with fees.

“This has nothing to do with an increase in Beth Din fees. The breakdown is purely over non-compliance over many years and the unco-operative nature of the company with regard to kosher compliance,” said Head of Kashrut Rabbi Dovi Goldstein.

There has been a lot of allegations this week both on social media and on ChaiFM over what people in the community claim to be “sky-rocketing kosher food prices” and the Beth Din’s alleged “lack of service, transparency, and communication”.

The Beth Din has threatened to seek legal action following Honeyfield’s message to its Jewish clients in which it allegedly questioned the Beth Din’s integrity and pricing models. Honeyfields is further challenging the Beth Din’s price hikes at the Competition Commission, claiming unfair business practice.

The owner of Honeyfields, George Georghiou, told the SA Jewish Report that he may have made mistakes in the past, but he always rectified them. “I accept and admit there have been mistakes with the printing of my labels in the past, but I always acknowledge this and fix them. This is not about me and my procedures being kosher or parev, it’s to do with the increase in fees which I’m not prepared to pay,” he said.

He said he believed many manufacturers would “ be looking at obtaining kosher certification elsewhere overseas because they are left with little choice,” he said.

Georghiou says he is looking for a new hechsher as he wants to remain loyal to his Jewish clients. “Three products including parev and dairy chocolate-lined sugar cones and wafer baskets are going into 600 stores nationwide and sadly, the Jewish community won’t be able to buy them even though the products are kosher, but are now uncertified,” he said.

In a message to his Jewish clients last week, he said the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) had inflated his fees by a whopping 600%, which was going to affect the prices consumers were going to pay in the future. He wrote that he was offered numerous payment methods to meet the obligation, which he told the SA Jewish Report remained unaffordable.

“I’m just a simple chocolate and ice cream maker, I’m not here to fight. But when they decide to damage my turnover, that’s declaring war, and I will go to war with the Beth Din,” he said.

Georghiou isn’t the only manufacturer prepared to take a stand.

Johannesburg mashgiach Akiva Mallett decided to explore alternative options when he set up his new company, Dairyluv, which makes Chalav Yisrael dairy products. “I found that during my application process, there was a lack of commitment on the part of the UOS, and I felt it would turn out to be a disappointing relationship,” he said.

So he looked further afield for kosher certification.

“I applied to six of the world-leading kosher authorities, and chose Montreal Kosher. It was a long application process, but made easy with the professional people working there. We have a six-hour time difference but overcame that obstacle through proper communication and understanding.

“Even though the exchange rate plays a role, I believe the fees will still be less than what I would be paying here,” he said.

The owner of The Chocolate Tree, Moshe Amoils, told the SA Jewish Report that this outcry has brought to his attention the fact that manufacturers and producers aren’t alone in this struggle.

He said his Beth Din kosher Pesach fee in 2017 was R7 200. It went up more than 300% in 2020 to a staggering R45 000.

He successfully negotiated this down with the kosher department, explaining how it would negatively affect the community.

“Many people realise that there are actually other options available. People are considering moving further afield, and will do so if they find it more affordable, especially if it comes with better service and improved relationships.”

One longstanding manufacturer who prefers to remain anonymous said he was dissatisfied with the way the Beth Din conducted itself. “After many years, I’m considering applying elsewhere for an international hechsher,” he said.

Colin Hurwitz of Glens Sauces told the SA Jewish Report that the consumer was the biggest loser. “My heart broke earlier this year when I overheard an old lady complain that she couldn’t afford to buy a bottle of my kosher-for-Pesach tomato sauce. These are the people who are suffering. The Beth Din has lost sight of this.

“My tomato sauce costs what it does because of the many crippling hidden costs over and above the Beth Din Passover fee,” he said.

Another kosher manufacturer and retailer speaking under condition of anonymity questioned whether the Beth Din had the community’s interests at heart.

“Eateries are constantly trying to cut back and streamline their businesses to the bone because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the cost of kosher down for the end user. They are constantly listening to complaints by the consumer about increased food prices while doing their utmost.”

Goldstein told the SA Jewish Report he was saddened by this latest scandal, considering the fact that the department had worked tirelessly to improve customer relations and ensure food prices were kept as low as possible.

The Stan & Pete saga had positive results in a vastly transformed department and a total revamp in kashrut, including a new scientific and equitable pricing model, he said.

“Our goal is for more people to eat more kosher more often. We don’t turn people away when they can’t afford the full price. In fact, we offer them various ways to remain on board because it’s in our interest to have more kosher products available for the community,” Goldstein said.

According to him, every company, no matter the size, is charged the same R32 000 annual base fee according to the new scientific pricing model. This is the standard fee applied across the board before other expenses come into play, for example the number of factories and products.

“People can apply for a special discount. We don’t turn people away, we understand times are tough, especially during COVID-19 when we have offered payment holidays and alternative payment options,” he said.

In the case of Honeyfields, he said, “The company had been included in no less than five alerts over the years which we consider way beyond the acceptable norm. The situation became untenable.

“Our community trusts that our stamp can be relied on, and when we have tried multiple times to work with a company and it still refuses to work with us, we are left with no choice.

“Sadly Mr Georghiou has taken a shot at our reputation, and we take this seriously. This is why we have decided to take legal action,” he said.

When a company asked for financial assistance, the department would “go out of its way on a case-by-case basis to offer a discount or phase-ins over multiple years to make it fair and equitable”, Goldstein said.

“Our approach is to benchmark against the world’s best kashrus agencies, and we are seeing that we are more than 50% less than other international agencies. So, you would need to question how some overseas hechshers can offer their services at such low costs, and whether it’s sustainable.”

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COVID-19 deaths in decline, but community still on alert

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The Jewish community in Johannesburg has experienced a dramatic drop in COVID-19 deaths since the surge in July. “So far in September, we have only had two COVID-19 deaths in Johannesburg, and we are seeing no excess deaths compared to the past five years,” says Chevrah Kadisha (The Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson.

“The reported sharp drop in deaths due to COVID-19 in the Jewish community is indeed good news,” says Barry Schoub, the founder of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“It parallels the positive trends indicating that the current COVID-19 epidemic is declining [in South Africa]. So, for example, the daily increase in cases has dropped markedly from 5.37 during lockdown level 5, to 0.11 at present in lockdown level 1.

“In the general population, the daily mortality rate has similarly dropped steeply from a high of 572 on 22 July, down to 114 on 1 September, and now 39 on 21 September, according to the COVID-19 South Africa dashboard,” says Schoub.

At the peak of the pandemic in South Africa, the South African Jewish community had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, possibly due to our ageing community. “In July, there were sadly 48 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and total deaths for July were 110 which is a 129% increase compared to the five-year average,” says Tomson. “In August, there were 17 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and a 24% increase in the five-year average for the month.”

In the past five weeks, Chevrah Kadisha residential facilities (Sandringham Gardens, Our Parents Home, Selwyn Segal, Arcadia, Sandringham Lodge, and Sandringham Square) have had no new COVID-19 infections among their nearly 1 000 residents.

Tomson says these homes are all still under strict lockdown. “We were cautious prior to the national lockdown, and now we need to remain increasingly vigilant as the national lockdown eases. The pandemic is very much ongoing, and the elderly are still very vulnerable. There is, understandably, mounting pressure from families wanting to visit and residents wanting to get out, but essentially the risk profile hasn’t changed. All the good work we have done means that the vast majority of residents haven’t contracted it, and we want to keep it that way.”

Indeed, Schoub warns, “Acute viral epidemics follow a broadly similar pattern – the epidemic curve rises fairly rapidly to reach a peak, and then falls off again over a short period of time. Importantly, the virus doesn’t disappear and will still be circulating in the population at a low, perhaps even imperceptible level.

“The disappearance of overt cases of disease often leads to complacency and a relaxation of care to prevent infection. The inevitable consequence is the advent of the second and subsequent waves of the disease. In a number of countries, the second wave has been even more severe than the first. Israel is one such country,” says Schoub.

“The important lesson is that while the South African epidemic is certainly easing, 500 to 1 500 daily cases are still being reported,” Schoub says. “Even when it does come down to a few sporadic cases, the price of complacency and relaxation of vigilance is the inevitable return of the epidemic.”

“We are doing our best to normalise life within the facilities, and we have opened the dining rooms as of first-night Rosh Hashanah,” Tomson says. “We also brought in beauty therapists from Sorbet to uplift our residents prior to yom tov.”

The Chev has also started to organise visits on an appointment basis, with strict protocols in place. These are labour intensive and complicated, needing an infection-control monitor on both the resident and guest sides, screening of guests, and ensuring all protocols are adhered to. The Chev is in constant communication with the community, residents, and families, and Tomson emphasises that the organisation is still under a lot of pressure to protect every resident.

In Cape Town, there has been at least one COVID-19 death in September, but “the numbers on the COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme have dropped significantly”, says the director of the Community Security Organisation (CSO), Loren Raize. “In August, we monitored 15 people on the programme, and in September, so far, we have had six join, three of whom are still currently on the programme.”

Delia Kaplan, the deputy director of Cape Town’s Highlands House for the Jewish Aged, says the home had an isolated incident of COVID-19 in which a resident passed away on 28 August. The home is still under lockdown, and residents can’t leave unless for medical reasons. On their return, they isolate for 14 days.

However, many restrictions within the home have been relaxed, and families can visit by appointment under strict protocols. Every visitor, including staff and contractors, has to complete digital symptom screening before entering the premises. The situation is constantly assessed, but “there is a sense of hope and renewal”, she says.

In Durban, one Jewish individual in a COVID-19 ward passed away in September, but COVID-19 wasn’t confirmed as the cause of death. In August, one Jewish person who had COVID-19 passed away, while two were unclear. Beth Shalom Aged Home Chairperson Solly Berchowitz says that one of the previously reported positive cases at the home passed away.

“We are still in lockdown with only essential resident movements. Late last week, we started allowing family to visit residents in the garden under strict conditions,” he says.

In Pretoria, the Jaffa Aged Home had no cases of COVID-19 from 20 July until one resident tested positive in mid-September. She is in isolation. The home is still under lockdown.

“Visitors can come to the fence and speak to a resident from five metres away. Residents cannot leave unless for emergencies. We opened the dining room last week so that the residents could eat a yom tov meal together, but with screens and distance between them. They can also go to the garden. We continually reassess the situation,” says the home’s director, Mark Isaacs.

Experts warn that in spite of the promising numbers, now isn’t the time to let down our guard. “What we do while opening up as a community going forward may have an effect [on increasing infections], and there are many in our community with elevated risk of severe disease if infected with COVID-19,” says Professor Jeffrey Dorfman, extraordinary associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University.

“Some precautions should be near universal. This includes continued wearing of masks in public places, particularly public indoor spaces. As much as I value public shul services, I feel that masks, social distancing, and limits on attendance should probably remain for now. Singing seems to create particular risks, and shul rules need to continue to reflect this. Personally, I have been to public prayers, but only outdoors, with no immediate plans to change that.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the NICD, agrees. “COVID-19 is still with us. We are alert for resurgence. The risk groups for severe illness and death remain the same, and these vulnerable groups and their close contacts need to ensure that they continue to be cautious. This applies to gatherings around yom tov. Home gatherings are of concern. While there are protocols in place in synagogues to reduce transmission, at home, people let their guard down, especially among family and friends. Care homes need to continue to take the necessary precautions.”

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