Searching for Don Menachem: Quixotic Quest to Prove Sephardic Roots in Spain
28-step journey of self-discovery to Castile culminates in Spanish citizenship
Across central Iberia’s wind-swept terrain, the arid landscape undulates, with highways curving their way through sparsely populated rural areas dotted by small towns and sprawling farms. Clean and orderly in a sun-beaten Southern European way, one can imagine how the scenery might have looked a half-millennium ago. Castles, walls, and churches remain from many centuries into the past. Minus the modern irrigation techniques and sleek vehicles zipping by, life continues much the same in Castilla-La Mancha.
This part of contemporary Spain — the legendary setting for Don Quixote — has seen more than a few conflicts over time, but now, olive plantations and serene vineyards make up the wide-open and placid Spanish heartland adjacent to the capital. Formerly part of New Castile, along with Madrid, the region at one point was just the eastern part of a Moorish kingdom, the taifa of Toledo. Convivencia — coexistence among the three monotheistic faiths — was shattered by an endless series of wars and sieges, before the Reconquista instituted a harsh brand of Catholicism.
The city of Cuenca, which has around 57,000 inhabitants, has a new town with no shortage of Spanish banks, a Zara store, and a maze of commercial streets with quaint eateries that serve up quintessential Castilian cuisine. At corner bars, thirsty patrons sip Mahou beer and nibble on tortillas espanolas.
But the foods most voraciously consumed by tapas eaters weren’t so acceptable for our forebears who lived in this part of the peninsula. Members of the tribe would be rolling over in their graves at the consumption of jamón serrano and cangrejo, the most non-kosher of typical Spanish food. Regardless, what remains in Cuenca of erstwhile Jewish life is scant.
In the old town, near Calle Alcázar where the Muslim ruler used to live, there is a Neo-Mudéjar tower, Torre de Mangana, next to the site of the old synagogue. Though little remains of that structure, a reconstruction project is attempting to show how the three religions thrived side-by-side, says Juan Manuel Millan Martinez, an archaeological expert with the local government.
Mangana’s development is an ambitious effort to give roots tourism in Cuenca the same appeal as in many of Spain’s cities and towns where something more concrete still stands of Juderías and their centuries-old guijarro cobblestone streets, modest houses, and dusty doorways. Yet there are few old cemeteries, and even fewer historic Jewish places of worship, that have survived in Spain.
At the tourism office next to the Plaza Mayor, an otherwise-cheerful city employee’s face drops while explaining that there are no extant Jewish heritage sites in Cuenca — nada. Aside from a Jewish star scrawled on a park bench at a playground near the casas colgadas (hanging houses), there is an El Mazal souvenir shop that appears to honor somewhat of a lucky Judaic legacy. But alas, amid salutations welcoming tourists in dozens of different languages, the Hebrew letters are, disappointingly, written backwards.
During my February 2017 two-night stay in the city, I did some background reading on the misfortunes of the Jews in Cuenca. Men from the faith who cavorted with Christian women were burned. Members of the community were owed money by other residents. So, some tensions likely involved interest payments — a similar story as in many European locales.
The Jewish Quarter of Cuenca was ransacked and many Jews were forced out in 1391 as their neighborhood was destroyed.
Some fled to Huete, a smaller town to the west. For those who remained in Cuenca, the main option was conversion, and for centuries after 1492, the property of conversos (new Catholics, former adherents of Judaism) was confiscated by Inquisition authorities, and in turn, the assets were used to fund yet more persecution.
Family story of Sephardic heritage
I grew up hearing the legend that one line of my mother’s mostly German-Jewish family originated in Spain, by way of the Netherlands. Her direct paternal “Kohnstamm” ancestors made their name in America, and elsewhere — including Mexico — selling flavors, colors, and dyes. Of course, the surname (which is also my middle name) doesn’t sound Castilian. Yet for me, the story of Sephardic roots, and the fact that I could “pass” for Spanish, motivated me to understand more about our history.
First I familiarized myself with the “big red book” of genealogy produced by a highly talented and meticulous relative named Carl Theodor “Theo” Marx, who had married into our Kohnstamm family. Though occasionally inaccurate, there are lots of stories he added to our view of the past. One about the Kohnstamm coat of arms was roundly rejected by Theo, even if it lent prestige to our pedigree. Other stories were indisputable historical truth; one family member, Solomon, was at the center of a legal debacle in the U.S. Civil War.
Theo expressed healthy skepticism where appropriate. On the question of Spanish ancestry for several thousand of us, he used careful wording:
“By long family tradition, the ancestor of the Kohnstamm family is Don Menachem ben Chajim Ha-Kohen, whose forebears were expelled from Spain or Portugal and emigrated to Holland. From there Don Menachem is said to have moved to Germany some time after the end of the Thirty Years’ War.”
Such ambiguous verbiage signified this Sephardic connection could be true. But the big problem would be finding proof. One possibility was that, despite it being genuine, there was no evidence available — anywhere — to verify. Another was that it would simply take decades to locate. Yet another option was that I could uncover the links within months if I applied my curiosity and dogged investigative abilities. However, we could also end up finding out that there was no Sephardic background at all in the Kohnstamm line. I was prepared to accept whatever answers were unearthed.
Along my labyrinthine quest, many people have asked why I decided to dig up the past. My first response is that it’s important to know thyself. For a journalist, this usually involves putting the narrative on paper. I have also been motivated to improve my Spanish language skills. And ultimately, the path was geared towards obtaining Spanish nationality, per a 2015 law encouraging people of Sephardic ancestry to come home after over 500 years.
Landing a European Union passport could be worthwhile in the age of Trump. But this was somewhat secondary to the other goals. My primary desire was to find out the truth, and distinguish fact from fiction. But how would I find details on the Don to ease the way forward?
The promise of Spanish citizenship
Beginning in the fall of 2015, I started the long, arduous process of applying for citizenship, claiming this as my birthright — rooted in the place where my family believes some of our ancestors lived, prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
I began to write up a list on my iPhone of what would become the 28 steps I needed to fulfill — over the course of 28 months. Initially I had no idea how much time it would take but realized it could become a two-year endeavor. The hurdles ranged from the language test (“A2” advanced-beginner level) and politics exam (on basic Spanish history and geography), to a wide variety of documents proving 1) Sephardic lineage and 2) a special relationship with the modern Kingdom of Spain.
In sum, I would need two letters from rabbis, comprehensive ancestry information, multiple birth certificates, and two FBI background checks, as well as evidence of my economic and cultural ties to Spain. All of the material was then translated into Spanish, notarized in Florida, notarized in New York, authenticated in Kings County, apostilled in New York State, uploaded online, and then, packaged by a notary in Spain prior to being submitted to a variety of government agencies for final vetting.
Before I could go to Spain and sign the affidavit certifying my identity and Ministry of Justice application — for consideration by both the Ministry of the Interior and Presidency — I passed the two tests, bought some Spanish stock, gave a modest donation to a Sephardic community center in South Brooklyn, and spent a few months tracing our Kohnstamm line backwards in time.
Discovery of Menachem Cohen Castellano
My initial Google search for “Don Menachem Ha-Kohen” yielded more of the same information that we had already seen in Theo’s book. Distant cousins had family-tree entries on Ancestry, Geni, Geneanet, and MyHeritage showing that our ancestor was born in 1650 in Spain or Holland and then died in 1723 in Germany. I messaged a few of them (by the rather European-sounding names of Conrad Metz, Daniel Travers, and Franck Ayache), yet no one knew anything additional beyond what we’d been told. There was also some mention of Don Menachem through a British wing of the family in the journal for the Jewish Historical Society of England. I thought Theo’s kind family might have some notes from his research that could point us in the right direction, but there wasn’t much more that seemed to reveal the details of our Kohnstamm patriarch’s life and times.
My first revelation came while on a Hawaiian family vacation in September 2016. I received a surprise call from Genie Milgrom, an enthusiastic woman I had previously contacted who devotes an incredible amount of energy towards researching her own Crypto-Jewish and Marrano ancestors. She wrote the book “My 15 Grandmothers” explaining in-depth how she found her family who had survived the Inquisition.
I originally emailed Genie at the suggestion of Professor Devin Naar, a brilliant Sephardic Studies expert at the University of Washington. On the phone with Genie, I tried to piece together whether our Don Menachem’s family had left Spain by 1492, and maintained the practice of Judaism, or perhaps if our ancestors had converted to Christianity in order to stay put — only to flee later on and then return to Judaic roots once in a safer place.
Genie mentioned how she had found a marriage record that likely matched with our ancestor. She also explained the possibility of an alias record — showing assumed Spanish names next to original Jewish names — that meshed with Don Menachem. I eagerly wrote down what she suggested I query. Then when I returned home a few days later, my search continued in earnest on the site DutchJewry.org. There I found the record for a traditional Sephardic wedding in 1715 between Menachem Cohen Castellano, of Verona, Italy, and Branca Senior, of Buda, Hungary. Their birth dates were also listed, in addition to the names of the witnesses for the bride and groom.
My excitement grew at this jaw-dropping file, though I realized our work was far from over. I needed lots of help to continue the odyssey, tracing Menachem backwards and forwards.
I reached out to professional genealogists in Europe to see what they could offer.
The problem in Holland was that many Dutch experts, such as Yvette Hoitink, could read through old records from the Netherlands and Germany but not so much the Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese documents that would be key.
Then I turned to Facebook, where I eventually started threads in four different groups dealing with such genealogical searches. Here’s what I posted in one, introducing my quest: “I’m doing research on my 7-great-grandfather, Don Menachem ben Chaim Ha-Kohen, and am wondering if anyone in this group might have more information.”
I found critical reception in The Sephardic Diaspora, where members emphasized the high bar for proving oneself. Michael Waas, who identifies as a “heritage preservation consultant,” suggested DNA testing on the Ha-Kohen paternal line, which would be in the cards later. But he also expressed skepticism about our reputed connection to Iberia, saying, “Menachem is a name found amongst Western Sephardim, but not to the same extent it is found among Ashkenazim.” I scratched my head; even if this Menachem Cohen Castellano weren’t our Don, he certainly seemed Sephardic.
Aron Sterk, a researcher at the University of Lincoln, offered a similarly negative assessment involving the use of an honorific name after leaving Spain: “The ‘Don’ is little more than a story…Very few Iberian Jews were high up enough in court circles to receive this honour.”
A third person, Kevin Martin, doubted another distinguishing aspect: “The name Ha Cohen in all its spelling variants was probably [re-]adopted on his leaving [Iberia]. It’s not exactly a name you would use in [Spain]. Therefore the question arises: was he given the name on conversion and where?”
In the Jewish Genealogy Portal, I found constructive pointers and people ready to assist. Yet the burden of proof remained high, as explained by Ton Tielen, a Dutch expert on Sephardic heritage, who cast doubt on the perplexing notion that our family had moved from Holland to Germany.
“If one looks at migration patterns in the second half of the 17th century, then there is about zero interaction between Amsterdam and [Bavaria] as far as Sephardic families are concerned…To be honest I never know how to deal with such stories about Sephardic ancestry of Ashkenazi families. Surely there are some that are expressions of wanting to have a more interesting family tree…But one never knows if there might be a story out there that just might be true.”
I began to realize that our family story could be based on truth, but still contain major holes. First were the issues with his name. Was he really a “Don”? Was “Menachem” Sephardic enough? And how did we maintain the “Kohen” priestly title during the Inquisition? Those were relatively minor hurdles to explain, but then was a set of bigger questions. Could Menachem’s vital dates be 25 years off — a birth year of 1675 instead of 1650? Are we sure that his father was Chaim and his sons Jacob and Chaim, as Theo said? Also, did he really live in Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany during his life?
In the Netherlands, Ton Tielen located another record that added to our understanding of Menachem Cohen Castellano. He was buried in 1736 at the Beth Haim Cemetery run by the Portuguese Israelite Congregation on the outskirts of Amsterdam in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Evidently, his father was Moses and his surname written sometimes as “Castello.” Moreover, on the typed version of the record, Menachem is shown to have a son, also Moses, who was born in 1716. So, neither father — nor son — was named Chaim.
We then found their original Dutch handwritten marriage record in the Amsterdam archives, and also the burial record for Menachem’s wife, Branca bat Aron Senior, who died in 1761. Her family name is listed as “aCohen Castello.” There is also a handwritten version that the city preserved.
Thus there were a number of different paths of inquiry I needed to explore, perhaps simultaneously, to see which offered up the best clues.
Holland had limited insight into the mystery of Menachem’s son Moses. One file I found in the Amsterdam online archives was a court document showing that a Moses Cohen ran into some legal problems in 1739. It appears they accused him of stealing from a drunk sailor, and that a woman testified against him. He would have been 23 then. Anyhow, the result of the trial is unclear. Beyond this — which I gleaned from a quick reading by a Dutch friend who struggled with the old Dutch writing — we have no idea what happened.
As for the actual graves of Menachem and Branca — the cemetery manager told me over the phone that their headstones were long ago covered over by earth that was moved around at the site. So there’s no chance to glean more information about relatives from the inscriptions.
Around the same time, I also discovered a previously unknown branch of my mother’s maternal family, named Goudsmit (which became Goldsmith here), whose earliest member arrived from the Netherlands to New York City in 1840. I thought about the possibility of visiting Holland to learn more about that side as well, especially since we could also trace them back into the 1600’s. Although the Goudsmits from Leiden were definitely not Sephardic, I still held out hope for the Don — the progenitor of the Kohnstamm family.
We continued to investigate why our Ha-Kohen family would have journeyed to Germany. Ben Noach, a coordinator at DutchJewry.org, said, “Sephardic Jews went to the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, because of the liberal attitude and religious tolerance — which had no comparison with anything the Jews encountered in other countries in Europe.” His next explanation came as an email from the help desk of Akevoth (“traces” in Hebrew): Er is een reactie geplaatst op je supportaanvraag. “There has been a reply to your support request.”
“I simply cannot imagine a Sephardic Jew living in the relative paradise of freedom of Amsterdam going, out of his free will, to Germany and Bavaria, with its rabid anti-Semitism and hatred of all that was Jewish,” he added, echoing points we’d heard before. He also mentioned the contributions of the contemporary Kohnstamm family to modern Dutch society — though noted that they don’t maintain much connection to Jewishness, let alone to any Sephardic roots.
I asked him how Sephardic Jews might become assimilated into Ashkenazi communities, and if they would have suddenly just stopped speaking Spanish. We know the family later Germanized their Cohen / Ha-Kohen / Kohn name — hence becoming Kohnstamm by 1815. Stamm means base, root, or tribe, so “Kohn-stamm” is akin to “priestly tribe.”
Then I added: “It is possible, I suppose, that even if this line originated in Italy, that they had never before been in Spain/Portugal. That line of questioning would be centered on the conflict about whether the surname was actually Castellano or Castello…which could be considered Spanish, Catalan, or Italian.”
Noach responded that these places of origin were not mutually exclusive, meaning the family could have traveled from Spain to Italy, and perhaps even come from Italy initially before going to Spain later on.
I also consulted with my grandfather’s distant cousin, Pieter Kohnstam, a Holocaust survivor babysat by none other than Anne Frank, in Amsterdam! His family escaped from the Nazis — in 1942 — via Spain to Argentina. Pieter wished me buen suerte, though he had limited info beyond our family tree.
Brothers Jacob and Chaim Kohen
I soon acknowledged that maybe Germany was still the best place to probe, and then go backwards in time. After reaching out to a couple genealogical research firms, I chose a frugal option. Although the cost seemed almost too low compared to the bigger-name companies, I thought it would be a good idea to start off with a smaller project and shorter timeframe.
I hoped Barry Sheldon in Michigan could provide quick hints, but the project took a while. After several months — and some administrative shenanigans — in November 2016 we finally scored a decent-length report for the genealogical dive back to almost 1800.
The documents he found included a census of Jews in the town of Niederwerrn, in addition to a directory showing which Jews had paid protection money to the Grand Duchy of Wurzburg. There were also birth and death records for our ancestors. But there was no smoking gun or anything that significantly altered our perspective one way or the other. The only piece that related specifically to my Sephardic inquiry was very brief:
“There is no conclusive proof to show that the family was ever from the Iberian Peninsula. While it’s possible, without proof, it remains conjecture. What is known for sure is that the family was living in Niederwerrn as early as 1803. It is likely this family was there before 1803 but this has yet to be proven.”
Judging by their patronymic names, the documents showed the presence of the children of two men, Jacob and Chaim, likely both our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers — as a result of a first-cousin marriage by two of their offspring. But we found out nothing more of their actual presence. It’s also unclear where they were born, and we don’t really know if they were buried in the Euerbach cemetery that was the final resting place of so many other Kohnstamms. Our contemporary relative, Don Kohnstamm in Buffalo, N.Y., confirmed with his recent photographs that none of the present tombstones there matched with Jacob and Chaim.
So I continued to scour the databases for evidence of where Jacob and Chaim might have ended up. On the JewishGen website affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I found tentative matches at the Ashkenazi cemetery in Ottensen on the outskirts of Hamburg-Altona for the two of them, very close to the vital dates mentioned by Theo.
However, the problems with this Hamburg link were numerous. This Jacob had a “Moshe” at the beginning of his name, though perhaps that meant he was Menachem Cohen Castellano’s son Moses. Then there was the issue that Ottensen wasn’t a burial ground for Iberian Jews. Had the brothers left their Sephardic world and married Ashkenazi women in Hamburg? Moreover, the cemetery itself has been built over by a shopping mall, despite outcry by protesters when the construction occurred in 1992. Thus there’s no way to get more information on their graves.
Then there was the lack of information about Chaim’s origins. Had he been born somewhere other than the Netherlands — perhaps in Italy or Germany? Niederwerrn was where many Kohnstamms lived, but they quickly branched out to other German locales within a few hundred miles.
I posted in the Facebook group for Jekkes Engaged Worldwide, a resource for German Jews researching their families. Ronnie Jaegermann suggested I comb through the Hamburg and Altona city registrars for more on Jacob and Chaim. I also posed my question in Tracing the Tribe. In that forum, the same Facebook naysayer as before, Michael Waas, offered yet more critical words:
“You’re better off looking into German archives for what appears to be a German Cohen family, rather than wasting your time with this Cohen Castellano family,” he said. “If you find a connection, great, but it’s not really in your best interest to try and make the pieces fit for a hoped-for ancestor, rather than showing the real documentation.”
“Reframe your thinking,” he advised me. “You’re claiming this couple [Menachem and Branca] as your 7th great-grandparents with no proof. No good historian/genealogist should ever be working from the top down, trying to [put] a square peg into a round hole. Prove first that these sons in Germany have a connection.” Then came the crux of his rejectionism.
“From what I remember, your source for the ‘Don’ comes from a family member or someone recording it at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when Jews in Germany, in particular, fetishized and Orientalized Sephardim, and it was in vogue to claim this ancestry.”
Waas also threatened to present a 1775 Jewish marriage document from The Hague that would upend my hypothesis. But after weeks of delay, he admitted to being confused, and confessed that such a document tied to the Cohen Castellano family didn’t even exist.
I responded with measured verbiage: “And it is in Germany that we are currently focusing efforts to find the documentation. I appreciate your skepticism. Let us see what the microfilm reveals. It may turn out that our current logic is proven partially incorrect or largely false. Again, that’s why I’m on the data trail for any information that could lead to a more definitive explanation.”
I continued: “Until you have tangible information to disprove, then what you’re saying is also just hypothesis. Never did I suggest that we were anywhere near the point where this could be written in stone.”
Waas replied: “Do the research in the archives and return to us.”
So I knew what we needed, but could it be found? I decided that this phase would require submitting new queries with three different institutions: the Leo Baeck Institute (with offices in Berlin and at the Center for Jewish History in New York); the Hamburg State Archives; and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.
At the Leo Baeck offices in Manhattan, I began by searching for “Kohnstamm” in their digital collection. I also met with my mother’s sixth cousin, genealogist Karen Franklin, who helped brainstorm some avenues towards the answers. Then the insightful librarian at the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute, J.D. Arden, pointed me towards the Jacob Jacobson Collection, which covered German Jewry from 1660 to 1958, and included a wealth of community documents from Hamburg and Altona. I received a refresher course on how to view microfilm, but I quickly realized how useless I was (despite generally strong language skills) at interpreting old German writing — which was not just faded but penned in a quasi-medieval script. The prospect of failure stuck with me, as I was unable to find anything more about Jacob, Chaim, or other possible relatives in that part of northern Germany.
I even checked some Danish archives, as parts of the Hamburg area were controlled by Denmark for centuries — until 1864. The folks at the Central Archives in Jerusalem would require a few shekels to search through their Hamburg-Altona collection. Yet what the Hamburg archives had in microfilm, Jerusalem preserved in originals, and vice versa.
Corresponding with Barbara Koschlig at the Hamburg archives, I relied on Google Translate to figure out her explanations in formal German: Wenn Sie einen Recherchedienst beauftragen möchten, finden Sie eine Adressenliste als Anhang, she said. “If you want to hire a search service, you can find a list of addresses attached.” I later found a complementary one to be very handy. In the meantime, I reached out to the Bavarian State Archives and the Lower Franconia Jewish Center, which were much closer to our known relatives’ locale. The Institute for the History of the German Jews and Hamburg Society for Jewish Genealogy were next.
At the latter, Juergen Sielemann eventually came to our rescue. Yet ultimately he didn’t confirm that we were on the right track, but he did prove that my prior Hamburg theory was probably wrong. I sent Juergen the German document names that I’d found in the digital Jerusalem database, with bold headers like BEERDIGUNGS UND GRABREGISTER DER ALTEN FRIEDHÖFE — “funeral and tomb register from the old graveyard.” We then concluded — using the newly identified patronymic names revealing their fathers — that the Moshe Jacob Cohen and Meyer Cohen buried there were not our relatives. Though we still didn’t find the full listing for Chaim Cohen giving his father’s name, it appeared that Hamburg was a dead end for the time being.
Would it make any sense to reach all the way back to Spain to comb for evidence of the family? Perhaps that would be premature. However, another destination on the Mediterranean was worth considering, and so I turned my attention to Italy.
Northern Italian homeland
In many ways, tracing the family back to Italy seemed logical. For one thing, the dominant hypothesis regarding the origin of German Jews, and indeed Ashkenazi Jews in general, involves Italy as the place where Jews initially entered Europe, took on local brides, and established communities.
While doing research on my Kohnstamm family, I also happened to discover that another part of my mother’s family (the Guggenheims from Switzerland) descend long ago from the Kalonymos dynasty — Lucca-based liturgical poets with origins in Greece.
Italian Jews seemed so fascinating to me because the existence of the Italkim predated the arrival, and even birth, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. Like many places in the Mediterranean, the Italian Jews don’t fit so neatly into established categories.
Tracing Menachem Cohen Castellano to Verona seemed like the rational thing to do next. Though I couldn’t find anything about his birth, on JewishGen I did find a Moshe Cohen, possibly his father, who was buried in Venice in 1711 at the Antico Cimitero Ebraico. The romantic Italian canal-filled city with the original Jewish ghetto is just 60 miles east of Verona, so the geography seemed to make sense. But I didn’t hear back from an email I sent to the Museo Ebraico for more information. And the name “Moshe Cohen” isn’t so rare — kind of like “Joe Smith.”
There’s not much else confirmed about Moshe, except there is a ketubah from 1685 (strangely, 10 years after Menachem Cohen Castellano was born). The document, which I found through SephardicGen, is absolutely beautiful and shows that a Moshe Cohen, son of Joseph, married Doña Giudica Enriques-Miranda, daughter of Jacob. It says in Hebrew, החתן חותם ראשון — ha-Hatan Hotem rishon, “the groom signs first.” Then were witnesses’ signatures underneath, including one in Spanish/Latin letters.
The marriage took place in Livorno, to the west of Florence and close to Pisa. Is it conceivable that Moshe, Menachem’s father, was married in Livorno, moved to Verona, and died in Venice?
That actually seems quite plausible, given what we’ve found on some other Italian Jews of the name “Cohen” who settled on the western shores of Italy.
Looking at some of the names in the same database, there was an Azaria Yosef ben Yehiel Cohen in Ancona who married Gentile bat Shlomo Moshe Levi. Probably not related. And there was even another Menachem Cohen, of Verona, who in 1784 married Dulce bat Kalonymos Grego. Then yet another Menachem Cohen in 1802 got married in Lugo to Debora bat Natanel Pinto. Both Menachem Cohens married seemingly Sephardic women. So Menachem didn’t appear limited to Ashkenazim at all. Either way, the women’s amazing names exhibited quintessential Italian flavor: Angiolina, Bella, and Fausta. Grazia, Olympia, Rica, and Stella.
I reached out to some other resources, including the State Archive of Livorno, in the hopes that they might have some answers. Two eager genealogists offered to work with me. Barbara Martinelli wrote in December 2016: Gentile Sig. Piven, le scrivo in italiano così sono sicura di essere più precisa e corretta. “I’m writing in Italian so I can be sure it is most accurate and correct.”
She described various ketubot from the 17th century for Jews of the surname “Acoen,” but I just wasn’t sure they were related. Al momento questo è l’informazione che posso dare. Shalom amichevole. “At the moment this is all the information I can give. A friendly shalom.”
Barbara added: Le rendo noto che le Comunità Ebraiche in Italia sono molte, e quasi tutte possiedono degli archivi storici ed hanno almeno una persona incaricata all’inventariazione e alle ricerche (alcune a pagamento). “I note that the Jewish Communities in Italy are many, and almost all have historical archives, and have at least one person in charge of inventory and research (some paying).” She recommended contacting Moked, the portal for Italian Jewry. Another researcher, Nardo Bonomi Breverman, in central Tuscany, said that in Verona “there are documents dating back to the beginning of the 16th century concerning the Jews and the building of the Ghetto.”
But I was hesitant to invest in finding more on the Moshe Cohen buried in Venice until we could prove that Menachem Cohen Castellano was definitely our Don, and that this Moshe was definitely his father.
“Kohen” is a common name across Jewish communities. The Kohanim in ancient Israel performed religious rites and stood apart from the Levites and laypeople. Judging by the historical record, there were certainly a large number of pre-Inquisition Spanish Jews who went by the surname.
Before 1492, Jews in Spain had last names that came from Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Spanish, Italian, and other languages. For those who remained after the religion became illegal, they would have been obliged to convert formally to Catholicism and take a converso “alias” name such as Castellano.
Since our level of certainty is diminished with every successive generation, and century, that we travel back, we’re in no position right now to assert confidence about any early arrivals to Italy.
However, if we are to imagine the possibilities of who just might be our distant ancestor, there is a famous Joseph Ha-Kohen, who was born in Avignon, France, in 1496, just four years after the Inquisition took effect. He became a well-reputed world historian and physician whose writings reflected the 16th-century zeitgeist. Joseph’s work reflects his experiences as the son of Spanish exiles who found refuge in Genoa initially, and then moved among other Piedmont towns, such as Voltaggio, Novi Ligure, and Casale Monferrato, before returning to Genoa, where he died in 1575.
According to widely published biographical and autobiographical information, Joseph’s three sons were Joshua, Isaac, and Judah, all of whom died young and without heirs in the 1540’s. And we know that Joseph was the son of Joshua, who was the son of Meir. His parents reportedly left Spain in 1492 and were married in France three years later. His father’s side came from the town of Huete in the Cuenca region of Castile, while his mother Dolsa’s Alconstantini family hailed from the Aragon region.
Through creative use of Google, I tried to find descendants of Joseph — perhaps via an uncle or brother, since it didn’t seem that his direct male line continued beyond the next generation.
Noticing a posting by a woman who cited her husband’s connection to Joseph, I found one Steve Kohn in Florida who touted such descent in a JewishGen family tree. Much of his family was Sephardic, with origins in Italy, Syria, Egypt, and even Safed in the Holy Land. The Italian city of Livorno, where Steve said his family had spent considerable time, seemed like a very possible connection, given the ketubah I had found.
But the hypothesized link (through a purported fourth son of Joseph’s named “David”) was soon in serious doubt, after I did some more research and found scholarly references that explained more about Joseph’s story. “Cultural Intermediaries: Jewish Intellectuals in Early Modern Italy” contextualized how the erudite and curious writer distinguished himself from his contemporaries, with impressive secular and religious writings. A professor at Hebrew University, Abraham David, provided his most valuable work, “Irascible historian: New light on the personality of the sixteenth-century chronicler Joseph ha-Kohen from his personal correspondence”.
And then the Sephardic Studies expert sent me the detailed family tree, showing that the ostensible link through Steve Kohn’s tree was improbable. Still, I explored the relationships among names like Jamila, Camila, Clara, Dona, and Paloma — all written in Hebrew letters.
After poking around some more in the SephardicGen database, I still held out hope that there were resources to trace our ostensibly Sephardic family. But I realized we had three main holes in cementing our Spanish heritage: linking our 6-great-grandfathers Jacob and Chaim definitively to Menachem Cohen Castellano in Amsterdam; solidifying the Italian chapter of the story in Livorno, Verona, and Venice; and confirming the connection to Joseph Ha-Kohen or other certain offspring of exiles from Spain.
We found that Joseph’s great-grandfather in Cuenca was Yehuda, son of Yehoshua, son of Yehuda, son of David, son of Moshe. Was our connection to this family only imagined? I looked around for other possibilities: was Menachem Cohen buried 1730 in Venice our ancestor? Might the Chaim ben Meir Ha-Kohen I found on FamilySearch be Menachem’s real father Chaim?
I continued to wonder whether genealogical records would end up proving the link to Joseph, or whether we’d find out that different Ha-Kohen emigres from the Iberian Peninsula were our ancestors. Hopefully a mixture of luck, determination, and trained archivists in a variety of European countries could make more progress connecting the dots. Our answer still may be found in German microfilm — mid-1700’s wedding info, tax records, or synagogue membership rolls, showing that Chaim and Jacob were indeed sons of the same [Don] Menachem.
We also hoped that the need for more documentation — to show irrefutably what journey our Kohnstamm ancestors took — would be smoothed over by DNA evidence. Might genetic science cement the timeline, moving beyond informed speculation about who, what, where, when, why, and how?
Kohanim of the J2 haplogroup
Having already explored most of the known genealogical avenues, the best way to find information on the genetic side of things was to test Simon, one of my male first cousins, and unlock the secrets of the Kohnstamm paternal line.
Through FamilyTreeDNA, we know that the Kohnstamms belong to one of several groups of Kohanim in the yDNA haplogroup called J2 (or J-M172). That larger genetic family originates in the northern Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region 28,000 years ago. It includes a high percentage of men in the Caucasus, Anatolia, and the Levant, from Chechnya and Georgia to Sicily, Lebanon, and Kuwait. In addition, around 20% of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are J2. Our J-M12 group is about 7 percent of all Kohanim.
Wim Penninx, who has specifically analyzed the genetics of Kohanim, produced some seminal work on the different subgroups. I originally assumed that my family’s section fit neatly into his paradigm, but it turns out that the J2b-L283 group includes a number of other groups that may exhibit some differences with our specific “AB-051” subclade.
In the context of the J2b2a* (or J-Z628) haplogroup, there is some scientific disagreement on whether the group of Kohanim with our CTS6190 marker were living in the Land of Israel initially, around 3,000 years ago, or if our forefathers were around Greece and the Balkans in the Eastern Mediterranean basin at the start of Judaism.
“Undeniable proof could only come from ancient DNA (archaeologically attributed to Jewish culture remains), which is unlikely to happen for most of modern Y-DNA for the historical era,” said Chris Rottensteiner, a citizen science population geneticist who mainly studies Haplogroup J2.
It’s also possible that they “bought” into the priestly tradition, rather than being from the “original” group of Israelite priests. But the whole subclade definitely shares the oral tradition of having been Kohanim, with many bearing similar surnames, says Sidney Sachs, a Virginia-based researcher who has studied the issue in depth.
If one looks at where we appear in the genetic model, there are northern Italian Sephardic and Portuguese Sephardic lines on either side of our J-Y33795 “clan cluster.” And so it appears logical that the common ancestor for all of these lines was in Italy, at some point following the Roman era.
Due to mutations about 900 years ago, the two sub-branches ended up in Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia) and Western Europe (Germany, France). We fit into the latter, which broke off around 600 years ago and is known as DYS393+.
The folks in our FTDNA cohort are German Kohanim, but so far it doesn’t appear that any of the others have family stories about coming from Spain. However, research is still in progress to determine how exactly we fit into the larger haplotree.
Steve Kohn, the Sephardic Floridian who traces back to Joseph Ha-Kohen, relayed findings about our link by Jewish genetics expert Adam Brown:
“You and I have our nearest common ancestor (80% probability) 18 generations [ago]. That’s the broad range of 450 to 630 years, which of course ranges from the years 1388 to 1568. Falls right in line with what we’d both expect given what we suspect about our common ancestry. So, our relation to each other is definite. Do we descend from the famous ancestor we think we do? Maybe! But we can’t know for sure.”
While Sachs concluded that “the connect between the two most likely lived in Spain,” Brown remained hesitant: “As for the family traditions, I love them. But at this point I am not yet convinced about the Iberian connection.”
One distinct possibility is that Italy was our home before and after several centuries in Spain. It’s feasible that we intermarried with Sephardic women while in Iberia but retained our proto-Ashkenazi paternal descent, with many of those distant genetic male cousins later moving north from Italy into German-speaking areas and also later to points further east.
After years of scientific and pseudoscientific email threads describing dense theories about the geographic whereabouts of various types of genetic mutations — single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and short tandem repeats (STRs) — which created our branches of the human evolutionary tree, I realize now that the morass may take much more time to unpack.
It’s also possible that our Kohnstamm family were mere Ashkenazim who never went as far west in the Mediterranean as Spain. Yet technological advances could very well provide us in the near future with more genetic clues (elucidating distant cousins or lines of descent) and genealogical proof (easier searchability of family tree documentation) — one way or the other.
And despite the doubt cast upon our multi-layered Kohnstamm family identity of German descent, Sephardic roots, Kohanim status, and Hebrew origins, my quest to Spain continued, with a flight to Iberia in February 2017.
Due to some delays with my anticipated timeline, and some pessimistic-sounding messages from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, I wasn’t sure the trip to Castilla-La Mancha would materialize.
But sure enough, it happened. After a long email thread, Maria Rosa Iglesias López — at the notary office in Huete, the town of Joseph Ha-Kohen’s ancestors — told me to come sooner rather than later: “Si te parece me dices un día dentro de este mes que sea martes o jueves que es cuando firma la Notario.” I was requested to appear within the next month, on a Tuesday or a Thursday (because that’s when her boss could sign) — lest my application lapse.
I cleared my schedule and quickly booked a red-eye flight to Madrid. After minimal sleep on an American Airlines plane that arrived early morning to the sunniest country in Europe, I jumped right into a SEAT Mii rental car with manual transmission.
Alas, after a few stalls getting through roundabouts next to Barajas Airport, I headed from highway M-14 to R-3, then to A-3, confused about why these road names all had different letters. Yet Google Maps was my trusty navigator, and despite jet lag, the conspicuous lack of traffic was muy excellente. With my thick folder of paperwork on the passenger seat, but no euros in hand, I nearly cursed upon seeing a toll booth ahead. Luckily, in Europe they accept credit cards everywhere, even for minuscule highway tolls of 50 eurocents!
Having printed out an image of my destination from Street View, I knew where to park in the sleepy town of Huete. Upon showing the cheerful receptionist that I was there for the acta nacionalización Sefardí, my meeting with Rosa began a few minutes later. The gregarious notary’s assistant asked in hurried Spanish, “Ben, por qué estás aquí?” Shuffling my papers, I summarized the story of Don Menachem, then paused to look around.
Rosa’s office was as basic as she was bubbly, with a few books, family photos, an official calendar, and simple wooden shelving. Searching for the most concise answer in my imperfect Castilian, I explained how I’d chosen Huete because it was where Joseph Ha-Kohen’s family lived. “And, yes, these documents were translated, notarized, authenticated, apostilled, then again translated and notarized…according to your detailed email instructions.”
Nuria, the notary, then entered the room and asked why I wanted to live in Spain. I grappled for the right words expressing our chaotic situation under President Trump. She nodded in agreement with my politics, before stating how Spanish Catholics, like Jews, believe in the Old Testament — another way to make me feel comfortable with my decision to pursue citizenship in Spain.
Thoughts were spinning in my head about my identity. I had returned to Spain (my fourth visit) and was treated — más o menos — as a Spaniard, before I opened my mouth too much. Later in Bilbao, the locals thought I was one of them — citing my eyes, nose, and facial hair. And as an American Jew, part of my quest was to establish new-old rootedness in a place where my family had lived long ago, where that legacy was being recognized and embraced as a positive — in spite of terrible suffering unleashed on the Jews by the Spanish monarchs. This historical act of atonement meant seeking forgiveness and issuing a small number of Sephardic descendants citizenship. Yet it was unclear whether the real intention was about relations with Israel, diplomatic posturing, economic activity, or investment opportunities.
For an American, I’d always felt an affinity for Europe — from my cousins in Brussels and semester studying abroad in Paris to an attempt to settle down in Copenhagen with a local girlfriend and write a book about Denmark’s political culture. My Spanish interest was, in part, identification with a larger sense of European-ness. Was my U.S. passport not enough? Dual citizenship with the E.U. could provide an escape hatch for an anxious era in America.
But then, as a Jew, this was uneasy, knowing that throughout Europe, we had faced oppression and tremendous injustice. Why did I really want to return to the Continent, to become a loyal citizen of a place from which we were chased — our people torched, robbed, and banished?
One aspect of my project was to assert Sephardic tendencies, reflective perhaps of the same desire as in Germany decades ago: identification with a more olive-skinned, less Ashkenazi-centric tradition. But for what it’s worth, I always felt rather Mediterranean — beyond superior food and music — from a Texas homestay with a Turkish-Jewish family to Algerian-style Yom Kippur.
This rigorous inquiry into the past fed my yearning and sustained my struggle with self-identity. Some level of cognitive dissonance was fine, I thought, as I lay awake in my AirBnB apartment in medieval Cuenca last February. It was smart to harbor reservations about a goal that might not come to fruition.
Little did I know, less than a year later I’d be pledging allegiance (“Sí, prometo”) to the Spanish King, Felipe VI, and shaking hands with the deputy consul general in Manhattan, whose sole request of me was to vote in the next election. A few weeks after, I picked up my Spanish birth certificate, as I’d been added to the civil registry. Then in March 2018, I returned to the Consulate in Midtown to pick up the cherished reward, showing the clerk my New York City ID moments before receiving a brand new, red passport.
On Facebook, I soon posted photos from the Consulate, and shared with my global network the fact that 526 years after the Alhambra Decree, I personified Spain’s attempt to right a historic wrong.
The initial feedback from my friends was congratulatory: “You did it,” “Vamos chico,” “Felicidades,” “You got an EU/Spanish passport! Wow congrats,” and “Welcome back.”
Then the comments section turned towards concerns with dual nationality and acquaintances with roadblocks in their past (and future) journeys to gain a European passport. Some expressed a mix of wonder and critique. One buddy, Israeli-American journalist Gil Shefler, stated matter-of-factly:
“So you applied for Spanish citizenship because one of your 512 7th great-grandparents might have been from a family that might have fled Spain 183 years before his birth in Italy, and they gave it to you? Truly amazing.”
I responded: “I didn’t write Spanish Law 12/2015 that set up the rules governing the acquisition of nationality.” Then I added, to someone else in the same thread, “Most people probably are applying with documents from 2, 3, 4 generations ago — Greece, Turkey, Morocco, etc. Likely many fewer ‘Western Sephardim,’ or even rarer, folks who were absorbed into Ashkenazi culture.”
Gil continued with his pointed remarks, and I shared my two cents candidly:
“You ask all the right questions, and I won’t pretend I’ve got all the answers. I set out on this journey to discover my heritage, learn more Spanish, write about the outcome, and if successful, gain geopolitical flexibility in case things go south here. However, I certainly agree that there is some ambivalence around this process, for a number of reasons — most of which you’ve aptly highlighted already. There are Muslim critics who want parity, Israeli/Zionist naysayers who don’t want Jews to return to Spain, Sephardic detractors who question the evidence, and Americans who think I should be content with one citizenship. And I’m sure there are also some Spaniards who aren’t too excited about those ‘coming home.’ So where does that lead us? Vamos a tomar unas cervezas y discutir, mi amigo periodista!” Let’s go grab some beers and discuss.
Appreciating the symbolism of Spain’s gesture and the practical value of an EU passport, I’d realized a couple of my objectives. Yet the ultimate question of our Sephardic heritage remained — al final — unresolved.
There’s no question we Kohnstamms have roots around the Mediterranean, and points eastward. But the mystery, still, is whether we definitivamente sojourned to Spain for a couple hundred years before melting back into the fabric of Italian — and then eventually German — European-Jewish society.
As I plan el primer viaje with a freshly minted Spanish travel document, we got Don Menachem to thank for paving the way through Castilla-La Mancha.