As Spain Welcomes Back Jews Expelled in the 1400’s, I Share my Spanish Roots

9 Jun

“Grandpa’s family was originally from Spain,” my Grandma Thelma would begin her story with these words. “They left Spain because they did not want to convert. They were court Jews and could have stayed. But their Judaism was more important.”

I thought this was a ‘bubba meiser,’ just a myth and a bedtime story. And for many years, I did not believe the Spanish expulsion of Jews had anything to do with me. I thought it was enough that our family had been decimated by the Shoah. But it seems my grandmother was telling me the truth, and my family is both a survivor of the Spanish and German attempts to destroy the Jewish people.
Grandpa Nat portrait

My Grandpa Nat’s last name was Amsterdam. This is a somewhat unusual Jewish name. And, it seems, actually anyone named Amsterdam is related to me. The family started in Spain as wealthy Jewish merchants and financiers. Supposedly three brothers moved to Amsterdam in the early 1500s. And then a group of them moved to Denbitz and Mielec in Galicia, where they were given the last name Amsterdam.

I started to investigate the Spanish connection when I was in college. And then I got help from an unexpected source. The other story my grandmother told me had to do with the comedian Morey Amsterdam. I was told he was my grandfather’s cousin. He had to be, his name was Amsterdam. I was not sure how to contact him. But he actually contacted me. Morey’s son-in-law met my cousin, Gary, who was an Amsterdam. Since I had the family history, I was then put in touch with Morey Amsterdam. He was on a mission to find all the Amsterdams. He wanted learn all he could about our family. I am not sure he met all of us before his death. But he was relentless. He would send me information about other Amsterdams when he met them. He would give them my contact information as well. People called and contacted me from up and down the East coast telling me that Morey Amsterdam told them to call me. May his name be for a blessing.

In any case, he confirmed the story about our Spanish roots, and then told me more. But it was not Morey who really filled in the missing information. It was another cousin named Bob. His parents and my grandparents were first cousins who all came to the USA in the early 1900s. They stayed in touch in the USA. We have photos of them at family events. My grandparents attended Bob’s wedding.

Bob was a generation older than I, and as an engineer was meticulous about his research. He also got in touch with me through my cousin. That Amsterdam last name stands out. Bob was kind enough to send me his information. And I sent him mine. Since his last name is not Amsterdam, he did not have some of the contacts and information I had received. We filled in each others missing pieces.

The following is what we know and what we think. I have to thank him for all the help he gave me in investigating the family.

Our family has taken on other last names as well. Faya was the original name used in Spain. There are family members who have this name as part of their Hebrew name. This spelling was used up until about 1800. After 1800 the spelling became more Eastern European: Feuer. Other names in the family include Brenner and Asher. All have to do with fire, because they were Cohanim.   The families often intermarried. My grandfather had both a Feuer and an Amsterdam parent. They were first cousins. I have met others, including Bob, who also have parents from both lines. This is a tradition from the days that they were crypto Jews in Spain.

I actually can trace my grandfather’s family back to about 1795 with direct names. My Grandpa Nat’s parents were first cousins, Chava and Gimple. Chava’s parents were Hershel and Frieda; Gimple’s parents were Tzipporah (?) (Hershel’s sister) and Nissin (also a cousin of some sort). Siblings Hershel and Tziporrah parents were Tova and Nissin Amsterdam, and Nissan’s parents were Chava and Morris Amsterdam (My fourth great grandparents!) These names show up constantly in the family and continue today. I am a Chava, named for my great grandmother; my son is Nissan named for my grandfather, so the names continue.

There are many, many men named Nathan (Nissan) in the family. My Grandpa was given this name because he was born between Purim and Passover on the first day of Nissan, but also because it was an important family name.

After the expulsion, some of the family stayed in Spain and converted and became Catholic on the outside. However in their home they were still following the traditions of Judaism.  Through research by a cousin, we believe the family lived in Segovia, a city with a large Jewish population.

However a branch of the family left, we think they all moved to Portugal. We believed they lived in a port city called Oporto before they went to Amsterdam. But some stayed after the Portugal expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition impacted my family in other ways. One family member, Aaron Cohen Faya, was burned at the stake in Lisbon in May 1618. A poet, his secular name was Antonio d’Aguiar. We think d’Aguiar or Aguiar was the name of the entire crypto-Jewish branch of our family.

I have much more information about my Spanish roots. I could tell you about our coat of arms.   I could tell you about meanings of names and how names concerning birds, hawks and eagles are important in our family history.

But I think that as Spain welcomes back the Jewish families they sent forth during the great expulsion, it causes me to think of how it impacted my family. How my family had its own additional diaspora that caused them to travel from Spain to Portugal, to Amsterdam, then to Galicia.   I think about how some survived these moves, left Europe and moved to the United States or to Israel. But others stayed behind and perished in the Shoah. (See my blog, “Speaking Yiddish Always Brings Me Holocaust Memories.”)

My Spanish roots are noted. But more important, I look at what I can do because of my desire to learn about my Spanish ancestry. I found out so much about my family. Most Jewish families cannot tell you the names of ancestors back to the late 1700s. I can. Most cannot tell you that they are related to everyone with a similar last name. I can.

My daughter was at a party. I saw on Facebook that one young man had the last name Amsterdamer. I said, “He is your cousin.” She laughed. “Ask him,” I said. “Mom, I can’t do that. I hardly know him.”

But the next time she saw him she said, “My grandmother’s last name was Amsterdam.” He replied, “Then we are cousins.”

I am proud to have the Amsterdam/Faya/Feuer ancestry.

14 Responses to “As Spain Welcomes Back Jews Expelled in the 1400’s, I Share my Spanish Roots”

  1. Linda Wurzberg Weisholtz July 26, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    My husband’s grandmother Frimeta Pik Weiszoltz, Amsterdam, Sperling was married to 3 men. The second’s last name was Amsterdam. I have been trying to find anything on all three men since 1980. She is buried with her son, Moishe and his wife, in Newark, NJ. Please let me know if you have anything on her second husband. I have some pictures I could possibly share with you.

    • zicharon July 26, 2014 at 11:26 am #

      What was his first name. I will look in my files. But The name Frimeta is not familiar.

  2. Chaim July 27, 2014 at 5:47 am #

    The site is called Zicharonot.
    There are too many sylables.
    It should be Zichronot.

    • zicharon July 27, 2014 at 7:21 am #

      Thank you. But cannot change it now.

  3. Susan Amsterdam August 1, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    My husband comes from this same family in Mielec. Please contact me to share info. (I left a private message for you on Facebook also)

    • zicharon August 1, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

      Ok, I will check. 🙂 I don’t see any message from you. I will email.

  4. Schelly Talalay Dardashti September 2, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    According to Pere Bonnin’s Sangre Judia (4th edition, which lists years and places), the name FAYA was found in Albo de Tormes in 1410. Similar names are FAYAN (1284 in Tudela) and FAYAT (1294 in Tudela).

    • zicharon September 2, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Thank you Schelly. I can go back to about pretty far, but not that far.

  5. Janet May 4, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    Reblogged this on Janet’s thread.

  6. Amy May 1, 2018 at 3:40 pm #

    As soon as you said you were related to all Amsterdams, I thought of Morey Amsterdam. Was he as funny in person as on Dick van Dyke?

    Have you done DNA testing? I am curious as to whether you tested as Ashkenazi or Sephardic. My Cohen line came from Amsterdam before immigrating to London and then Philadelphia, but I don’t know where they were before Amsterdam. And I didn’t know Jews left Amsterdam for Galicia. And one more question: What is the connection between Cohanim and fire? I’ve never heard that before.

    • zicharon May 1, 2018 at 3:46 pm #

      Morey Amsterdam was a very nice man. When I spoke to him he was on a mission about family. Cohen and fire because they made the sacrifices!

      • Amy May 1, 2018 at 6:38 pm #

        Aha! Thanks.

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