Among the many challenges one faces in Jewish genealogical research is the paucity of sources relating to female given names and surnames. This was clearly illustrated at the lecture of Dr. Lea Haber–Gedalia in the 2015 IAJGS Annual Conference in Jerusalem . There are many reasons, among them the fact that women are not allowed to appear as witnesses in the rabbinical courts, thus depriving us from a primary source. Hence we must rely upon unusual resources when seeking to fill out our family trees.
So far the major source or reservoir of female given names and surnames are the marriage contracts (ketubot) and divorce (gittin) collections in different libraries and universities, or tombstones (matzevot) which survived destruction and depletion. Surviving pinkasei mohel (circumcisers’ logs) provide details about the mother such as those recorded by a mohel from Nurenberg, Alexander Tachauer , who mentions the mother’s surname, or Maatook Dabby, a mohel in Alexandria between 1928-1952 , who mentions the mother’s given name and surname. But in general there is great difficulty in obtaining women’s names in a systematic manner or order over a long period of time.
Many attempts have been made over the years to index Jewish given names and surnames, most of which have focused on a specific country or region. The most recent of these (in 2015) was a consolidated dictionary of Sephardic given names by the late Mathilde Tagger . This very useful research tool includes a bibliography listing all the major works that were published so far in this domain .
While Tagger’s work covers quite well the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), Egypt, the Balkans, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Erets Israel and even the Caribbean Islands it seems that there are serious gaps as far as Syria, mainly Damascus, Lebanon and even Iraq are concerned. The Syrian city of Aleppo is a relative exception, benefitting from the publication in 2012 of a detailed study of the city where the composition of given names is discussed in some detail.
This article is an attempt to begin to fill in just one lacuna, namely the Jewish female given names in Damascus between 1583-1909. Based on the same source as in the author’s recent article in AVOTAYNU , the following is an overview of the Jewish female given names as they appear in the Shari’ah courts within the city of Damascus.
It is important to remember, based on the experience of almost every Jewish genealogist, that there might be quite a difference between the person’s given name as it appears on the Jewish marriage/divorce document or his/her tomb inscription and the name he was known by outside the community. One of the first scholars who discussed the issue of Jewish female given names in both in Aleppo and Damascus, was Eliyahu Strauss-Ashtor in his monumental book on the history of the Jews in Egypt and Syria under the Mamluks (rulers of Syria prior to the Ottomans). Strauss-Ashtor was the first to note that Hebrew given names were very rare among Syrian Jewish females and almost all of them bore Arabic names, though he cautions that the Jews may have used Hebrew given names in their inner circles and correspondence .
Our research is based exclusively on Muslim/Ottoman documents, not Jewish ones. Of the 84 female given names extracted, only half appear in Tagger’s index based on prior research. This is a clear indication that Damascus female given names were beyond the scope of the literature published thus far. While the female Damascene given names we encounter in Tagger’s compilation are mainly Biblical/Hebrew, such as Esther, Miriam, Rivka, Sara, Mazal, Hanna and Rachel, in our own research we have found a far greater number of Arabic names such as Faridah, Qamar, Azizah, Ghazala and Jamila, or Turkish/European ones such as Adele, Bulisa, Katherine, Victoria, Roza and Kadun.
The Arabic female given names which are not included in Tagger’s volume include names such as Zahia, Zina, Zarifa, Rahima, Mudallala, Mufaddala and Shaqra . We were surprised to encounter several given names which have distinctive Islamic flavor such as Zainab and Kulthum .
It is interesting to note the absence of any Spanish/Ladino given names from the list. This may be an indication that either there was no sizable non-Mizrahi Sephardic community in Damascus so they are not reflected in the volume that is the source of our data, or that the Sephardic Jews somehow managed their affairs without the need to turn to the Muslim courts.
European given names mentioned above appear only at the end of the 19th century: Adela(1894), Katherine (1886), Victoria (1894), and are another indication of the increasing European influence on the Jewish community in the city, probably following the opening of the Alliance Francaise school there.
The Jewish female given names found in the Shariah courts are as follows:
|Jewish Female Given Names Found in the Records of the Damascus Shariah Courts|
|Qadun, Kadun||Turkish||1842||Yes||res. Beirut|
|Rika, Riketta, Ricca||European||1702||Yes|
|* Indicates that the given name was found in “Dictionary of Sepharadic Given Names”|
|(described in Footnote 4 below)|
Photo 1: Lallemand, Charles, Jeune fille juive de Damas enas en grande toilette, 1865, Musee de Orsay, Paris.
Photo 2 Mason Bonfils, Jeune fille juive a Damas, ca. 1880, British Library, Fouad Debbas collection, London.
Photo 3: Unknown, A Jewish Family in Damascus, pictured in their ancient Damascene home, 1901, www.wikipedia.com/wiki/syrian_jews
 Dr. Lea Haber-Gedalia, Female Surnames – Difficulties and Challenges in Genealogical Research, talk delivered at the 35th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, Jerusalem, July 8, 2015.
 Tachauer, Alexander, The Circumcisions Book of Alexander Tachauer 1914-1956 Jerusalem, 2002 (privately published, in Hebrew).
 Copy in the author’s possession.
 Tagger, Mathilde A., Dictionary of Sepharadic Given Names, New Haven (2015); See https://www.avotaynuonline.com/2015/08/announcing-the-dictionary-of-sephardic-given-names-by-mathilde-tagger/
 Ibid., 15-19.
 Bornstein-Makovetsky, Leah, A City Of Sages And Merchants: The Community of Aleppo (Aram Tzova) During The Years 1492-1800, Ariel, 2012 (in Hebrew), pp. 259-260.
 Rosen, Jacob, When the Jews of Damascus Started Using Surnames?, AVOTAYNU Volume XXXI, Number 3, Fall 2015.
 Strauss, Eliyahu, A History of the Jews in Egypt and Syria Under the Rule of the Mamluks (3 vols.), Jerusalem, 1944-1970 (in Hebrew), pp. 332-333.
 Gandhi, Maneka and Husain, Ozair, The Complete Book of Muslim and Parsi Names, New Delhi (1994), http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Book-Muslim-Parsi-Names/dp/0143031848