Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 21, 2006

Sephardic names in the MLB

Baseball viewing is not encouraged in my household (which is not an enormous burden to bear), so I only infrequently see it on TV. Seeing Yuniesky Betancourt of the Seattle Mariners in action in the hotel bar in Redmond reminded me of how many Sephardic names show up in the rosters of Major League Baseball (in direct correlation with the increase of Latin American ballplayers). For the sake of context, Sephardi is the term used to describe the descendants of Jews originating from Spain and Portugal, and is based on the medieval Hebrew word for Spain. The word’s meaning has been stretched over the last few decades to denote a Jew who is not from Eastern Europe (ie Ashkenazi). In its strictest sense, the word applies only to those whose ancestors were from Spain, follow the Sephardi tradition and speak Ladino.

Here’s a brief list of ballplayers with Sephardi names:

Alfonso Soriano

Ramon Castro

Jose Lopez

Antonio Perez

Like Betancourt, many of the Sephardi names could equally be Spanish in origin so it’s probably imprudent to make any hard and fast statements, or particularly that bearing the surname involves some transfer of genetic material (as tempting as that may be in the case of Soriano). Plus, the names are pretty common in Latin America as a whole. Although Sephardim were prominent plantation owners in the Carribbean (including the painter Camille Pissaro’s family), they couldn’t live in areas under control of the Spanish crown or countries where the Office of the Inquisition was active.

So how would these names end up becoming so prominent? Because a disproportionately high number of settlers in the New World were what were known as conversos or New Christians, Jews who had converted to Christianity in order to remain in Spain and advance socially. Some of the names such as Perez (or ‘pear tree’) were specifically adopted by conversos after their conversion. (In the Tanach, Perez was the son of the union of Tamar and Judah. Tamar was the widow of Judah’s son Onan – the source of the term onanism- but seduced Judah in order to produce progeny to continue the line, which resulted eventually in the House of David). The Inquisition was in part initially founded to counter backsliders amongst converts before 1492, known as ‘judaizers’. The ability for Jews to insinuate themselves into the Spanish nobility gave rise to the notion of ‘limpieza de sangre‘.

Despite the fact that they were officially banned from settling in the New World, many managed to find their way to the colonies New Spain. Eventually the Office of the Inquisition caught up with them, as this list of of conversos prosecuted by the Office in Mexico illustrates. Although there is less available on the areas of New Granada where a lot of the MLB ballplayers come from, there is a growing body of research on conversos in the American southwest including this book.

Of course, this type of topic atttacts its fair share of kooks, but some fairly respectable research (if being published in the New York Times is any measure) suggests that even Cervantes was a converso, with some degree of ambivalence about his background.

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Responses

  1. Fascinating stuff.

    There is mention of Jewish genes among Hispanics in the American southwest in Jon Entine’s book ABRAHAMS CHILDREN.

    Have you read JEWISH PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN?

    • I have to admit that I started Entine’s book and while the material was interesting, found it to be torture to read. I would recommend Yiddish Civilization -less scientifically rigorous look but far more enjoyable read about Ashkenzai Jewish genetics. I have a new working theory after reading Jonathan Kirsch’s new book on the Inquisition and Theodore Steinberg’s on Jews and Judaism during the Middle Ages, that conversos picked names that were easily identifiable as converso, because they held out hope one day they could revert to Judaism, when conditions changed.

      Good luck with your project. I grew up with the “Ponevitzher” version of Litvak history, that elides mention of Sephardim, Karaites and Lubavitchers.

      Have not yet read Jewish Pirates yet – will be getting a copy in the next week or so – but what I have read about it, I understand that it’s more focused on the first Jews of New York that spent some time en route from Brazil in Jamaica (where sole proprietors the Columbus family had a suspiciously accommodating position toward Jews).

  2. We value the content post.Truly thank you! Awesome.


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