11 November 2022

Choosing our ancestors and
searching for Sephardic
cousins over cups of coffee

Lunch with my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin in the house where WB Yeats lived over 100 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I had lunch in London last week with my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin in Casa Jardim on Woburn Walk, behind Saint Pancras Church on Euston Road, neatly placed between Bloomsbury and King’s Cross.

This café was once known as ‘Wot the Dickens’, and it seems I have known this part of London for most of my life, and this small street with its many literary links.

Woburn Walk was designed 200 years ago by Thomas Cubitt in 1822 as London’s first pedestrianised shopping street. Charles Dickens lived nearby, and it is easy to imagine that he strolled along this street while he lived in Bloomsbury.

A plaque on the façade of No 5 marks the house where WB Yeats lived for more than a quarter of a century from 1895 to 1919, when the house was known as 18 Woburn Buildings.

Despite his many self-made myths, Yeats was living in this house during the Easter Rising. The rise of violent nationalism caused him to reassess his own nationalism, and in Easter, 1916 he wrote:

All changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born

While he was living at Woburn Walk, Yeats married 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, worked there on some of his finest poetry, and was friends with TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and Rabindranath Tagore.

In the aftermath of World War I, the world was so changed and transformed that Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

At first, TS Eliot expressed distaste for Yeats, and mocked his membership of the Theosophical Society. Later, following his attendance at the first performance of Yeats’s one-act play, At the Hawk’s Well, and after the publication of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1919, Eliot softened his opinion of Yeats’s poetry.

Later too, Maud Gonne lived in the same house that is now part of Casa Jardim, a restaurant, café and food shop.

There last week, over what seemed like endless cups of coffee, Kevin and I discussed family history and Sephardic genealogy, including the Comerford, Mendoza, Martinez and Nunez families.

It was a conversation that took us from London to Cork, Youghal, Lisbon, Porto, Amsterdam, Venice, Jerusalem, Fez, Tangier, Surinam, Curaçao, Peru, Mexico and many places in between and beyond.

We discussed the role of antisemitism in politics in Poland, Russia and Ukraine, and the stories of conversos or ‘secret Jews’ in Belmonte and mountain villages in Portugal, hiding from the Inquisition in Peru and the Mexico, and claims to Sephardic ancestry in New Mexico.

The prospect of Portuguese passports for people who can prove descent from families that fled the Inquisition means we have both been approached by people offering genealogical commissions anxious to prove Sephardic ancestry.

But we also discussed the complexities and intricacies of Sephardic ancestry and identity. For many people who can only divide the Jewish identities into Ashkenazim and Sephardim, there is a vast cultural array to explore. The rich and diverse ‘non-Ashkenazic’ world is multi-layered and includes Romaniotes, Mizrahim, Italkim, Maghrebi, Yemenite and ‘Oriental’ Jews.

There is irony in some of the efforts to conflate these identities. Kevin reminded me how the word Maghreb means ‘western’ and so it is tautological to speak of Oriental Maghrebis.

I recalled a conversation with one Greek Jew, who proudly dismissed the notion that Romaniote Jews had lived in Greece since Byzantine times. ‘There have been Jews in Greece since Alexander the Great was a boy.’ But he quickly, and proudly, corrected himself. ‘There have been Jews in Greece since Moses was a boy.’

Is the phenomenon of increasing claims to Sephardic ancestry in New Mexico a fashion? Could so many Sephardic Jews have crossed the Atlantic escaping the prying eyes of Inquisitors on the Iberian Peninsula and the New World? And could there have been so many needed to generate so many descendants in New Mexico and the American southwest today?

We could have had a full afternoon seminar on James Clifford’s work on ‘ethnographic allegory.’ Certainly, we construct genealogies to comfort our own sense of identity and kinship, belonging in time and space and among people.

Kevin and I are not ‘cousins’ in the strict work of DNA analysts. But we are part of overlapping layers of families that fit more easily into patterns like Venn diagrams rather than limited linear narratives.

Our conversations last week can be linked to the shared search for the Irish family, if any, of the prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), who was the boxing champion of England in 1792-1795, and was claimed as an ancestor by the comedian and actor the late Peter Sellers (1925-1980).

In his book Jewish Dublin: Portraits of Life by the Liffey (2007), the late Alan Benson cited Louis Hyman in The Jews of Ireland to claim that Daniel Mendoza was ‘descended … from an impoverished Irish Jewish family of ten children, forced by circumstances to emigrate to England.’

The Mendoza family can be traced back, not to Ireland, but to David de Mendoza (1650-1730), a Marrano or a member of a Jewish family that had converted publicly to Christianity at the Inquisition but continued to practice Judaism privately. David Mendoza and his wife Abigail David de la Penha Castro (1665-1751) moved with their children from Seville to Amsterdam, where they were free to resume the public practice of their Jewish faith and rituals.

Their grandson, Aaron Daniel de Mendoza (1709-1751), and his wife Bienvenida Abraham Tubi (1709-1765), were married in Bevis Marks or the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in London in 1730. They were the parents of Abigail Nunes Martinez (1744-1810), the grandmother of Sarah (A’Cohen) Asher, who in turn was the grandmother of the sisters Aggie and Rosina Sipple who married the brothers Harry and Bert Comerford.

But Abigail Nunes Martinez was also the sister of Abraham Aaron Mendoza (1732-1805), whose son Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) was the famous prize-fighter and the boxing champion of England in 1792-1795.

Kevin Martin, who shares a descent from the Mendoza family, points out how Aaron Mendoza ‘literally disappears’ from Sephardic or Spanish and Portuguese records in England and ‘it has been suggested that he ended up in Ireland.’

Perhaps there are more people of Sephardic descent in Ireland than in New Mexico, I thought with amusement.

We shared stories of some of the most interesting Sephardic families of Seville, Livorno, Venice, Amsterdam and the East End of London – a reminder how we are all inter-related and how identity is so often something that we select in a ‘pick-and-mix’ manner from the variety of identities available to many families on these islands.

But then, I suppose, we are all related by no more than six degrees of separation. We can all rejoice in the diversity we share, thanks to a time when borders were open and refugees fleeing religious persecution were welcomed with open arms on these islands.

Shabbat Shalom, Buen shabat

Another view of the world from Casa Jardim and the house where WB Yeats lived over 100 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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