14 June 2023

Kevin Martin: my distant
‘cousin’ and an expert
on Sephardic genealogy

Lunch with my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin in London recently (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It was sad to hear earlier today of the death of my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin (ז״ל‎), We had lunch in London a few months ago in Casa Jardim on Woburn Walk, the house where WB Yeats lived for more than a quarter of a century from 1895 to 1919, and where Maud Gonne also lived for a time.

Over a lengthy lunch and what seemed like endless cups of coffee, Kevin and I discussed family history and Sephardic genealogy, including our shared interest in genealogy and the stories of 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 were linked to our 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 who had converted publicly to Christianity at the Inquisition but who 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, pointed out to me 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.

I had missed the opportunity to celebrate Hanukkah and his birthday with him in Golder’s Green in December. But we kept in touch week-by-week and we had hoped to meet again soon.

Kevin was a Sephardic researcher and historian with many years experience in genealogy, and he was a supporter of both SynagogueScribes and CemeteryScribes for many years. His extensive work in Sephardic genealogy included photographing and indexing the Novo Cemetery and its gravestones, compiling a list of Jewish ‘Aliens’ recorded in the Bevis Marks records in 1803, covering the period 1716-1806, and indexing the ketubot written by Hakham Aylion at Bevis Marks from 5450 (1689) to 5461 (1700).

He had tireless commitments to Jewish historical research and to campaigning against antisemitism. He was a husband, father, father-in-law, grandfather ('grangrad') , brother, ‘cousin’ and much more to so many people. He shall be missed by his wife, daughters, Jen Martin and Kate Nissen, grandchildren, family and friends. I shall miss his wisdom and knowledge, his generosity in sharing his research and findings, and his sense of fun and extended family.

May his memory be a blessing, זיכרונו לברכה

Casa Jardim … the venue for my lunch with Kevin Martin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I’ve been friends with Kevin for more than 10 years through our love for genealogy. My maternal family were from Posen were Ha’Cohen and Ascher. My Baum family in England married into Sephardic lines. Thank you again for sharing. B’DE

Anonymous said...

A lovely article after such sad news. Kevin shared a photograph of the 1728 ketubah of my ancestor Daniel Garcia when I posted about Daniel in a Facebook group. It was unexpected, and wonderful to see Daniel’s signature (he was a refugee from Andalusia whose descendants would intermarry with relatives of the Mendozas etc. in London). I know that Kevin helped many other people, sharing from his great trove of documents and knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Just read your article, really interesting and well written, thank you, from another Mendoza distant cousin!