Ex-Israeli ambassador discloses ground-breaking research on Damascus Jews

Writing for Avotaynu Online, an outlet devoted to research into the origins and migrations of the Jewish people, retired ambassador Jacob Rosen revealed the surnames of 300 Damascus Jews.

Jacob Rosen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jacob Rosen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A prominent former Israeli ambassador to Jordan published ground-breaking research in early June on the surnames of Jews who lived in 20th century Damascus, Syria.
Writing for Avotaynu (Our Forefathers) Online, an outlet devoted to the research into the origins and migrations of the Jewish people, retired ambassador Jacob Rosen revealed the surnames of 300 Damascus Jews.
Rosen, who is fluent in several languages, including Arabic, wrote that, "like many other Jewish communities in the Levant, the Jewish community of Damascus dwindled from a thriving community with 12,000 members in 1943 until only a handful remained by 2010. Its members largely left for Mandatory Palestine and later to the State of Israel, the USA or Latin America, where they established thriving new communities founded on a rich heritage."
Rosen told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday that his index of Jewish surnames from Damascus is the "basis for further research," adding that "I worked on [the index] for about 8 months — every day for 3 or 4 hours."
The genealogical work is taxing, said Rosen, noting that "your eyes become tired after 3 or 4 hours" and you "need clear a mind" to decipher the various spellings.
Rosen sounded the alarm bells about the need for more knowledge about Syria's Jewish communities and those across the Levant.
"In ten years there will be no one around to ask," he said.
The children of Damascus Jews who were born outside the Syrian capital grew up speaking Hebrew, English or Spanish.
He said that "Syrian authorities will keep [archived material about the Jews of the Damascus] out of the public of the eye."
SYRIA, ALONG with other Arab countries with former Jewish populations, fears lawsuits asserting property claims. When Arab nations evicted their Jewish populations following Israel's independence, the Arab regimes confiscated their property and funds.
Rosen said he is interested in examining circumcision ledgers from Syria, Egypt and Iraq for his work. The ledgers help to determine the correct surnames of Jews in Muslim-majority countries.
The former ambassador previously published an index about Egyptian Jewish surnames. He has conducted academic-level genealogy research for 20 years.
Rosen wrote that "Rafi Asher from Tel Aviv (whose parents hail from Damascus and who is familiar with many surnames of Jews from Damascus), offered to examine my transcription of the Atzmon surname list and to identify those specifically from Damascus."
He added that "I was asked at a certain stage by Yossi Yavin (Yabu), whose late father hailed from Damascus, to explore the Atzmon list and to offer a legal Hebrew spelling based on known rules governing transliteration from Arabic to Hebrew. Using these rules, I managed to identify and reconstruct many contemporary Jewish Syrian surnames. I found the Damascus Jewish surnames were not only of Arabic origin but [of] Sephardic, Hebrew, and Ashkenazic origin as well.
Some of the Arabic surnames of Jews from Damascus uncovered by Rosen are: Abbadi, Abbas, Abu Raish, Abud, Abulafia, Baghdadi ,Dahab/Daab, Fadda/ Fedda, Habib and Khluf.
The retired envoy is slated to publish a "second edition" of Damascus Jewish surnames containing 30% more names.
"During 2015, I wrote an article for Avotaynu entitled 'When Did Damascus Jews Start To Use Surnames?' The source of my data was a collection of documents in the Muslim religious courts of Damascus between the years 1583-1909," Rosen wrote. "My article did not try to index surnames, but rather to figure out when surnames came into use in Damascus. Because the court documents mentioned only names of Jews who appeared before them, they reflect only a fraction of Damascus surnames and only ran through 1909."
Rosen added that "Asher and I verified our list and added several new surnames by corresponding with members of two Hebrew Facebook groups 'Habait Hadamaskai' (The Damsacene House) and 'Lemoreshet Yehudei Damesek Suria u Levanon '( The Heritage of The Jews of Damascus, Syria and Lebanon)."
The former ambassador retired from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. He was the senior counselor at the ministry's Center for Political Research and served as ambassador to Jordan from 2006 to 2009. He was also stationed as a diplomat in Atlanta, New Delhi, Cairo, New York and London.