Essay: Game of the name

'Shenhav' was the name of a Jewish family of ivory traders in the seventh century.

essay0303 (photo credit: Pepe)
(photo credit: Pepe)
A new academic institute on Jewish genealogy opened in Jerusalem recently. Located on the Givat Ram campus of The Hebrew University, it is reportedly the first to make Jewish genealogical research a recognized academic discipline. As we are all descendents of "wandering Jews" over the past several thousand years, this new institute should provide most of us with some very interesting and provocative information. Amateur genealogy became fashionable in the last few decades, receiving a boost from the Internet and from instant international communication. I was dragged into the fad about 10 years ago, when I published an article in an English-language magazine. A US family that had been doing research on the origins of their name had discovered that Shenhav, which means "ivory" in Hebrew, had been their family name in Palestine in the seventh century. According to their research, the family had been ivory traders, importing the commodity from Africa and selling it in Europe. They asked if I could be related to them.
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THAT WAS the beginning of a story typical of many Jewish family names. As a married woman, I took on my husband's family name of Shanoff when we married in Chicago over 40 years ago. But that name was only the Americanized version of the family's name. When my husband's grandfather, Nathan Sinyavsky, arrived at Ellis Island from Ukraine in the early 20th century, he could only write his name in Yiddish using Hebrew script. The American immigration clerk, able to read Latin script only, wrote the name as it sounded to him - Shnofsky. When my late father-in-law and his brother attended a US university, they decided that Shnofsky was not "American" enough and, besides, "it sounded like a sneeze"! They therefore changed the family name to what they thought was American, and the family became Shanoff. When my husband, children and I immigrated to Israel in 1979, we discovered that Shanoff is meaningless in Hebrew. It was also difficult to write, with the final peh often looking like a final tzadi. And Israelis would consantly turn the name into Shem-Tov, Shenhar and other recognizable Hebrew names. That was problematic enough, but when we began getting mail addressed to "Shmutz" (because of the similarity between peh and tzadi) we realized that we had to do something. So the Israeli branch of the Sinyavsky-Shanoff family Hebraized its name to Shenhav. We thought it sounded a bit like Shanoff, and since it was a Hebrew word - and my father-in-law was a dentist - it was appropriate. Most importantly, Israelis have not had any problems with our name since we made the change about 23 years ago. I EXPLAINED all this to the American family who were researching their name - and they replied that their name was Elfenbein. According to their sources, their Shenhav ancestors had apparently moved from Palestine to Spain when the Muslims swept through North Africa and conquered Spain. The Shenhav family took their ivory business to Spain and settled in Cordoba, where they prospered. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the family settled in France, but fled to Germany during the Crusades, continuing their ivory trade there. They Germanized their name from Shenhav to Elfenbein, which means "elephant bone" in German. Now the story gets really interesting. Clearly, my current name of Shenhav did not relate to this family. However, I recalled that the family name of my great-grandmother on my mother's side had been Elfenbein. She had arrived in the US from Russia in the 1880s as a young child with her parents and siblings. Connected to the Baron de Hirsch's Jewish Colonization Association, the family originally settled in the Dakota Territory (before North Dakota became a state) as part of a small group of Russian Jewish farmers and ranchers. They eventually moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where my mother was born. When I informed the American researchers of my connection to the Elfenbein name, and of the names of Elfenbein relatives I remembered from St. Paul, they were so excited that they immediately called me. It turns out that my great-grandmother's family and the American researchers were related! So Shenhav, according to their research, was my mother's family's original name in the seventh century! OF COURSE, the story got even better once I realized that I had Sephardi roots and was not the Ashkenazi woman everyone assumed I was. In my line of work, this Sephardi connection has been very useful and sometimes quite amazing. For example, at an international conference some years ago I mentioned in my speech that my family had settled for a period in Spain. One of the participants excitedly informed me that she was a member of the Spanish parliament and was delighted to meet a Spanish colleague! During the cocktail hour she insisted on introducing me to the Spanish ambassador as "one of ours." I embarrassedly explained to the ambassador that my family had left Spain over 500 years ago. He and the parliament member didn't seem put off by this fact, and wanted to know more about my family's place of residence and activities. They cordially invited me to return to the "ancestral home" as a guest of the Spanish government. In Israel, where I work closely with the current and past chief rabbis on issues dealing with the rabbinical courts, my Sephardi roots enable me to expand my connections, and have enhanced my acceptability in certain circles. THE PROBLEM with this delightful genealogical story is that it may be just a legend. I have no expertise in such research, and am unable to judge the authenticity of the so-called research done by my American relatives. Now that there is an academic institute on Jewish genealogy in Jerusalem, I might be able to check the family's sources and discover whether or not they are valid. But do I really want to know the truth? Wouldn't I rather continue to believe in the exotic past of my mother's family? Having a connection to a family that may have lived in Palestine in the seventh century is intriguing and very appealing. It certainly makes for interesting dinner-party conversation. But intellectual honesty is compelling, so I probably will contact the scholars at the new academic institute to see just how much of my past I can verify. The writer, an attorney, is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project.