(JR) — In his retirement, Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch is passionate about surnames. Specifically, the last names of Jews who were living in the Arab world before the Mizrahi exodus in the middle of the 20th century around the establishment of Israel.
Rosen-Koenigsbuch spends much of his time with his head buried in archival material from bygone communities searching for names. And when he feels that he’s collected a critical mass of names from any particular city — it would be impossible to find them all — he compiles an index. So far, he’s done Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo, and earlier this month, he published his latest, Beirut — which lists nearly 800 surnames, from Abadi to Zilkha.
“I have the time. And I love it. So I don’t mind sitting for five, six hours to dig out a name,” he said.
If you’re assuming the last name Rosen-Koenigsbuch makes him Ashkenazi, you’re not wrong. And if you’re wondering why he decided to spend his retirement as a genealogist focused on other peoples’ heritage, he gets it and he likes to joke about it.
“I connect with a lot of people who see my work through social media and it’s very nice but you probably realize that if a guy called Rosen-Koenigsbuch is asking questions about Egypt, or Beirut, it sounds a bit suspicious,” he said with a long chuckle.
The answer to the question of why he does what he does is that he spent his career as a diplomat for Israel, including a few years as ambassador to Jordan, and after investigating his own Polish roots, he came to realize something: Much of his family perished in the Holocaust, but at least he can learn something about them because the archives in Europe are open. Jews with Middle Eastern roots and a genealogical itch, on the other hand, have only scraps of written material available, like circumcision ledgers and community newspapers.
This distinction in access aside, neat geographic lines don’t neatly separate Jewish identity categories like Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Rosen-Koenigsbuch has been surprised to learn of the extent of geographic intermixing long before the Israel ingathered the Jewish diaspora.
“For example, I found out that at least 20% of Jews of Cairo and Alexandria were Ashkenazim,” Rosen-Koenigsbuch said. It was a “big, big, beautiful thing,” he said, when he got hold of the document, “Annual Report of the Ashkenazi Community of Cairo 1938.” “It has hundreds of names!” he said.
As another example, the standard story on Baghdadi Jewry is that the community was massive, at one point making up one-third of the metropolis, with roots going back to antiquity when the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land and held captive by a Babylonian Empire. While that narrative is not exactly wrong, successive plagues in the 18th century wiped out much of the city’s population and Baghdadi Jewish families are to a large degree transplants who arrived afterward.
“You could see by the names that people started coming from other places,” Rosen-Koenigsbuch said. “Shirazi, Dardashti, Yazdi — Persian place names — or Kirkukli. Some people came from Georgia. That’s why we see the given name Gorgi. And Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. So you have families from Thessaloniki.”
When a name appears on Rosen-Koenigsbuch’s list, that means it came from a historical document somewhere. If you’re doing genealogical research, now you’ve got a paper trail, a lead. Rosen-Koenigsbuch makes himself available through his Facebook profile to people who’d like to get or give more information, or make a correction.
“There is a new generation of young Jews all over the world who are trying to figure out where they hail from,” he said. “This searchable index reveals to them that their surname existed also in Aleppo or Damascus or Beirut.”
Sarina Roffé, a leading expert in Sephardic genealogy, called Rosen-Koenigsbuch a “genius.”
“Jacob loves lists and is meticulous about them. I love the data that goes with the lists, names and dates and what they are for,” said Roffé, the founder of the Sephardic Heritage Project and a past board member of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
Up next for Rosen-Koenigsbuch is an index for Basra. Or maybe Mosul. Or Port Said.
“They all deserve an index,” he said. “The work is never-ending.”