John Berman remembers walking past a wall in the Boston Public Library that listed the names of famous philosophers throughout history. His father would point to Baruch Spinoza’s name and say, “We are related to him!” It was a strong statement given “Spinoza” is the middle name they both share, after John’s grandmother Grace Spinoza. In seeking to learn more about this name, and his possible connection to “the prince of philosophy,” John asked us to investigate.
When you are looking to discover something new in your family tree, the best place to start is with what you already know. We started with John’s 2nd great-grandfather Benjamin Spinoza, who was 17 years old when he, his mother and brother came to America in 1867, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. The family was originally from the Netherlands and had journeyed from Holland to Liverpool, and then sailed into New York. Before Ellis Island, immigrants entered the United States through Castle Garden, which is now part of Battery Park. The family settled in Boston, where John’s family has lived for almost 150 years. But what were their lives like before they came to America?
To make the research jump across the ocean, it’s important to know more than just the country of origin. The key to placing Benjamin in a specific city came from a surprising place: Massachusetts Mason Membership Cards, 1733-1990, which gave us his exact birthdate and birthplace. His Massachusetts Death Record provided the name of his father, Isaac Spinoza.
In many cases, accessing European records requires visiting either a specialized library or the country itself. The Netherlands is an extraordinary exception! The country’s provincial government archives are working to make an index of their civil registration records available online for free. By using birth and death registrations to connect each generation, we traced the Spinoza (or Spionsa or Espionsa) family in Amsterdam back seven generations and 150 years.
They lived in Amsterdam while it blossomed into a major Jewish population center, nicknamed “Jerusalem of the West,” and during the height of the Dutch West India Company.
While Benjamin Spinoza was the last of his family to live in Amsterdam, John’s 7th great-grandfather, Isaac Espinoza, was the first. The earliest piece of documentation we found of the Espinozas in Amsterdam was the marriage certificate of Isaac Espinoza to Lea Alpron on February 22, 1737, which hints at his possible place of birth.
“Appeared Isaac Espinosa from Zallee [Sale, Morocco], age 26 years, son of Daniel Espinosa who resides in Barbarije [North Africa] – verified by his uncle Issak Espinosa and qualified according to the military duty dated 15 Feb 1737 and Lea Alepron, age 16 years old, with her mother Ester Alepron.
Isaack Espinosa [signature], Lea Alpron [signature]”
While John knew his ancestors were Sephardic Jews from the Netherlands, he was thoroughly surprised to learn they were from Africa! While not originally North African, Isaac and Daniel Espinosa of the Barbary Coast (John’s 7th and 8th great-grandfathers) are the descendants of Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain by the Alhambra Decree mandated by Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon, and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. If you lived in the Iberian Peninsula during this time and were not a Catholic, your choices were a forced conversion or a forced expulsion. As a result, 25,000 Jews fled to the Netherlands, while 20,000 fled to Morocco. As thousands of Jewish refugees fled across the Strait of Gibraltar, they faced the danger of the Barbary Coast’s infamous pirates, who captured slaves to sell in the Middle East.
The newly-independent and tolerant Dutch provinces provided more favorable conditions for observant Jews to establish a community and practice their religion openly. Baruch Spinoza, the famous philosopher, was a descendant of those first refugees in Amsterdam, while John’s ancestors lived in Northern Africa likely for a few generations before moving to the Netherlands.
What’s in a name? Definitely more than meets the eye. While John is not a direct descendant of the famed philosopher who he shares a name with, their families’ shared similar experiences, challenges, and prejudices, and eventually settled in the same community. His ancestors’ decisions to first leave Africa, then later leave Amsterdam for Boston, changed the course of history for generations to come. And while their individual experiences are being relearned, their name has not been forgotten centuries later.
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