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The Jews of Afghanistan: Family Names and Origins

By Abraham Mor

We changed our own family name from Mordecha to Mor, a Hebrew name. The name Mordecha is apparently derived from the Jewish name Mordechai. But even the Jew Mordechai apparently adopted a non-Jewish name. Mordechai is probably derived from Mordoch (Mordok) or Marodoch, a Babylonian idol. Another possibility is that his name was derived from Mor, from the name of the spices used in making the incense offered in the Holy Temple. Babylonian Jews often gave their sons the names of idols but the precise meaning of this name was not clear. The Book of Esther does however mention repeatedly “Mordechai the Jew”, emphasizing that this Mordechai was a Jew, so distancing him from the source of his name. The Book of Esther emphasizes that Mordechai is a Jew, and that he was “Son of Yair, son of Shim’ee, son of Kish, of the Tribe of Benjamin”. Esther is also not a Jewish name. The name Esther sounds similar to Astir meaning “I will hide”, as though God cautions that if you are not careful, I will hide My face from you. Some believe that Esther is the name of the planet Venus which, according to pagan beliefs, is the planet of the goddess Ashtir or Astir – the name of the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth.

The Mordecha family lived for hundreds of years in the Gilan region of Iran and gthen moved to Qazwin. Later the family moved for a short time to the town of Qalat and then to Mashad in 1746. However, part of the Mordecha family, descendants of Amin Mordecha, continued to Marw in Turkmenistan in 1877. In 1910, their wanderings took them to Bukhara, before returning after several years to Marw and in 1933 to Mazar a-Sarif. In 1935 they arrived in Kabul, from where they immigrated to Israel in 1950. Some of us remained in Israel while in 1969 some members of the family moved to New York. But most of the Mordecha family remained at that time in Mashad. Today they live in Israel.

An additional example is the Aharon family, one of whose sons is Mr. Gabriel Aharon. His son, Dr. Rafael Aharon explained to me that many years ago his father had told him that several generations previously family members lived in Qazwin, Iran. Dr. Rafael Aharon also notes that approximately three hundred years previously his family members arrived in Harat.

This information almost certainly collaborates the belief that the family arrived in 1746 in Harat from Qazwin, instead of continuing to Mashad.

Another example: Mr. Levy Simantov said that his father, Mula Yehuda Simantov, explained to him many years ago that originally their family came from the city of Yazd in Iran. The same explanation was given to me by my friend Mr. David Kashi. In 1770, there was a serious famine in Yazd as a result of which many residents were obliged to leave the city. David also told that in 1850, one of his forefathers, Josef Kashi, left the city of Kashan together with one of his brothers, because of a blood libel against Jews in that city. They fled to Mashad, but there they were found to have originated from Kashan (Kashi). It appears that before moving to Kashan, their forefathers had lived in Yazd. Mr. Yakov Aharon is expert on the history of his family who lived in Harat for some five generations. The Aharon family arrived in Harat from Qazwin and seems to have originated in that city. This conclusion was arrived at after discovering that they were related to the Gabriel Aharon family. If the Gabriel Aharon family is originally from Qazwin, then the Yakov Aharon family also originates from there.

Most of Harat’s Jews are aware that their families lived in Qazwin for five or six generations but not more. Some families originate from Afghanistan, mainly from Harat, where their family kept secret their previous origins. Family Kashani is an example of this. Mr. Reuven Kashani, editor of the community’s magazine, “Masua”, is the descendent of a family that arrived from Kashan, Iran. This is the case also of the Yazdi family, who arrived from Yazd, Iran. As noted previously, Yazd suffered from famine in the year 1770 and many residents including Jewish families fled the city in order to survive. Among the cities to which they fled, often hundreds of kilometers away, was Yazd. Yazd is located several hundred kilometers southeast of Teheran and southwest of Mashad (My book “Fathers and Sons” discusses this matter in some detail).

Mr. Yakov Dilmanian notes in his book a list of families who arrived in Mashad from Qazwin: Basali, Hachimi, Rachmani, Dilmani, Mordecha (my family name), Qali, Nisimi, Aghlar, Zugali, Aharon, Garji, Cohen and Levy. There are also Sabz families who, according to previous generations, are descendants of the Levy family who arrived from Sabzwar, Iran.

Cohen family members include Shimon, David and Isaac (Issachar). Isaac Cohen sent me a list of his ancestors from Harat going back five or six generations. He has no earlier information. However, we know that according to Mattitiahu Gerji’s book, in 1840 there was a man called Yehuda Cohen who lived in Harat. It may very well be that he may belong to the same family. However, Mr. Dilmanian notes in his book that members of the Cohen family also lived in Mashad. We cannot be certain that these are the same families, since the name Cohen is very common

The roots of the Gol family are certainly embedded in the region of Gilan, Iran, from where they moved to Qazwin, to Mashad and finally to Harat. This information was received thanks to Mr. Abba Menashe Gol who in 1963 delved into the family history and compiled his family tree.

Based on Rabbi Matitiahu Garji’s work it cas been assumed that the Gol family arrived in Harat in about 1746, Garji notes that in 1840, immediately after the pogroms in Mashad, there were Gol family members in Harat, e.g. Mula Yosef Gol. Accordingly, Gol family members must have arrived in Harat before 1840. According to information provided by Zvi, son of Abba Menashe Gol, the family name was Bezalel before they adopted the name Gol. But this cannot be proved

At this point, I interrupt my description of the Gol family in order to raise a general point regarding family names of community members. In my opinion, whenever we examine family names of Afghan Jews, in the great majority of cases we are able to learn the name of one of the family’s grandfathers. Thus it seems that the family often adopted as its family name the first name of one of its most successful grandfathers – in business or in intellectual achievement. It is natural that a person would wish it to be known that he belonged to a respected family and was descended from a grandfather who was respected, accepted and held in high esteem. Such a system adds self-confidence and a sense of respect for future generations.

Another source of family names is the name of the city from which earlier generations came: Yazdi from Yazd, Kashani from Kashan, and Hakshuri, Harati, Kabuli or Balchi. This feature is not unique to our community, but appears in many communities throughout the world – for example, Hamburger, Frankfurter, Pinsker or Kaminer. This also applies to a number of families from Bukhara who arrived from cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara or Tashkent. Jews arrived in Afghanistan from Bukhara between 1930 and 1933. Many such émigrés from Bukhara have family names taken from their places of birth, such as Tashkandi or Samarkandi.

Returning to the origin of the Gol family; the family’s great-grandfather was Abraham (father’s name Israel), a handsome man whose friends and acquaintances called him “gol” (rose). This nickname continued to be used as the family name of all his descendants. It is interesting that the Gol family name is also found frequently among Muslims in Afghanistan and in other countries as well; for example, the president of Turkey is Abdullah Gol. On the other hand, the family name of my maternal grandfather is Gol, and if we study my family history, we find that my mother’s grandfather was the famous Yoav Gol. He was also the grandfather of Aga Musa Gol and of Hagi Yitzhak Bezalel, while the maternal great-grandfather of Mr. Gabriel Aharon was the granddaughter of Yoav Gol. According to the genealogical order: Israel-Abraham, Rafael-Yehuda, Azariah, Yehezkhel-Yoav, Yosef, my mother Yael, myself Abraham, my son Erez and his first son Jack. So including my grandson Jack, we can count 12 generations. In 1927 in Harat the Gol family set out details of its family history.

Clearly, the Gol family branches out in many directions and my family is only one of those branches. A representative of another well-known branch of the family is Mr. Ehud Gol who recently served as Ambassador of Israel in Rome and presently serves as Ambassador in Portugal, In this short article it is not possible to describe all of them. However on the map of Iran I was able to locate a region named Golstan, near the Caspian Sea, between Gilan and Mashad. The name Gol may have been derived from this location. The entire region is a national park named Golstan, meaning “Land of Flowers”

Another family belonging to the community bears the Biblical name Yekutiel. Mr. Zeev Yekutiel of the city of Modiin in Israel told us that for the last six or seven generations his family lived in Harat; he does not have information regarding earlier generations. The great-grandfather’s name was Emanuel and after him Eliahu, Shalom, Aghajan, Emanuel, Elnatan and Zeev. The names of Zeev Yekutiel’s children may be added to this list of names.

Another important family is the Nisani family of Mula Levy Haji (Nisani). The previous family name was Nisan, after the first name of one of the grandfathers. Later, their family name was changed to Haji. Why? Because Levy Haji’s father, Shimon, travelled to the land of Israel to visit the holy places.  After returning, people began to call him Haji, and after some time Haji became the family name. Later, the family name was again changed, this time to Nisani, after their great-grandfather, Nisan.

Another family is Raz, to which the writer Ben Tsiyon Yehoshua Raz belongs. Ben Tsiyon is the uncle of Mati Shlomo and his brothers Isaac and Gabi Raz of New York. According to information known to the family, family members have lived in Harat for the past 150 years. It is believed that they arrived in Harat from Iran. I assume that the family name Raz is derived from the name of the city of Shiraz, Shi-Raz. Raz means secret. There are however other possibilities

Another well-known family is the Amram family, one of whose members is Mr. Moshe Amram, son of Mula Reuven Amram. For many decades, they lived in Harat and were engaged in commerce and trade between Afghanistan, the city of Marw, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the city of Bukhara and Samarkand. In about the year 1930, the family from Marw fled from the Communists and returned to Afghanistan. At first they lived in Mazar a-Sharif but after the expulsion of the Jews from that city, they moved to Kabul. Almost certainly, the origins of the family were in Gilan, then Qazwin and Mashad and finally Harat. Family leaders relate that there was always a connection between the Gol, Mordecha and Amram families. It is assumed that all of the families developed through the offspring of three brothers. Rafael Amram’s father was named Mula Shimon Amram. There was also another Shimon Amram, older than the former, and family members engaged in commerce in the region of Shovorkon in northern Afghanistan, close to the border with Tajikistan. Shimon Amram’s sons, Abba, Elia and Yohanan, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s.

An interesting detail is that until the years 1932 – 1933 most of the Jews of Afghanistan were traders in the regions of Anchuy, Shovorkon, Maymbnby and Balch. In those years the Jews were expelled from these regions and moved to the area of Harat and Kabul. I assume that the Amram family arrived in Harat in 1839 after the pogrom in Mashad, or perhaps earlier, about 1747. In any case, family members do not have exact information.

Another well-known Afghan family is Bezalel. In conversations with Mr. Shlomo Bezalel of Bat Yam, I learned that the family roots date back hundreds of years and they almost certainly lived originally in the region of Gilan, Iran. For some generations their faily name was Basali whch is derived from Bezalel, meaning “Betsel Ha’el” or “in the shadow of God”. According to Mr. Dilmanian, Basali family members arrived in Gilan together with a group from Qazwin. From Gilan they continued to Qazwin, Mashad, Harat and finally Israel. Their great-grandfather was named Efraim (born 1770), his son Amram (1795), followed by Natan (1820), Elisha (1845), Mishael (1870), Elisha Agajan (1920) and Shlomo (1944). Except in recent years, the year of birth given for these family members are approximate. It is interesting that this family is related also to the Mula Haji Yitzhak Bezalel family, i.e. Nathan was also the grandfather of Haji Yitzhak Bezalel and Yitzhak’s father was David Bezalel. Two assumptions exist regarding the year in which family members arrived in Harat: 1747, the year in which Nader Shaa in Mashad, or 1840, after the pogrom in Mashad. Earlier, I mentioned Zvi Gol, son of Abba Gol, who noted that originally members of the Gol family may possibly have been called Bezalel.

Another example is the Yehonatan Polad family and his brothers. His parents, Mr. Moshe Polad, and his wife (Polad family members are also Levites) arrived in Kabul in 1930 after living for at least ten generations in the city of Karaka. Yehonatan Polad noted that before living in Karachi, the family lived in Iran, for at least ten generations. However, notwithstanding living in Iran and in Afghanistan, they are still regarded as a Bukhara family for all intents and purposes. It will be interesting to discuss how they received – or chose – their rare family name. According to Yehonatan Polad, their family name is the name of one of their forebears, all of whose older brothers died immediately after birth or several days later. The death of an infant was until very recently a frequent occurrence all over the world mainly because of infections and lack of hygiene. At that time it was accepted practice to announce that an infant who died in the first week of life “became haftak“, meaning seven, i.e. the infant died within his first seven days. Also, an infant who died within 30 or 40 days after birth was given a special name. Hygiene was not recognized as a cause of death and the reasons for death were attributed to superstition such as the evil eye.

Returning to the Polad family: Whenever an infant was buried, community leaders recommended that the next infant that to be born be given a name meaning power and strength in order to ensure his survival. The name Polad, came from the Hebrew word plada meaning that the new baby would be as strong as iron (“plada“) and so when he survived it was considered to have been either a miracle or on account of his “protective” first name. The family dynasty continued and the name Polad was chosen as the new family name. It is still the family name today.

Another family is Aghshulmu. My friend, Mr. Reuven (Abba) Aghshulmu is the son of Mr. Meir Aghshulmu. The family name is derived from the name of great-grandfather Shlomo. How did the name Shlomo become Aghshulmu? Aga means master, Shulmu is Shlomo, and Aga Shulmu (master Shlomo) became Aghshulmu. The family originates from Harat. Reuven’s grandfather and father travelled to other cities and regions such as Marw, Bukhara and Samarkand to conduct business, and from Harat they moved to Kabul. In 1981 the family left Afghanistan and immigrated to Israel. Reuven today lives in New York and is engaged in commerce.

There are also Afghan and Mashad families with the name of Sabzi. Their family name is derived from the city of Sabzwar, Iran. These families changed their name to Yarkoni in Israel since the word “sabz” means “green”.

Another well-known family is Sharbat –they were represented by the brothers Yisrael and Mashiah, and their cousin Baruch Sharbat. The origin of the family is in Bukhara and Baruch’s father arrived in Kabul in 1924. Their family name was derived from the nickname of one of the forefathers in Bukhara, who, some hundreds of years ago, apparently ate a large and very sweet melon. The name Sharbat, means “sweet” and it was then adopted as a family name. Clearly family members are very pleased with their sweet name …

Another name belongs to Mr. Elush Kabuli. His family arrived in Kabul in 1934 from Tashkent, and his father was called Mula Arie Kabuli. Apparently the family maintained relationships with Kabul and therefore the family name Kabuli was adopted. Previously, their family name was Pinhasof.

The roots of the Gad family are from Harat. According to Amnon and Reuven Gad the family acquired the name several hundred years ago. Almost certainly the family name was taken from the first name of one of the grandfathers.

Mr. Meir Simantov, whose origins are also in Harat, knows the names of his forbears several generations back: his father Eliahu, his grandfather Binyamin, and his great-grandfather Yoav Simantov in whose name the Harat synagogue was consecrated. Yoav’s father was Shmuel and Shmuel’s father was Eliahu, all of them lived in Harat. However, the the family really originated is in the city of Yazd, Iran.

Another well-known family is the family of Amnon Elias, formerly the Eliahu family. Great-grandfather Eliahu was born in Harat in 1850. Later, they moved to Samarkand and in the 1930s to Kabul. Twenty years later, Amnon arrived in Israel and then moved to New York. How was the family name changed from Eliahu to Elias? The source of the name is great-grandfather Eliahu who was called Elias by the local Muslims. According to Mr. Amnon Elias, the name Elias is of Greek origin when the name Eliahu became Elias in Greek tradition.

The name of the Bachi family also originated in Harat; the family name means “God gave us our portion” or “Where is my portion?” or “God will give him his portion”. Other meanings may also exist.

Once again it is interesting to note that many of the family names are sourced in family history, originating with a grandfather or great-grandfather, especially if he was a successful person and well-respected. In Islamic countries, residents did not use the family name but rather the parents’ first name, e.g. Abraham Ben Yosef (me), or Yaakov Ben Yosef (Yakov Aharon). In these countries, it is therefore accepted practice during the first meeting with a person to enquire after the father’s first name. The answer would be Levy Ben Yehuda (Levy Simantov) or Binyamin Ben Yosef (Uzi Binyamin Mor), Yakov Ben Yosef (my brother Yakov Mor), Yoram Ben Yosef (my brother Yoram Mor), etc. The family name is retained for generations and thereby the family name maintains the honour of the grandfather who in a previous generation gave his first name to the family. Accordingly, we can meet many people whose family name is, in effect, the personal name of one of their grandfathers. The same is prevalent in the Bible, e.g. Hosha Ben Elah, king of Israel, or Pakach Ben Ramaliahu, also king of Israel, or David Ben Yishai.

In the distant past, it was also accepted practice in Europe to call people according to their predecessors’ names and not according to family names. At some stage, it was decided to use family names instead. in Asia, according to information which I received from Mr. Zvi Gil, son of Abba Gol from Jerusalem, the use of family names commenced in about 1740 in the Austro-Hungarian empire during the reign of Franz Josef II. At the same time, people started to add family names to their own personal names.

The following are examples of families from Bukhara. The origin of the name Yitzhakov is Yitzhak; Abramov – Abraham; Haimov – Haim; Yisraelov – Yisrael; Rachminov – Rachamim; Shimonov – Shimon; Aminov – Amin (Binyamin); Pinhasof – Pinhas. Bukhara families added a suffix to their family name because of the Russians, who occupied the area and the residents of Bukhara residents wished to resemble the Russians or, more specifically, to give the family name a Russian sound in order to ensure greater acceptance by the Russians. They believed that Communism was an increasing popular phenomenon which would spread worldwide and therefore it would be worthwhile to resemble the Communists as much as possible.

Many families lived in recent decades in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc. Our family, for example, had cousins who remained in Samarkand until ten years ago. They belong to the Batzal family although today their family name is Eliasaf. The origin of Eliasaf is Eliahu which eventually became Elias. Because of the Russians a prefix was then added, so it became Eliasaf.

There are Bukhara families with the family name of Kabuli, Harati or Balchi. Several decades ago, all of these families lived in Afghanistan, in cities bearing their family name – Kabul, Harat or Balchi. In the city of Yolatan, located approximately 100 kilometers east of Marw, Turkmenistan, there lived until ten years ago, many families who spoke the dialect of the city of Harat, Afghanistan. In the city of Yolatan, there still exist yards named after their original owners from Harat, e.g. Hawli, Yoav, Gol.

Clearly, many Jews travelled from Afghanistan to other countries, as mentioned above, and some remained there. This was the case until establishment of Communism in Russia as from 1915, when movement to a number of such countries ceased. On the other hand, after Communism took control in these countries many people tried to flee from the new regime. So, for example, Jews living in Bukhara started began return to Afghanistan. In this way my parents as well as thousands of other Jews from Bukhara, Samarkand and surrounding areas left the region of Marw, They arrived in Afghanistan as refugees. A relatively small proportion remained in Afghanistan but the great majority continued to other countries, such as Palestine, Iran, India, and England.

The ethnology of the family name Abraham is very interesting. The great-grandfather of the Abraham family dynasty was named Abraham. He was a trader who travelled between cities and countries including Harat, Mashad, Turkmenistan and Marw. He was apparently born around 1845. He would arrive in these cities and countries on his horse or donkey, stopping on the way in other smaller centres. One of the places which he regularly stopped was a small town named Yusof Abad. Many other Jews also travelled the same path and in the course of a number of years Yusof Abad became a known stopping point for the Jews. At some stage, Abraham and other Jews decided to establish a small synagogue there. Abraham became the caretaker of the synagogue, and assisted those who came to pray there. It is interesting to note that after searching for information on the name Yusof Abad, I discovered a synagogue in Teheran of this name. I cannot of course be certain if there is a connection between these two Yusof Abad. It appears that accepted practice was to call the synagogue caretaker “shamash” and the name Shamash became a nickname and Abraham was called Abraham Shamash. Over the years, the nickname became a family name, Shamash, for hundreds of families. Only approximately 40 years ago the family members living in the United States decided to reinstitute the original family name, Abraham, in respect of the great-great-grandfather. Today, hundreds of people are called by the new-old family name, Abraham.

One of the children of great-grandfather Abraham was Agajan Shamash, who lived a very long life and died at the age of 104. Agajan’s sons are Haim, Shimon, Hasid, Emmanuel, Shlomo and his daughters are Bitty and Bachmal. They have numerous descendants.

The Ambalo family is a family of Cohanim but no one knows the family’s exact place of origin. There are various possibilities and the most likely is that their forebears arrived from Iran, perhaps from the city of Mashad, en route to Harat. There is however a city in India called Ambala which is similar to their family name. One of the family members, Yoske Ambalo Cohen, told me that there is also a city in South America named Ambalo but it is most improbably that their forebears arrived from South America. In the Ethiopian language (Amharic), the word Ambelu means commander or a high ranking officer.

The fact that Harat is near the Iranian border and near the city of Mashad, increases the likelihood that most of Harat’s Jews passed through Iran and the city of Mashad. Had they lived in a city near Pakistan or Turkmenistan or some other country, the chances are that they would have arrived from across the border with that country Since Harat is very close to Iran the most logical assumption is that they arrived from Iran. Binyamin Ambalo Cohen, son of Yitzhak Ambalo Cohen, told me that he once spread the rumor regarding the family’s Indian origin. But Binyamin himself told me many years ago that his father, Mula Yitzhak Ambalo, had told him that he heard from his forebears that their origin is from Iran and they had lived for some time in Mashad.

It is a fact that Ambalo family members lived for many years in the city of Harat, from where they travelled as traders to other countries including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and perhaps even to Iran. For example, Binyamin Ambalo is familiar with the history of his forebears and their years of birth: great-grandfather Moshe (1800); Asher (1825); Natanel (1845); Moshe (1870); Yitzhak (1902); and Binyamin (1933). Natanel is also the grandfather of Yoske Ambalo Cohen, and the son of Agajan. We also know Mula Reuven Ambalo of Harat, father of our friend Mr. Nathan Cohen Ambalo.

There are many Cohen families all over the world so it is possible one such family might wish to differentiate itself from the others and to establish its own origins by adding an additional name, such as Cohen Ambalu, Cohen Muradof or Cohen Sulayman. Furher examples of this practice are the Koyenov family from Bukhara, the Azulay family (initials of “Isha zona vehalala lo yikhu” – a profaned or prostitute woman will not be taken) from Morocco, and the Zilcha family from Iraq (The initials of Zilcha spell “Zecher le’Cohen hagadol” – in memory of the high priest Cohen). Also Cohen Tanogi arrived from the city of Tangier, Tunisian Cohanim are called Haddad, the Cohanim Melamed family originates from the city of Shiraz, Iran and the “Halabim” are called Gindi Cohen. Advocate Notary Shmuel Cohen Kadosh tells that the Hakshur or Hakshurzade families are Cohanim originating from the city Yazd, Iran. Also, there are family names Cohen Kadosh and Cohen Tsedek. Some Ashkenazi Cohens did something similar when they began to call themselves Katz (Cohen Tsedek), Kahana, Kahan, Kogan, Koganson, Kagan, Mazah (initials of “Mizera Aharon Hacohen” – from the seed of high priest Aharon), Kaplan (from English chaplain or priestly Cohen), Rappaport (a family of Cohanim that arrived in Porto, Italy from Germany and changed the family name to the name of the city). The Bach family name (“Ben Cohanim” – son of Cohanim), Zach families (“Zera Cohanim” – seed of Cohanim), Kaplinsik (Cohen), Kaplon (Cohen), Segal (“Sgan Cohen” – deputy Cohen), Avrech Abraham Kahana), and Shiller (Shlomo Yehuda Lev Rappaport) are other examples. The family name Kovan in the United States is also the family name of Cohanim and the writer Harlan Kovan, whose Jewish name is Haim Kovan.

I was recently told that my aunt, step-sister of my mother, whose name is Batsheva, is the daughter of Yosef Gol. Her husband is Shmuel Agajan Cohen, whose forebears arrived from Yazd, Iran. Zilpa Cohen is their daughter and their other children are Abraham, Tamar and Dina.

We continue with another family with which we are familiar, the Kashani family. This is the family of Mr. Reuven Kashani, a writer and publisher of books and pamphlets and publisher of the magazine “Masua”, dedicated to our community. Mr. Kashani told that his great-grandfather, Mula Meir, arrived in Harat from Kashan, Iran, perhaps as a rabbinic emissary approximately 250 years ago, and decided to stay. He was born in about 1830 and apparently arrived in Harat in about 1855. His son’s name was Yitzhak, father of Mula Yaakov who in turn was father of Mr. Reuven Kashani.

The Yona family, one of whose descendants is Rabbi Shmuel Yona of Bnei Brak, told me that his great-grandfather was Yona. He was apparently born in about 1815 and arrived in Harat from Yazd, Iran. The family dynasty is Yona (born in 1815), Abraham (1845), Shlomo (1870), Binyamin (about 1900) and Rabbi Shmuel Yona (about 1934). Clearly, Rabbi Menashe Yona, a righteous person, and his brother, may he live a long life, Rabbi Issachar, are also family descendents. The family clearly lived in Harat for many generations before immigrating to the land of Israel.

The Jerusalem contractor Mordechai Yona is a member of this family. During the peak of his career, Mordechai Yona constructed thousands of apartments all over Israel, including the new Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.

Another family is that of Mr. Rothschild Ovadia. His great-grandfather was Ovadia, in whose name the whole family dynasty is called. He was born in Harat, apparently in 1840, and after him, in order of their dates of birth Shmuel, Meir and Rothschild. The latter notes that he was told by his father and grandfather that their roots are in Harat, where they apparently lived for hundreds of years after originating in Iran – perhaps from Mashad. The family wandered all over Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, including Bukhara, Samarkand, Marw, and finally immigrated to Israel.

Additional evidence of a family name being taken from the first name of a great-grandfather is the family of Mati Shlomo. Apparently the great-grandfather was called Mishael, and his son Shlomo, who is Mati’s grandfather. Mati’s father is Mula Agajan Mishael. We know that when someone is called Babajan or Agajan, he is named for his grandfather. Accordingly, we assume that the great-grandfather was Mishael. Following generations, in consecutive order, are: Shlomo (Agajan Mishael) and Mati. We have also been able to ascertain that the family name is taken from grandfather Shlomo. No doubt exists that for many generations they lived in Harat, and it is assumed that they arrived there from Iran. Presently, most of the family resides in Israel and in the United States.

Another well-known family is the Elias family. According to Ben Tsion Elias, the family lived for many generations in Harat. According to family tradition, the family originated in Babylonia then Iran and Harat. The Elias family name is taken from the name Eliahu since, in the Muslim world, Eliahu is Elias. One of Ben Tsion’s forebears was named Eliahu, from whom the family name was taken. As we have noted, in Muslim countries a person is often named after his father e.g. Ben Tsion Ben Zvi, Emanuel Ben Moshe, etc. However, Emanuel changed the family name to Eliasaf. The Elias family resided for many generations in Harat and presently is spread throughout Israel and in New York.

Still another example is the Pinhasi family. The original family name is Aharon, which was changed to Pinhasi when the family immigrated to Israel, after the name of great-grandfather Pinhas. The son of Pinhas is Eliahu and Eliahu’s son is Issachar (Aharon) Pinhasi, of Holon. Aharon’s son is Benny Pinhasi. This shows that generations ago the family name was Aharon and, on immigrating to Israel, the name was changed to Pinhasi, for their great-grandfather. All are relatives of Mr. Gabriel Aharon, and their roots are in Qazwin, Mashad and Harat, where they lived for some during 260 years.

Another family is the extensive Rabi family, who resided in Harat for hundreds of years. According to Ben Tsion Rabi of Raanana, his grandfather was David and his great-grandfather’s first name was Abraham. We are familiar with many of their relatives, including Mr. Shmuel Rabi, who regularly visits us in New York.

The Chafii family is also a well-known family. According to Yosef Chafi, son of Zvi Chafi,who is in turn the son of Mula Menashe Chafi from Kabul. Zvi himself was born in Afghanistan but lived for many years in Singapore, trading in diamonds and precious stones. The family maintains a diamond-trading office in New York, which is now managed by their son Yosef. The family’s roots are in Herat and it is assumed that one of their forebears arrived from Kiev, Ukraine. They traveled as traders and in commerce, and at some stage arrived in Harat.

The family’s great-grandfather was Eliahu and before him the family name was Mula or Mu. Eliahu was apparently born in or about 1870 and his father was Menashe, born in 1840. It is estimated that that the grandfather arrived in Harat from Kiev in 1881. Eliahu had three sons, Meir, Menashe and Binyamin. Meir travelled to Kaaf, Iran, which I located on a map as being some approximately 200 kilometers west of Harat and 200 kilometers south of Mashad. When Meir returned, people began to call him Chafi, i.e. from the city of Kaaf. The family name is retained still today. I received details of the family from Mr. Agajan (Eliahu)Chafi, son of Meir Chafi.

The Mula family, which became the Chafi family, is not the only Mula. There is also the Yosef Mula (Maoz) family and according to Yosef, many generations ago the family name used to be Mula Ezra. The descendants of that Ezra were named for him after people began to call him just Mula instead of Mula Ezra. Mula is really not a name but a title.

Great-grandfather Binyamin was born in or about 1775. He arrived from Samarkand and his family name was Ashkenazi, It is assumed that he arrived in Harat in about 1800 and the heads of the family were, in the order of their birth dates Binyamin (1775), Shalom (1800), Ezra (1825), Moshe Baruch (1850), Yitzhak (1875), Moshe Baruch (1905), and most recently brothers Yosef and Meir, may they live a long lives. At the time of Ezra, the family name was changed and became Mula only. Approximately twenty years ago, the brothers changed the family name from Mula to Maoz. An additional assumption is that a family relationship exists between the Yosef Mula-Maoz family and the Chafi family, since in the past Chafi relatives were also called Mula. It is interesting to note that these both families claim that their forebears arrived from Kiev or Samarkand.

Another family is Sabz, also from Mashad. The family arrived from the city of Sabzwar, Iran and, it is believed that they are also Levites, as is also Jack Sabz of Mashad, who presently lives in New York. Sabzwar is located west of Mashad, between Mashad and Gorgan. The Sabz family of Harat originates from Mashad and Sabzwar. Their family began in the west, and moving eastward, to the Gilan region and the cities of Qazwin, Gorgan, Sabzwar, Mashad and Harat.

Another family is the Zer family of Harat, whose previous name was Zrobavel, and whose relatives lived for many generations in Harat.

According to a conversation with Professor Michael Zand, the name Zer means gold. This derivation is similar to that of the name of the Bukhara family Zargar, which means a jeweler of golden items, or Ahangar, meaning a craftsman of metal items. However, the name of the Zer family from Harat appears to be taken from Zrobavel.

Now to another family – the Shabtai family. This is a relatively large family, whose roots can be traced for many generations back to Harat. It appears that a great-grandfather was named Shabtai and the dynasty is named after him. In chronological order, and according to estimates of birth dates there is Shabtai (1810), Ovadia (1840), Abraham (1870), Menashe (1900) (Dadashi), and the children Baba (Ovadia), Ben Tsion and Hanna, my former wife and mother of my children. Clearly, other families also derive from the families described above.

The name Shabtai is derived from Shabat, and a planet exists called Shabtai. It is interesting that in English Shabtai is also called Saturn, and Shabbat in English is Saturday. Who copied from whom? Apparently Shabtai is older.

Also according to the Jewish planet names, Shabtai is derived form the word Shabbat. Earlier generations called the sun and the moon according to days of the week: sun – Sunday, moon – Monday. As we say in Hebrew: “Yareach yamim” (moon days or 30 days).

We also know of Shabtai Zvi, who declared himself to be the messiah. Many of our ancestors from Turkey bear this name. He arrived in Harat as an emissary from Haleb or Bagdad and was called Baruch Shabtai. Many stories are told about him.

There is a good chances exist that Shabtai family members are the oldest in Harat. My children, on their mother’s side, belong to the Shabtai family and, in order of age are called Shabtai, Ovadia, Abraham, Menashe and Hanna. And also Erez, Elon and Lisa, and, in the next generation, my grandchildren Jack, son of Erez, Adam, son of Elon, Tal, daughter of Lisa, and others.

The source of the Garji family is apparently in the Gilan region of Iran, since they also speak the Giliki language. However, another possibility exists according to which they originated from Georgia. Apparently this is a mistake since there is a city called Gorgan, located east of the city of Qazwin, and the similar sound of the two words may have caused confusion. It is more reasonable that the family arrived from the Gilan region in the west, on the banks of the Caspian Sea. A little further eastward is the city of Qazwin, further eastward the city of Gorgan and still further Sabzwar. Continuing eastward we find Mashad, and then Harat.

Another large family is the Dil family, one of whose representatives is Etti Amit (Dil), and who heads the Afghan Internet site. She notes that her paternal forebears are the Dil family from Harat and, who in pevious gebnerations certainly came from the Dilman region in Iran, near Gilan.

Still another well-known family is the Hasid family. According to family members, the name Hasid originated with a great-grandfather who lived in Harat in 1850. That great-grandfather fulfilled all of the mitzvoth (Biblical commandments) and immersed himself in the river daily. Apparently because of his fulfillment of the commandments, he was called an “ish hasid” (pious man) and thus the family received the family name Hasid. I received this information from the grand-daughter, Penina Louis, who manages the “Rananot” Institute in Jerusalem for authentic Jewish music of Diaspora communities. She is also a grand-daughter on her mother’s side to Rabbi Yehoshua Amram, and holds two doctoral degrees.

The meaning of the name of the Hakshuri or Hakshur family is to wash or to filter earth, as in searching for gold. Earth and water from the river was scooped up in a large net, after which the water and stones were strained, in the hope of finding sparkling granules of gold. It appears that the family was engaged in looking for gold and thus adopted this name.

Another family name is the Nomdar family and the meaning of the name is “baal shem” (owner of a name), i.e. a person whose name was known in remote regions. Other family names are Naamat, Yazdi, Zughali, Qali, Zambori (who Hebraized their name to Zanbar), Lushmali, Katan, Kalater, etc. The family name Kort may be derived from the name Kurdistan (Kurd = Kort). The storyteller, Zvulun Kort, also has this name.

Muradof family members are also Kohanim. A great-grandfather was named Mordechai and the family name was derived from him. In the Muslim environment, Mordechai became Mord and then Muradof. This was a family of traders operating between Harat and Turkmenistan – Bukhara and Samarkand, and onward. During the period of Russian Communist occupation of the area, Jews in these areas began to change their names so that the name and the sound would resemble Russian family names so, for example, Mord became Muradof.

Still another example: One of the forebears of our friend, Rabbi Yaakov Nasirov was called Nisan. Nisan became Nasir and since the family previously lived in countries which were under Russian control, the family changed its name from Nasir to Nasirov. The paternal grandfather is of Mashad origin.

Also the Namati family originated from Bukhara. This is my mother’s family which originated in Bukhara where they lived for many years in the city of Marw. Their family name in Bukhara was Faiz. The great-grandfather was Binyamin, which became Amin in the Muslim community and Aminov during the Russian period. This family maintained a commercial center. At some point, one of the walls of the center collapsed and a large piece of wool, similar to a rug, was hung in its place. The wool was rough, and was generally placed on the floor under the regular rug to ensure that the rug did not move or slide. Since then, the name Namati (meaning rough rug) was adopted for the family. The Namati (Aminov) family could be identified at the commercial center by the wool rug hung there.

English translation: Julie Ann Levy

English editor: Peter Reich


Havdalah Service in the last Synagogue of Kabul, Afghanistan, 1978. Photograph: Judah Segal, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center

Havdalah Service in the last Synagogue of Kabul, Afghanistan, 1978. Photograph: Judah Segal, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center

Herat Synagogue Gate, Herat, Afghanistan, 1975. Photograph: Didier Guthmann, Paris. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Miriam Freind.

Herat Synagogue Gate, Herat, Afghanistan, 1975. Photograph: Didier Guthmann, Paris. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center. Courtesy of Miriam Freind

Megillat Esther Reading on Purim. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1966. Photograph: Ida Cowen, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center

Megillat Esther Reading on Purim. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1966. Photograph: Ida Cowen, USA. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center

Ketubbah of Rachel Bat Amram and Benjamin Khafi. Herat, Afghanistan, 1933. Photograph: Savi Khafi, Singapore. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center

Ketubbah of Rachel Bat Amram and Benjamin Khafi. Herat, Afghanistan, 1933. Photograph: Savi Khafi, Singapore. Beit Hatfutsot Visual Documentation Center