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June 26, 2014 5:26 pm

Jonah, Colombo, and Jewish Names

avatar by George Jochnowitz

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Christopher Columbus statue in London. Photo: wiki commons.

The story of Jonah and the whale (though it is a big fish and not a whale according to the Biblical text) is very well known. The Book of Jonah is read every year during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, but people who have never read the Bible at all are still familiar with the account. In fact, in the opera Porgy and Bess we hear the following line about Jonah:

He made his home in that fish’s abdomen.

יוֹנה is the Hebrew spelling of Jonah and means “dove” or “pigeon.” It is a feminine noun, which suggests that Jonah’s name may have had a different origin. Be that as it may, the name is masculine. It is a given name, but it has also become a surname. Jona is an Italian Jewish surname and Jonas is an Ashkenazic surname. Translations of “dove” have become Jewish surnames as well.  There is Taub, from German; Golub and Golomb (a spelling based on the sound of Polish goÅ‚Ä…b) from Slavic languages; and Colombo, from Italian.

Colombo is a common name in Italian and is generally not Jewish. However, it is also found among Italian Jews. If Christopher Columbus is from Genoa (a disputed question), his surname could indeed be Jewish. In Spain, where he lived, his name was Colón, which is not the same as the word for “pigeon” or “dove,” which is paloma. As for his first name, Christopher, it is not at all a Jewish name because it means “bearer of Christ.”

What about all the Italians named Colombo who are not Jewish? Might they be descended from Jews who converted to Christianity when Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492 and from Naples in 1541? Or were they named Colombo because their ancestors raised or trained or sold pigeons? Perhaps there is another possibility. I don’t know.

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