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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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  • Reader

    George,

    Thanks for your article. Are you Jewish?

    Jonah is a Rav, Rabbeinu, Leader and Preacher throughout Israeli and Jewish history. This encyclopedia has a great resource for your question.

    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/search?utf8=✓&keywords=Jonah&commit=search

    • I am Jewish.
      There have been many Jonahs throughout Jewish history. The Jonah in the Book of Jonah was forced, against his will, to go to Nineveh and save the people from destruction. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the country that destroyed the 10 Lost Tribes. This is an entirely different subject from the existence of names in various Jewish communities that mean “dove.”

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