22nd July 2020
The Search for My Ottolangui Heritage
How It All Began………
I can’t remember when it was that first I found out that we had a “foreign” name, but I knew it had not been in use for quite a long time as my paternal grandmother Sophie, who was one of the oldest people that I knew at that time, had always been known as “Mrs. Langley” and Langley was the name used by all my known family members.
I remember growing up in the belief that my father had legally changed the family name before I was born and nobody really knew from where the name “OTTOLANGUI” had derived, except that my father’s brother-in-law, Aaron a.k.a. Tommy always called the Ottolangui family “The Portugeezers” alluding to the Iberian ancestry that members of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish Congregation in England reportedly shared.
A little background; my father, his father before him and his grandfather before both, attended the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue in Bevis Marks which is an ancient street at the eastern end of the City of London. Jewish people had been expelled from England by order of the king in the year 1290 and had been allowed to return to England in 1656. Most of the Jews who relocated to London had come from families expelled from Spain or Portugal at the time of the Inquisition via Amsterdam or the colonies, and they established the London Jewish community in the business, banking and shipping district known as “the City”, holding their prayer services in a house in Cree Church Lane which would lead, some 50 years later, to the opening of the synagogue around the corner in Bevis Marks.
My father took us every year to the Bevis Marks synagogue for the Jewish holidays where I soon found out that the other members of the congregation all had names which originated from Spain, Portugal and Holland. Administrative notices, and parts of the prayer service that were not in Hebrew were given in Spanish or more usually Portuguese, and my father was always referred to as Shelomo de Avraham ben Aharon Ottolangui, a name which is not Iberian in origin but its “gui” ending was quite Portuguese sounding. At my Bar Mitzvah ceremony in 1959, I was called to the Torah at Bevis Marks as the young, Barak de Shelomo ben Avraham Ottolangui, which is about as aristocratic as I ever got to be.
I remember that I checked my birth certificate and found that I had been registered as “Langley” around three weeks after I was born, many years passed without my having any further knowledge or interest in “that” name, or in its history.
The name “Ottolangui” sounded a little like the Italian name “Ottolenghi”, but since we were “The Portugeezers” there could clearly be no connection.
More than 30 years then passed without any further interest on my part, until I was visiting my parents in London and in an attempt to get my father’s mind off my mother’s ill health, I sat him down and challenged him about his family’s history, thinking that it would take the whole day to record. Whilst he came up with some amusing and interesting anecdotes about various of his aunts and uncles, I was disappointed to learn that he knew nothing prior to his paternal grandparents and only very little about them. He did however mention that years and years ago, two of his uncles had left the rest of the family in London. His oldest uncle, Uncle Izzie (Israel) Ottolangui had gone to Bristol about 100 miles away on the west coast around the time of the First World War where married under an assumed name, after which there had been no further contact. The other, Uncle George and his wife Julia had been evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War in 1939 and relocated to the rural town of St. Neot’s near Cambridge, never to be heard of again. My father was already the sole known survivor of his own generation so there really wasn’t anybody else to ask and I filed away the few pages of information that he had given me and forgot about it all.
That was until the early May of 1999, when using the modern wonder of the internet to relieve my boredom, I used whatever search engine that was the then equivalent of Google to look up the name Ottolangui in the faint hope of finding some trace of the lost uncles. The entire World Wide Web could only come up with but two references. One was a champion weightlifter by the name of Ottolangui living in Hertfordshire in England, and another was a different Ottolangui, who was also living in the English county of Hertfordshire, so I took them to be closely related. There was a workplace email address for the second one so I sent him a message, he replied, and that is where it all began. In the genealogy process, often the first, and sometimes the only, thing that you’ll find are others looking for the same family roots. My early communications lead to contact with a few other Ottolangui descendants but failed to lead us to finding any connection between us. Widening my net into the databases of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Great Britain, I found leads to other anonymous researchers into Ottolangui history. One serious lady researcher in New Zealand pointed me in the direction of the Church of the Latter Day Saints to search their very considerable genealogical research resources and it was there that I found data on my father’s grandfather, uncles and aunts. In pursuit of the origin of this data I was able to contact a thitherto unknown someone in Salt Lake City. She turned out to be the daughter of my father’s cousin Stella. Combining the results of Ottolangui research, we found another Ottolangui/Langley in Palo Alto, California, a scion of the New Zealand Ottolangui family.
The combined results all pointed us to a common ancestor, David Ottolenghi, who came to London from the Portuguese Jewish community of Livorno in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1776, but there was a loose end that we needed to tie off to complete connection to the line. By following the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish tradition of naming sons after the living father or grandfather, we made a quantum leap and connected the son and grandson of David Ottolenghi, both named Israel. Then, through connections with the Jewish community of Livorno made possible by the marriage of one of the Roman Ottolenghi families with the Bedarida family who administered the Livorno congregation, we were able to find David’s birth records and his parents’ (Menachem Emanuel Ottolenghi and Judica di Velletri) “Ketubah” (marriage certificate) in which the “novio” (groom) is named “Menachem ben Meir Ottolenghi”. That took us back one more generation as far as the late 1600s, but we could go no further.
The family history contains a narrative mixture of factual genealogy, anecdotal family lore, urban legend, historical biographies and adventures which over the ensuing years took me back to our family’s earliest known roots in the 1600s in Italy, to the 18th century in Exeter’s Southgate Prison and then to the British Colonies in America, to the 18th & 19th century slums of the East End of London and the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey), and by way of convict ships to Van Diemen’s Land, shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean and china merchants in Australia and New Zealand.
On the way I became distracted whilst trying to establish a link to the Italian Ottolenghi families, a meandering loop in which I made contacts with some three hundred Italian O’s and some of their aristocratic families in Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Israel, Canada, USA, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and elsewhere, got to meet with a goodly few of them in my travels. I also “discovered” Giuseppe Salomone Ottolenghe of Casal (now Casale Monferrato in Piedmont) and Livorno, later known as Joseph Solomon Ottolenghi and spent years researching and writing his biography, only to find that an excellent biography had already been published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, by B.H. Levy, called Joseph Solomon Ottolenghi – “Kosher Butcher in Italy to Christian Missionary in America”.
In this whirlwind adventure it took me 18 years until I was finally able to trace and make contact with descendants of my dad’s lost uncles Izzie and George…..but I got there in the end…….