ANCESTRY: a curated family album

I’ve always loved old family photographs. When I was growing up they were also a way of keeping in touch with family abroad; family photographs tucked in an airmail letter marking special occasions and chronicling the passage of time. When my father died in 2004 I kept his old tattered box filled with loose photographs which I found more interesting than the bound family albums he possessed. I started scanning some of my favourites and here are a selection, dating from the 1920s and primarily from the 1930s onwards.  I particularly like the old British seaside postcards. The order is mainly chronological, beginning with images of the Aminoff family and ends with a portrait of Hannah Levy née Aminoff, my father’s sister, from 2015. The second half is based on photos from my mother’s childhood album and again is in chronological order.  Both sections contain photographs I’ve taken myself in the last 30 years or so.

My father’s family hailed for Mashhad in Iran. They were from at tightly-knit crypto-Jewish community. They lived dual lives following the forced conversion of all Jews to Islam in 1839.  Publicly they followed Islam, even attending the Hajj pilgrimage but behind closed doors they adhered to Jewish rituals and practice.  Girls were betrothed at a very young age to members of the community to keep the faith going and women were segregated from public life. Many homes had a closed courtyard where nobody could look in from the outside. My paternal grandfather, David Aminoff (also known as Kordovani ) was one of seven brothers. I called him Bobo, which was the term for grandfather in the Persian Jewish community. The female equivalent is Bibi. Unusually for that community my grandparents were not related; it was extremely common for cousins to marry.  Bibi, whose Hebrew name was Dvora, was the daughter of Moshe Ben Eliahu Mulla and Sarah Bat Binyamin Namdar. Here is a very early photo of Bibi’s parents and brother, The image was taken in Merv in Turkmenistan.

Bibi's parents and brother

In the 1920s my grandparents left Iran for Palestine before setting in the UK in 1928. My father was born in Jerusalem in 1926 so was a toddler when he arrived in Britain. Here’s a photograph from that era showing my grandparents all dressed up. Bobo is in a top hat and is holding a cane and Bibi is wearing a fur coat – possibly squirrel – and has a clutch bag and cloche hat. They are both wearing leather gloves. I don’t know the occasion and cannot identify the leafy, domestic location. What I find striking is the relishing of an appearance of dapper, sophisticated Britishness. The image is embossed at the bottom where I can make out the name of the photographer and studio address – R. Mason of Lower Clapton Road. My grandparents lived in Stamford Hill and must have used the local photographer to mark this formal occasion.

All dressed up: Bobo with top hat and cane and Bibi in a (squirrel?) fur coat.

My mother’s family were also from the Persian Jewish community. Her father was born in Merv on the Silk Road, in Turkmenistan. Some Mashhadi Jewish families had escaped to India, Herat, Bokhara, and Merv. Mashhad is located in the northeast of Iran, close to the borders of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.  My mum’s father, who I called Saba, Hebrew for grandfather, trekked from Merv on foot to settle in Palestine. I believe the journey took him many years and in the process he learned to speak, read and write in several languages including Farsi, Russian and Turkish.

I like the contrast between my father’s and mother’s photographs. My mother was a dancer and lived an informal, outgoing and Mediterranean lifestyle in contrast to the my father’s family who were very reserved and austere in comparison. However the collection of Margate seaside picture postcards are a relaxed, playful respite from the formal studio settings.  My mother Dalia was born in Palestine in 1937, so was 10 years old when when State of Israel was established on May 1948.

The photograph below dates from about 1990; the image shows my mother’s hand holding her old photograph album; her flamboyant style also alluded to by the inclusion of the red furry slipper.

mum looking at her old photography album, circa 1990

I’ll be adding photos images regularly as well as developing the text;  this is work in progress! This selection begins with photographs from my father’s collection, and includes several images contributed by his sister Hannah (my Ameh) followed by those from my mother’s album. Both contain images I have taken – these are probably obvious, being the more contemporary shots. Click on individual photos for a brief title or description.


1839: Forced conversion of all Mashhadi Jews to Islam

1901: Approximate date of birth of Dvora Aminoff. Persian name Robabeh (tbc) .

1916: Matt Aminoff born in Mashhad Iran.

1917: Russian revolution

1921: Persian coup d’état led by Reza Shah Pahlavi

September 1921: Hannah Levy née Aminoff born in Mashhad,Iran

November 1926:  Benjamin David Aminoff born in Jerusalem.

1928:   Aminoff family settle in London

August 1937: Dalia Namdar born in Tel Aviv

1956: Ben and Dalia marry in Israel.  My mother then moves to London, and Ben and Dalia live with David and Dvora in Stamford Hill.

March 2004: Death of my father Ben, aged 77

2007: Deaths of Matt Aminoff my father’s brother and Khalil Levy, Hannah’s husband

August 2017: Death of Hannah Levy née Aminoff, my Ameh, a few days short of her 96th birthday