This piece originally ran on jewishcurrents.org.
Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.
In attempting to build modern nation states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted and educated (in that order of importance). For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair.
Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation. For example if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), he would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Moyshe.
Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted their new last names, which were essential as they sought to advance within the broader society, and as the shtetls themselves became more modern or Jews left them for big cities.
The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent. This explains the use of “patronymics” and “matronymics.”
PATRONYMICS (son of…..)
In Yiddish or German, it would be “son” or “sohn” or “er”
In most Slavic languages like Polish or Russian, it would be “vich” or “vitz” ), anglicized to "wich" or "witz).
For example: the son of Mendel took the last name Mendelsohn; the son of Abraham became Abramson or Avromovitch; the son of Menashe became Manishewitz; the son of Itzhak became Itskowitz; the son of Berl took the name Berliner; the son of Kesl took the name Kessler, etc.
Reflecting the prominence of Jewish women in business, some families made last names out of women’s first names:
Chaiken—son of Chaikeh
Edelman—husband of Edel
Gittelman—husband of Gitl
Glick or Gluck—may derive from Glickl, a popular woman’s name as in the famous “Glickl of Hameln,” whose memoirs, written around 1690, are an early example of Yiddish literature
Gold/Goldman/Gulden may derived from Golda
Leaman/Lehman--husband of Leah
Perlman—husband of Perl
Rivken—may derive from Rivke
Soronsohn—son of Sarah
The next most common source of Jewish last names is probably place names. Jews used the town or region where they lived—or more likely where their families came from---as their last name, reflecting the Germanic origins of most East European Jews.
Asch—acronym for towns of Aisenshtadt or Altshul or Amshterdam
Berger—generic for townsman
Berg (man)—from a hilly pace
Frankel—from Franconia, region of Germany
Gordon—from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman
Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany
Heller—from Halle, Germany
Hollander—not from Holland, but from town in Lithuania settled by Dutch
Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch—from Horovice in Bohemia
Krakauer—from Cracow, Poland
Lipsky—from Leipzig, Germany
Minsky—from Minsk, Belarus
Mintz—from Mainz, Germany
Pinsky—from Pinsk, Belarus
Posner—from Posen, Germany
Rappoport—from Porto, Italy
Rothenberg—from then town of the red fortress in Germany
Shapiro—from Speyer, Germany
Schlesinger—from Silesia, Germany
Vilner—from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania
Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner
Cooper/Cooperman—barrel maker or coppersmith
Related to tailoring
Nadelman/Nudelman—also tailor from “needle’
Sher/Sherman—also tailor from “scissors” or “shears”
Related to liquor trade
Altshul/Altshuler—associated with the old synagogue in Prague
Cantor/Kazan/Singer/Spivack—cantor or song leader in shul
Haver—from haver (court official)
Klausner—rabbi for small congregation
Klopman—calls people to morning prayers by knocking on their windows
Rabin—rabbi (Rabinowitz—son of rabbi)
London—scholar, from the Hebrew lamden (misunderstood by immigration inspectors)
Schechter/Schachter/Shuchter etc.—ritual slaughterer from Hebrew schochet
Spector—inspector or supervisor of schools
Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane
Gottleib—God lover, perhaps referring to someone very devout
Geller/Gelb/Gelber—yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair
Gruber—coarse or vulgar
Koenig—king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch
Krauss—curly, as in curly hair
Schwartz/Shwartzman/Charney—black hair or dark complexion
Scharf/Scharfman—sharp, i.e intelligent
Stark—strong, from the Yiddish shtark
Springer—lively person, from the Yiddish springen for jump
Weiss/Weissbard--white hair/ beard
These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few remain:
It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom.
eagle –Adler (may derive from reference to an eagle in Psalm 103:5)
camel—Gelfand/Helfand (technically means elephant but was used for camel too)
HOUSE SIGNS FROM FRANKFURT AND PRAGUE
Strauss—ostrich or bouquet of flowers
Some Jews either retained or adopted traditional Jews names from the Bible.
The big two
Cohen-- Cohn, Kohn, Kagan, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan
Levi—Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson
Others from the Bible
Mayer/Meyer (Talmudic, not Biblical)
Baron—bar aron (son of Aaron)
Beck--bene kedoshim (descendant of martyrs)
Getz—gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official)
Katz—kohen tsedek (righteous priest)
Metz--moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness
Sachs/Saks—zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs)
Segal/Siegel—se gan levia (second rank Levite)
Shub/Shoub--shochet u'bodek (ritual slaughter/kosher meat inspector)
Leyb means “lion” in Yiddish. It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Liebowitz, Lefkowitz, Lebush and Leon. It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew work for lion—aryeh. The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.
Hirsch means “deer” or “stag” in Yiddish. It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Hirschfeld, Hirschbein/Hershkowitz (son of Hirsch)/Hertz/Herzl, Cerf, Hart and Hartman. It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for gazelle—tsvi. The gazelle was the symbol of the tribe of Naphtali.
Taub means “dove” in Yiddish. It is the root of the Ashkenazic last name Tauber. The symbol of The dove is associated with the prophet Jonah.
Wolf is the root of the Ashkenazic last names Wolfson, Wouk and Volkovich. The wolf was the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin.
Eckstein—Yiddish for cornerstone, derived from Psalm 118:22
Good(man)—Yiddish translation of Hebrew word for “good”--tuviah
Margolin—Hebrew for pearl
Jaffe/Yaffe--Hebrew for beautiful
INVENTED ‘FANCY SHMANCY’ NAMES
When Jews were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities.
According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, "the resulting names often were associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time."
other "baum" names
Names with these combinations were also chosen or purchased:
Fein (fine) combined with:
Gold “berg” for hill or mountain, “thal” for valley,
Green “bloom” for flower, “zweig” for branch, “blatt”
Lowen (lion) for leaf, “vald” or “wald” for woods and “feld”
Rosen (rose) for field
Other aesthetically pleasing names
FROM NON-JEWISH LANGUAGES
Kelman/Kalman—from the Greek name Kalonymous, popular among Jews in medieval France and Italy. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “shem tov” (good name)
Marcus/Marx—from Latin, referring to the pagan god Mars
ANGLICIZED NAMES (or why “Sean Ferguson” was a Jew)
Jewish last names were often changed or shortened by immigrants themselves and their descendants--- to sound more “American.” (In rarer cases, immigration inspectors may have accidently changed the names of immigrants by misreading them. )
For example, Cohen to Cowan, Yalowitz to Yale, Rabinowitz to Robbins
And this is good old Boston;
The home of the bean and the cod.
Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots;
And the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
What happened to the last names of Ashkenazic Jews who immigrated to pre-state Palestine and to early Israel???
David Green became David Ben Gurion
Abba Meir became Abba Eban
Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir
Amos Klausner became Amos Oz
Syzmon Perski became Shimon Peres
Ariel Scheinerman became Ariel Sharon
Moshe Shertok became Moshe Sharett
Levi Shkolnick became Levi Eshkol
Yitzhak Jeziernicky became Yitzhak Shamir
Why? To distance themselves from Ashkenazic Jewry.
For more, visit this piece on jewishcurrents.com.