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The origins and meaning of Ashkenazic last names

Jewish Currents

January 14, 2014 | 2:44 pm

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.  

MATRONYMICS

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

Malkov—from Malke

Leaman/Lehman--husband of Leah

Perlman—husband of Perl

Rivken—may derive from Rivke

Soronsohn—son of Sarah

PLACE NAMES

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

Auerbach/Orbach

Bacharach

Berger—generic for townsman

Berg (man)—from a hilly pace

Bayer—from Bavaria

Bamberger

Berlin—Berliner, Berlinsky

Bloch—foreigner

Brandeis

Breslau

Brodsky

Brody

Danziger

Deutch/Deutscher—German

Dorf(man)—villager

Eisenberg

Epstein

Frankel—from Franconia, region of Germany

Frankfurter

Ginsberg

Gordon—from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman

Greenberg

Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany

Hammerstein

Heller—from Halle, Germany

Hollander—not from Holland, but from town in Lithuania settled by Dutch

Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch—from Horovice in Bohemia

Koenigsberg

Krakauer—from Cracow, Poland

Landau

Lipsky—from Leipzig, Germany

Litwak—from Lithuania

Minsky—from Minsk, Belarus

Mintz—from Mainz, Germany

Oppenheimer

Ostreicher—from Austria

Pinsky—from Pinsk, Belarus

Posner—from Posen, Germany

Prager—from Prague

Rappoport—from Porto, Italy

Rothenberg—from then town of the red fortress in Germany

Shapiro—from Speyer, Germany

Schlesinger—from Silesia, Germany

Steinberg

Unger—from Hungary

Vilner—from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania

Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner 

Warshauer/Warshavsky—from Warsaw

Wiener—from Vienna

Weinberg

OCCUPATIONAL NAMES

Craftsmen/Workers

Ackerman- plowman

Baker/Boker—baker

Blecher—tinsmith

Fleisher/Fleishman/Katzoff/Metger—butcher

Cooper/Cooperman—barrel maker or coppersmith

Drucker—printer

Einstein—mason

Farber—painter/dyer

Feinstein—jeweler

Fisher—fisherman

Forman—driver/teamster

Garber/Gerber—tanner

Glazer/Glass/Sklar—glazier

Goldsmith —goldsmith

Graber—engraver

Kastner—cabinet maker

Kunstler--artist

Kramer--store keeper

Miller—miller

Nagler—nail maker

Plotnick—carpenter

Sandler/Shuster—shoemaker

Schmidt/Kovalsky—blacksmith

Shnitzer—carver

Silverstein—jeweler/silversmith

Spielman—player (musician?)

Stein/Steiner/Stone—jeweler

Wasserman—water carrier 

Merchants

Garfinkel/Garfunkel—diamond dealer

Holzman/Holtz/Waldman—timber dealer

Kaufman—merchant

Rokeach—spice merchant

Salzman—salt merchant

Seid/Seidman—silk merchant

Tabachnik—snuff seller

Tuchman—cloth merchant

Wachsman—wax dealer

Wollman—wool merchant

Zucker/Zuckerman—sugar merchant

Medical

Aptheker--druggist

Feldsher—medic

Bader/Teller--barber

Related to tailoring

Kravitz/Portnoy/Schneider/Snyder—tailor

Nadelman/Nudelman—also tailor from “needle’

Sher/Sherman—also tailor from “scissors” or “shears”

Presser/Pressman—clothing presser

Futterman/Kirshner/Kushner/Peltz—furrier

Weber—weaver

Wechsler/Halphan—money changer

Related to liquor trade

Bronfman/Brand/Brandler/Brenner—distiller

Braverman/Meltzer—brewer

Kabakoff/Krieger/Vigoda—tavern keeper

Geffen—wine merchant

Wine/Weinglass—wine merchant

Weiner—wine maker

Religious/Communal

Altshul/Altshuler—associated with the old synagogue in Prague

Cantor/Kazan/Singer/Spivack—cantor or song leader in shul 

Feder/Federman/Schreiber—scribe

Gottlieb--God lover

Haver—from haver (court official)

Klausner—rabbi for small congregation

Klopman—calls people to morning prayers by knocking on their windows

Lehrer/Malamud/Malmud—teacher

Rabin—rabbi  (Rabinowitz—son of rabbi)

London—scholar, from the Hebrew lamden (misunderstood by immigration inspectors)

Reznick—ritual slaughterer

Richter—judge

Sandek—godfather

Schechter/Schachter/Shuchter etc.—ritual slaughterer from Hebrew schochet

Shofer/Sofer/Schaeffer—scribe

Shulman/Skolnick—sexton

Spector—inspector or supervisor of schools

PERSONAL TRAITS

Alter/Alterman—old

Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane

Erlich--honest

Frum—devout

Gottleib—God lover, perhaps referring to someone very devout

Geller/Gelb/Gelber—yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair

Gross/Grossman—big

Gruber—coarse or vulgar

Feifer/Pfeifer—whistler

Fried/Friedman/Freedman—happy

Hoch/Hochman/Langer/Langerman—tall

Klein/Kleinman—small

Klugman---smart

Koenig—king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch

Krauss—curly, as in curly hair

Kurtz/Kurtzman—short

Reich/Reichman—rich

Reisser—giant

Roth/Rothman—red head

Roth/Rothbard—red beard

Shein/Schoen/Schoenman—pretty, handsome

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

Sussking/Ziskind---sweet child

Weiss/Weissbard--white hair/ beard

INSULTING NAMES

These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few remain:

Gans--goose                                  Inkyk--turkey

Grob--coarse/crude                     Kalb--calf

ANIMAL NAMES

It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom.

bear—Baer/Berman/Beerman/Berkowitz/Beronson

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)

carp—Karp

falcon—Falk/Sokol/Sokolovksy

finch—Fink

fox—Fuchs/Liss

pike—Hecht

ox—Ochs

quail-Wachtel

HOUSE SIGNS FROM FRANKFURT AND PRAGUE

Einhorn---unicorn

Hirschhorn--deer antlers

Loeb--lion

Rothschild—red shield

Schiff—ship

Spiegel—mirror

Stern—star

Strauss—ostrich or bouquet of flowers

HEBREW NAMES

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

Aaron—Aronson/ Aronoff

Asher

Benjamin

David—Davis/Davies

Ephraim—Fishl

Emanuel—Mendel

Isaac—Isaacs/Isaacson/Eisner

Jacob—Jacobs/Jacobson/Jacoby

Joseph--Josephs/Josephson

Judah—Idelsohn/Udell/Yudelson

Mayer/Meyer (Talmudic, not Biblical)

Menachem—Mann/Mendel

Pinchas--Pincus

Reuben—Rubin

Samuel—Samuels/Zangwill

Simon—Schimmel

Solomon—Zalman

HEBREW ACRONYMS

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)

HEBREW-DERIVED NAMES

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."  

Applebaum—pear tree

Birnbaum—pear tree

Buchsbaum—box tree

Kestenbaum—chestnut tree

Kirshenbaum—cherry tree

Mandelbaum—almond tree

Nussbaum—nut tree

Tannenbaum—fir tree

Teitelbaum—palm tree

other "baum" names

Names with these combinations were also chosen or purchased:

Blumen (flower)                                                         

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

Schoen/Schein (pretty)

Other aesthetically pleasing names

Diamond

Glick/Gluck—luck

Goldman

Hoffman—hopeful

Fried/Friedman/Freedman—happiness

Lieber/Lieberman—lover

Silber/Silberman--silver

FROM NON-JEWISH LANGUAGES

Sender/Saunders---from Alexander

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.

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