Bennett Muraskin’s piece on the history of Ashkenazi surnames made an Internet splash recently, after it originally ran on the culture site Jewish Currents. Jspace is sharing here Muraskin’s extensive catalogue of names, with the writer’s permission. Muraskin is also the author of the Association of Jewish Libraries’ “Guide to Yiddish Short Stories.”
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), and 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.
East European Jews, especially those under Czarist rule, 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 modernized, 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.”
Patronymics (Son Of)
In Yiddish or German, it would be “son” or “sohn.”
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, etc.
Based on Women’s Names
Reflecting the prominence of Jewish women in business, some families made last names out of women’s first 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.
“Ashkenazi” itself a Jewish last name.
NOTE: Some “berg” names may be “invented names” rather than place names.
Related to Garment Work or Tailoring:
Related to the Liquor Trade:
These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few remain: Inkyk–turkey; Grob/Gruber–coarse/crude; Kalb–cow.
It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom.
House Signs from Frankfurt and Prague
Some Jews either retained or adopted traditional Jewish names from the Bible.
The big two:
Cohen—Cohn, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan
Levi—Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson
Others from the Bible
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.
Similarly, Eckstein is Yiddish for cornerstone, perhaps derived from Psalms 118:22. Good(man) is a Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for “good”–tuviah. Margolin is the Hebrew for pearl and Jaffe/Yaffe is the Hebrew for beautiful.
Invented ‘Fancy Shmancy’ Names
When Jews were required to assume last names, many chose the nicest ones they could think of. 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 Aesthetically Pleasing Names
Berg, in its many variations, may be a place name or fall in the fancy category, as can: Diamond; Glick/Gluckluck; Fried/Friedman/Freedman–happy/peaceful; Goldman; Lieber/Lieberman—lovely man, as in “my dear sir;” Silber/Silberman—silver; Stein/Stone, either standing alone or as in “Einstein,” “Goldstein” or “Bernstein” etc.
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.” For example, Cohen to Cowan, Yalowitz to Yale, Rabinowitz to Robbins, as reflected in this ditty:
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!
Scholars have dismissed the claim that immigration inspectors changed the names of immigrants to sound more American, but that should not get in the way of a very old joke: A Jewish immigrant to America is told that he would be better off with a new name to start life here. A friend makes a suggestion, but by the time the immigrant completes the difficult sea voyage, he forgets. So when the immigration inspector asks for his name, he answers in Yiddish “Khob shoyn fargesn,” Yiddish for “I forgot already.” This, the inspector records as “Sean Ferguson.”
Food for Thought
What happened to the last names of Ashkenazic Jews who immigrated to pre-state Palestine and to early Israel? Some were changed for ideological reasons, as Zionists sought to distance themselves from their Ashkenazic heritage.
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