Variations in Jewish Given Names

I’ve written about Jewish given names before, but I wanted to look at a different aspect in this article. The main thing I’d like to point out is that given names change over time, and someone might be known as one name in one location and as something else after moving to another country, or even another town. Sometimes, for example, a name changed by an immigrant is easy to guess at, since the name has a clear equivalent in the new country. What happens when the equivalent is not considered a good name when the person arrives? Pinkhas is a Hebrew name which is fine in Hebrew, but the anglicized version is Phineas (not so popular). So what name might an immigrant have taken? Philip? Paul? It could be anything. However, that misses the point that sometimes we are staring at a name and have no idea what name it is actually. For example, I had a gg-grandfather whose first name was Shubsa. I didn’t know what name that was, and in the US he went by Sam. Sam is short for Samuel, or in Hebrew Shmuel. Is Shubse some kind of Yiddish nickname for Shmuel? Actually, it’s a Yiddish pronunciation of a variant of Shabbtai, a totally different name. There’s a derivation there which can be discovered, but it’s not the most obvious derivation to someone who doesn’t know Yiddish and is unfamiliar with the name. Indeed, for my gg-grandfather there was no easy English equivalent (such as someone name Yitzkhok going by Isaac, or someone named Yishai going by Jesse), which is why he went by Sam.

I’ve created a chart below that takes a small sampling of names, and compares what they look like in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and of course English. For English, I’ve given two versions which are the Anglicized version (i.e. the version likely to appear in an English-language bible and to be used by people in English-speaking countries today) and the transliterated version of the original Hebrew name (used by some religious Jewish people even today instead of the Anglicized version, but is mainly there to illustrate the difference between the Anglicized version and the original).

In the case of Yiddish and Polish names, there are many other possibly variations for many of the names listed. I’ve tried to list either the most commonly used and the most clearly different names (i.e. ones you would be unlikely to track backward to the original without help). Don’t hold me to being consistent with my transliteration of the Yiddish and Polish names. My goal was to make them readable, not consistent.

A few more notes. I use the letter-pair kh to represent the Hebrew letter Khet (ח). In English the more common pairing to use for spelling is actually ch, such as in Chanukah, although for the same reason Chanukah is frequently spelled Hanukah instead (because in English we reserve the ch pairing for a totally different sound, such as in the word ‘chair’) I use the pairing kh which is distinct from h, but cannot be confused with the sound we normally use for ch. This is why I write ‘Rakhael’ for the Hebrew transliteration of Rachel, but put ‘Rachel’ in parenthesis since in fact most women who bear this name write it as ‘Rachel’ even if they pronounce it as ‘Rakhael’. In fact, I’ve seen some people write their name as Rachael, which is a mix of those approaches (yet something which doesn’t help people to pronounce the name correctly).

Anglicized
Name
Transliterated Hebrew Transliterated Yiddish Polish Name(s) Hebrew Gn
Aaron Aharon (Aron) Arn/Oren Aron אַהֲרֹן M
Abigael Avigayil Avigayl Abigail אֲבִיגַיִל F
Abraham Avraham Avrom/Avrum Abram אַבְרָהָם M
Alexander Alexander Sander/Sender Szandor אַלֶכְּסַנְדְר M
Anna/Hannah Chana Khane/Knanke Hanka/Hania חַנָּה F
Daniel Daniyel Danil/Donye Danilo/Danek דָּנִיֵּאל M
Deborah Devora Devorye/Dvoshe Dworja דְּבוֹרָה F
Ephraim Ephraim Efroyim/Froyke Efrem/Akram אֶפְרָיִם M
Eliezer Eliezer Elieyzer/Leyzer Lejzor אֱלִיעֶזֶר M
Elizabeth Elisheva Elisheve Elzbieta/Elka אֱלִישֶׁבַע F
Eve Chava Khave Chawa/Ewa/Ewka חַוָּה F
Gabriel Gavriel Gavriel/Gavrilik Gabor/Gabrys גַבְרִיאֵל M
Isaiah Yehoshua Ishaye/Shaye Izajasz יְשַׁעְיָהוּ M
Isaac Yitzchak Ayzik/Itskhok/Izak/Itzik Izaak/Icchok/Icek יִצְחָק M
Israel Yisroel Isroel/Srulik Izrael/Iser/Srul יִשְׂרָאֵל M
Jacob Yakov Yankef/Yankel Jakub/Jankiel/Kuba יַעֲקֹב M
Jeremiah/Jeremy Yirmiyahu Yirmiya/Irmye Jeremiasz יִרְמְיָהוּ M
Joel Yo’el Yoyel Joil/Jowel יוֹאֵל M
Jonah Yonah Yona/Yoyne/Yavne Jonasz יוֹנָה M
Jonathan Yonatan Yehoynosn Jonatan יוֹנָתָן M
Joseph Yoseph Yoysef/Yose/Yosl Jozef/Josel יוֹסֵף M
Joshua Yehoshua Yehoshue/Yoshue/Hesyl Jozue/Gowsiej/Hojsza/Szyja יְהוֹשֻׁעַ M
Judah Yehuda Yehude Juda/Judka/Idel יְהוּדָה M
Leah Leah Leye/Laya Leja/Lejka לֵאָה F
Matthew Mattityahu Mates Maciej/Maciek/Mateusz מַתִּתְיָהוּ M
Michael Mikha’el (Michael) Mikhoel/Mikhke Michal/Michalek/Michas מִיכָאֵל M
Moses Moshe Moyshe Mojzesz/Mosko/Moszka מֹשֶׁה M
Nathaniel Natan’el Nisanel/Sanel/Sanyek Natanael/Sanel נְתַנְאֵל M
Obadiah Ovadiah Ovadye/Vadye Abdiasz עֹבַדְיָה M
Rachel Rakhael (Rachel) Rokhl/Rokhe Rachela/Ruchla/Rechel רָחֵל F
Rebecca Rivka Rifke/Rive Rywka/Rebeka/Rysza רִבְקָה F
Reuben Reuven Ruven/Ruvn/Rubin Ruben רְאוּבֵן M
Samson Shimshon Shimshen/Shimshl Szymszon/Samson/Szymszel שִׁמְשׁוֹן M
Samuel Shmuel Shmuel/Shmul/ Szmul/Sam/Samek שְׁמוּאֵל M
Sarah Sara Sore/Sorke/Tserl Sara/Sura/Cyra שָׂרָה F
Saul Shaul Shoyel/Shaul Saul/Szoel/Szawel/Zavel שָׁאוּל M
Simon Shimon Shimen Szymon/Szymen/Zymel שִׁמְעוֹן M
Solomon Shlomo Shloyme/Zalman Salomon/Szloma/Zalman שְׁלֹמֹה M
Susanna Shoshana Shoshane/Shoshe Szoszana/Zuzanna/Szosa שׁוֹשַׁנָּה F

As an aside, I wanted to point out a street sign I noticed the other day while walking in Jerusalem:

Shimeon St. in Jerusalem, Israel

If one were to transliterate the Hebrew name properly, it would be Shimon St. In English, however, the name was anglicized into Simeon, or Simon. Somehow the person determining the proper name in English combined the proper transliteration (including the Sh sound instead of S) but also included the anglicized contribution of -eon from Simeon, even though that sound doesn’t exist in the original Hebrew. It was actually this sign which put the idea in my head to write this article.

I give the city a hard time, and indeed the mis-named streets are a long-running joke among native English-speakers in Israel (as are mis-spelled and mis-translated restaurant menus), but they have gotten better over the years. I once noticed a street that had three different English spellings on three different street signs for the street, including two different spellings on different sides of the same sign. They later changed them to all be the same.

My favorite street in Jerusalem is Abraham Lincoln St., where in Hebrew they pronounce the silent l, and get something like Avraham Linko-lin. Try to pronounce that name with the correct English pronunciation to a taxi driver, and you won’t get anywhere. Pronounce it Linko-lin and you’re golden.

I should add that these examples (besides being amusing) are intended to help you realize that just like government bureaucrats in these cases didn’t bother to spend the time to find the correct spelling or pronunciation of a name, when one’s ancestors were traveling through Europe, getting on ships, arriving in the US, similar bureaucrats may also have not spelled things correctly. Also, while we are pretty strict with spelling these days, it was not a sacrosanct a hundred years ago.

For more information on Jewish given names, there are some very good books and web sites available. Here are a few books:

Beider, Alexander. A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migrations. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2001. 728pgs

Hoffman, William F., and George W. Helon. First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings. Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 1998. 426pgs

Gorr, Shmuel, and Chaim Freedman. Jewish Personal Names: Their Origin, Derivation, and Diminutive Forms. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, 1992. 128pgs

Feldblyum, Boris. Russian Jewish Given Names. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, 1998. 152pgs

Cohn, Rella Israly. Yiddish Given Names: a Lexicon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. 432pgs

A few notes on the books:

Beider’s Dictionary (and its less expensive Handbook version) is really an amazing resource, but keep in mind when using it that it does not attempt to bring any modern context to the names. For all intents and purposes it ends its look at the names mentioned around 150 years ago. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that the book does not try to look at the evolution of the names into the 20th century. It is still incredibly useful, but you will not find any information in the book about modern usage or changes in the names.

Hoffman and Helon’s book on Polish names is a great book and a bargain. It is a publication of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, and is not specifically Jewish, but it has broad coverage of Jewish names, and shows the Jewish roots of many Polish names. It points out the different pronunciations and spellings of names that came from different regions, and when there is a specific Jewish version it generally points it out.

Gorr’s book, which was finished after his death by Freedman, is certainly not as scientific a look at the history of given names as Beider’s, but it is nonetheless very important as a look at the actual usage of many of the names listed in this brief work. Unlike Beider whose name variations are shown using transliteration, Gorr’s book shows the variations with the original Yiddish (in Hebrew lettering) and transliteration. Considering the difference in spelling between Hebrew and Yiddish, this is a very useful feature of the book. It’s a short book, but with some great information.

Feldblyum’s book on Russian names has the most interesting story behind the book. It is largely based on a Russian book published in 1911 by Iser Kulisher in Zhitomir, Ukraine. The book was intended to help government bureaucrats make sense of all the variations of Jewish given names. This was a serious problem, as people were forbidden to change their name as recorded at their birth. If they were listed in a document with even the slightest variation of their name, the listing was considered a different person. To use an example from the book, if a tax list showed that Moshe paid his taxes, but his name in another register was listed as Mojshe, then he could be taxed again.

Cohn’s book on Yiddish names, like Gorr’s, was also published posthumously. As an academically published book it is incredibly expensive (listed at $165). For that price, you get much less than the much larger, more comprehensive (and at $85 cheaper) Beider book (or even in some ways the $29 Handbook). The introductory essays of the book are good, but the lexicon itself is a bit frustrating. For example, for a book on Yiddish names, it doesn’t actually include the original Yiddish spellings in the book at all, only transliterations. Truthfully, Beider doesn’t include the names in their original Yiddish either, but at least he references the Hebrew names they are based on (in Hebrew) and provides an index of the Yiddish names in Hebrew letters in the back of the book. Cohn offers an index of Hebrew names as well, but oddly transliterates those too. Her index of English names and the Yiddish equivalents is useful. I wonder if some of these shortcomings would have been fixed if Cohn had lived to finish the book herself instead of having it finished after her death.

For web sites, one place to look is the Given Name Data Bases (GNDBs) at JewishGen. Truthfully, this database drives me nuts. It appears to have been last updated in 2003. You can search for ‘European’ names or ‘Foreign Names’ which means, for example you can search for names that were from Poland which is European and see what people changed their names to in the United States which is Foreign. In reverse, you can choose a Foreign country and see name changes to a European country. The records that you see are as varied as the people who filled out the information that makes up the database. Some records provide many alternate names, some don’t. It would seem the database is in need of a major overhaul, and merging into a single database would be a nice start. Also, beyond this major limitation, it doesn’t actually tell you the origin of the names, but only what the person who filled out their individual information filled out. The information therefore can be very useful for trying to figure out what someone named Berish who lived in Romania and moved to Argentina might have changed their name to (Bernardo) but it’s more hit-or-miss when trying to just find out about the name Berish (you nee to pick European/Foreign pairs to search and hope you get lucky).

A general site on given names called Behind the Name, has a section on Jewish names which is very useful. The site shows the etymology and history of names, and will show the language of original (Hebrew or Yiddish for example). If the name was originally in Hebrew or Yiddish, the site will also give you the name in Hebrew letters.

Another useful site, believe it or not, is Wikipedia. Obviously it’s not consistent on how it deals with names, but there are many Wikipedia entries on given names. Try searching for a name and add ‘given name’ to the search. For example, see these entries for Israel (name) and Rebecca (given name).

What’s your favorite name story? What name did it take years for you to decipher? Post your stories in the comments.

13 thoughts on “Variations in Jewish Given Names

  1. Perhaps the strangest Americanized name in my family tree is that of my second great grandfather Selig (Zelig). Zelig is of course Yiddish. The full Hebrew name on his tombstone was Simcha Zelig.

    Anyway, for two years in the local city directories, his name appeared as “Salem.” One year I might assume a clerical error, but since it appears there for two years, it seems he toyed with changing his name. He ultimately returned to Selig.

    Most Americanizations I’ve seen utilize the initial letters, and I suspect there was often a Kabbalistic intent in doing so. But even though ‘Salem’ is short for “Jerusalem” the uncommon nature of the name made it a very unlikely choice.

  2. My grandfather’s name appears on Ellis Island’s passenger record listing as “Thamen”; Ancestry.com lists the name as “Thamer” from the same record. When I have looked at the manifest it looked like “Shamer”. He was known as “Sam” on his American naturalization papers. He was from the Empire of Russia (Sharkovshchina). I wonder if anyone can suggest what the Russian/Yiddish/Hebrew name may have really been. Is it possible that it was Shomer or Shamai or was it possibly something else?
    Marilyn

  3. Marilyn, do you know where your grandfather is buried? His Hebrew name might be on the gravestone which would clear up any questions.

    Feldblyum’s book lists Shemariya as a name – from a son son of King Rehoboam listed in II Chronicles 11:19.

    As Sharkawshchyna is now in Belarus, you might look to resources like the JewishGen Balrus SIG (http://www.jewishgen.org/belarus/) to try to find records on your family.

    If you give me some more details I’m happy to look at the records myself and try to help.

  4. Wow, what a great article! Thank you so much!

    I wonder if you could help me at all. My great-grandfather was a Polish Jew born in Warsaw. I’m certain that his legal name was Henryk, but I have a few letters from his brother that from their content, seem to be to Henryk, my great-grandfather, though they’re addressed to “Hersch”. It says on the Jewish Name Database that the local secular form of Hersch could be Henryk, but do you know if Hersch was ever used as a nickname for Henryk?
    The thing is, Henryk’s sister married a man called Herszkowicz, and I wonder if these letters are to him rather than Henryk.

    As you’re so well-versed in the subject, I’d really appreciate any information you have.

    Thanks again for such a brilliant, informative article!

    Miriam Lewin-Susskind (miriamlewinsusskind@yahoo.co.uk)

    1. Miriam,

      Thank you. I would think the the use of the name Hersch is probably your great-grandfather and not his brother-in-law. As you can see, it’s not uncommon to have variations in first names, and even for the same person to use many different names in different contexts. I can’t say for sure, but that’s my gut feeling.

      The question to ask is how common would it have been then to adress a letter to a nickname based on the beginning of someone’s surname? My gut says it wouldn’t have been very common.

      Without seeing the letters and knowing who is being written about I couldn’t be sure (I would try to confirm details in the letters and see if I could match them to one or the other) but it would seem based on what you told me the letters are probably written to your great-grandfather Henryk.

      Philip

  5. We have first hand experience now of the name changing across borders having come from the UK to Israel. In the UK we were Catherine Mark and Judah. The intention for all of us was to keep our secular names even though we all have the a hebrew or Yiddish name too which apart from in Judahs case are not direct translations and therefore not what we consider to be our everyday names.

    When we came to Israel our names were written on our documents for us based on us filling out forms previously in England using English.

    Judahs name was written as ג’ודו which is a direct transliteration of his name and completely correct.

    Marks name was written as מרק which read as marak but it is quite a common miss spell and people know what to say when they see it. It is missing another letter for it to be perfect. It could be corrected but it isn’t worth the hassle. Will people know that in two hundred years though or will the records show a few hundred maraks. By the way it means soup in hebrew which is quite funny.

    Myself I was doomed from the outset because in hebrew there is no sound for th making writing my name an impossibility. It was written as קתרין which reads as Catrin or Catrine depending on your accent. Now anyone coming from an English speaking Country trends to guess it is probably catherine but others call me carton and i get that daily. I never call myself that but the records are not going to know that in the future and where only my hebrew version is recorded no one will ever know what my name really was.

    Of course if I had used my Yiddish name everyone could have read it fine but I would have sounded even more foreign both to me, my friends and family and to Israel is.

    1. Catherine,

      I also have a funny future genealogy problem connected to my aliyah. As you know, in those endless forms you fill out when moving to Israel you fill out the names of your parents. My sister made aliyah before me and she rightly filled out the names of our parents using their legal English names. However, I filled out the final forms on the plane to Israel (it was a Nefesh b’Nefesh flight and they had Interior Ministry employees on the plane) and I was so tired that when they asked for the names of my parents in Hebrew, I gave them my parent’s Hebrew names. So if in the future someone were to find records for my sister and me, our parents would have completely different names.

  6. This is one of the most useful articles on Jewish given names that I’ve read, and I have read quite a few. The information that a person whose name appears slightly differently on different documents will be taxed separately for each given name finally explains why my great-grandfather, a poor man, was listed three times in the same tax list. Thank you! Was there a Russian law you can direct me to?

    I too do not worship at the foot of the Given Names Database. For one thing, if a name appears in the records starting with a capital I that is pronounced Y, you generally won’t find it in the GNDB unless you look it up under Y. It is woefully incomplete – at least half a dozen names from my gg-grandfather to my grandfather’s generation do not appear in the GNDB; Yochanon and Nosel are just two examples. (I figured out that Nosel is the same as Notel, which does appear.)

    Are you aware of anything that discusses the issue of what I call “morphing” of names? Let’s say someone’s name is Eliezer. Often he’ll be called simply Leyzer. I wonder if sometimes the last syllable was dropped rather than the first, so that he was called Eliez, and then in the next generation or two when someone was being named after him, the name used was Elias or Eliash. Any thoughts?

    1. Judith,

      Thank you for your kind comments on my article. For more information on the Russian laws, I would suggest taking a look at Boris Feldblyum’s book, or a bit easier, an article he wrote on the subject before the publication of the book:

      http://www.bfcollection.net/fast/articles/understand_names.pdf

      As for the name morphing, it’s a very complicated issue. I can expand your specify example in my own family. I knew my grandfather’s brother as Hill. I had always assumed Hill was short for Hillel. When I started doing research into my family I discovered in passenger records his name was listed as Leiser. It took me some time to discover Leiser was short for Eliezer, as you mention. It took me even longer to discover his full name was Yechiel Eliezer, which became Chie Leiser, which became Hill Louis. Yechiel -> Hill makes some sense, Eliezer -> Louis also makes some sense if you know about the Leiser intermediate form.

      It’s intermediate forms like Leiser that make figuring out name transitions the hardest. Another example is the Hungarian women’s name Aranka. It’s a form of the name Aurelia. Aurelia is based on the Latin aureus, which means golden. So if someone named Aranka moved to the US, would her name have become Goldie? or Irene? or Erin? or Ora? If she moved to Israel would her name have become Zehava? or perhaps Golda? The only Aranka I knew became Esther…

      I don’t know of any articles that specifically cover this issue, although there are many articles on the subject of Jewish name changes. Some may discuss the issue. The main resource for finding articles on the topic of Jewish names, are the two bibliographies created by Edwin Lawson and published in Volume 1 and Volume 4 of the These Are The Names: Studies in Jewish Onomastics book series. You can find both of these bibliographies in a PDF online here:

      http://www.fredonia.edu/faculty/emeritus/edwinlawson/bibliographies/JewishPersonalNamesBibliographies.pdf

      Name change articles are discussed in section 8 (pg. 18) in the first bibliography, and section 17 (pg. 93) in the second bibliography. The only downside to these bibliographies is that the second one was published in 2003, so the last ten years are not covered. Hopefully there will be a third bibliography in a future volume of the series (volume 5 was published in 2011 – let’s hope it’s not 2019 before the next volume is released).

      All the best,

      Philip

  7. Dear Phillip,

    I stumbled across your blog and this post in particular last night and found the information extremely helpful! My family is Russian Jewish (from Odessa) and the names have been tripping me up in a major way. My great-grandfather used the English name Julius, but when he sent for his siblings to come to the U.S., their destination was given as to their “brother Idel.” Your chart reminded me that his Hebrew name was in fact Yehuda, so Idel is actually logical, rather than a corruption of something else.

    I was hoping you might have some insight on a different name: Rachmiel. I’m almost positive this was one of the siblings, coming in separately, as all of the information is right. But I only know his name as Michael, which isn’t particularly Yiddish. Is Rachmiel a name you’ve come across before?

    Thanks for writing this blog; I can tell it’ll be a great resource.

    1. To me it sounds like a form or Yerachmiel. Feldblyum’s book lists the kinnuim (secular names) used for Ierakhmeil (the spelling he uses in the book) as: Guchlek, Gutslik, Ziskind, Zuse and Zusman. Variants include, well a lot, but includes Rakhmael, Rakhmiel, and Rakhmil. kh in these is the Hebrew letter khet, which in English transliteration is sometimes ch, such as in Chanukah.

      However, I think the simpler answer is that the Hebrew form of Michael sounds a lot like Rachmiel. Michael in Hebrew is pronounced mee-kha-el. Compare that to rakh-mee-el. It’s not identical, but it’s not far off either. If your great-grandfather’s brother came to America, he probably found no easy equivalent for Yerachmiel/Rachmiel and went with Michael instead.

      1. That’s very interesting; thank you for replying! I’ve located his grave now, and it’s in a Jewish cemetery, so I’m hopeful that it might have his Hebrew/Yiddish name on the stone as an independent verification.

        I have so many questions that I want to ask, but I don’t want to inundate your comments section with it. Thanks again!

        1. Check out the new Q&A page. Click on the link in the top menu of this page. Ask as many questions as you like, and I’ll try to answer them.

Comments are closed.