Tag Archives: surnames

Don’t get stuck inside the box

One of the most common problems I’ve seen when helping people with their genealogy is needing to get past their own assumptions. For example, a common assumption for people researching their family that came to the US is that their names were changed at Ellis Island (they were never changed there, see my article Name Changes at Ellis Island on that topic). Once you get someone to understand that name changes were not done at Ellis Island, you can then get them to start researching other places that the name change might have been registered (such as courts in NYC) or other places where the original name might make an appearance (such as in naturalization papers). While finding these kinds of sources can be difficult, I’ve found convincing someone that their assumption about when their family’s name was changed can be significantly harder. One of the keys to successful genealogy research always needs to be to keep an open mind. Don’t get stuck inside a box just because family lore passed down a story and it must be true.

In Jewish genealogy, there are some common areas where people in my experience seem to get stuck. Here are a few of them.


Most people don’t realize that a hundred years ago and more, the spellings of names were a lot more fluid than they are today. This certainly varied by country, but remember that people moved around and between countries that even used different character sets. Sometimes when someone moved to the US, they found their relatives used one spelling and they had chosen a different spelling. Sometimes they changed their names to match their already established cousins, but sometimes they didn’t.

One example in my family was a relative who was born with his mother’s surname (Lichtman) and continued using that name after moving from Poland to Germany, but when he moved to the US he wanted to take his father’s surname (Berl) but found his cousins had already taken the name Berlau (because it sounded better to them) and he thus took the name Berlau to match his cousins. If you were researching this family, and knew they lived in Germany you wouldn’t find Berlau, because they lived under the name Lichtman, and if you knew they were originally from Poland you also wouldn’t find they because his family’s name there was Berl. For more information on why it was fairly common in some areas to take one’s mother’s maiden name instead of your father’s surname, see my article Religious marriages, civil marriages and surnames from mothers.

That might be more of an extreme case, but I’ve seen people insist that their family was always something like Horowitz, and the record showing a Horovitz couldn’t be the same family. I’ve also seen records in my research where the same family had their records listed with many different spellings, including starting with different letters altogether – such as Cellerkraut and Zellerkraut, or in my own family Zylberman and Silberman (and later in the US Silver).

So keep an open mind about spelling. Even if you found a document in the old country that has the spelling you think is right, that doesn’t mean every document will share that spelling, or that every family member used that same spelling. One of the most famous rabbis of the 20th century in the US was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (referred to by many as The Rav). His brother Ahron spelled his last name Soloveichik (without the t). If you were researching that name you would need to be flexible on spelling.

‘Jewish’ Names, Nicknames and Kinnui

Given names are also a source of much confusion. It wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Europe to be known by at least three different names simultaneously. They had a ‘Jewish name’, a nickname and a secular name (kinnui). For example, my grandfather’s name at birth in Vienna was Jakob. As a child in Poland he was known as Yankel (a pet form of Jakob). He later moved to Antwerp, Belgium where he spelled his name Jacob, but was known professionally as Jacques (the French form of Jacob). When he moved to the United States his name was listed as Jacob, but he quickly started using the name Jack (which is phonetically similar to Jacques, but derived form the name John, not Jacob). So within a string of about 15 years (and 4 countries) he used the first names Jakob, Jacob, Yankel, Jacques, and Jack. That doesn’t include the Hebrew form of his name Yakov, which is what he used in a religious context. That also doesn’t take into consideration variant spelling that might show up in documents, such as the common spelling Jakub instead of Jakob in Poland.

My grandfather's business in Antwerp in the 1930s
My grandfather’s business in Antwerp in the 1930s

Imagine researching my grandfather knowing nothing more than his commonly-used first name Jack. Jack in English is derived form John. Maybe you’d recognize that John is an uncommon Jewish name, and look for something else. Maybe you would guess Jacob (or find his Hebrew name Yakov and derive Jacob from that), but would you think to look for the French form Jacques in the capital of the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium? Would you look for variant spellings Jakob and Jakub in Poland or Austria? This is a real example of the kinds of variations in given names that occurred very frequently. So keep an open mind as to the variations in given names.

Russia, Russia, Russia

This section should really be called “Location, Location, Location” but most times I’ve run into this, it’s involved Russia. The reason Russia is such a problem is that Russia the country was preceded by Russia the Empire, which was considerably larger than Russia is today. It was more or less the size of what the Soviet Union was in its heyday for those who remember somewhat-more-recent geography. In addition to the size of Russia, there was also an uneven distribution of Jews in the empire. That’s because in 1791 Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement, a large region on the western side of the Russian Empire which was the only region in the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. This was because Russia had acquired these territories through a series of wars and diplomatic maneuvers and there were too many Jews to expel (that had been tried, but without success). The Pale consisted of the region that today includes most of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and small parts of western Russia. That is, Jews lived in all of these countries, and for the most part didn’t live in the great majority of what today is Russia.

That’s not to say some Jews didn’t live in Russia itself. There are always exceptions to the rule. However, if you’re researching your family which came to America in the 19th or early 20th century from “Russia” then it’s far more likely that they did not come from what is Russia today, but rather one of these other countries. When researching your family who you’ve been told came “from Russia” you need to keep an open mind as to where they actually came from, and look at all of these countries as possibilities.

One interesting hint you can find is to look at census records and passenger manifests and see if they list the language spoken. The country of origin may be “Russia” but if the language is “Latvian” it’s a good bet they were not from Russia. Other records like naturalization papers, military draft records, and historical newspapers can all be useful to help piece together where your family originated. For more information on these sources of information, see my article Finding Information on US Immigrants.

This advice applies to all countries, even if Russia is the best example of a source of confusion. Poland is another good example of a place with confusing boundaries. Poland was divided up among the major powers of the past few centuries several times. Parts went to Germany, Austria and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century it became independent after WWI, only to be occupied by Nazi Germany in WWII. After WWII, parts of Germany were transferred to Poland, while parts of Poland were transferred to the Soviet Union. In short, it’s possible for one person to have lived in easily four different countries over their lifetime without ever having moved. The borders just moved around them.

Take for example, Brest (Brisk in Yiddish – the home of the Soloveitchik rabbinic line), which had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the third partition in 1795, when it was transferred to Russia. During WWI, the city was captured by Germany, although Germany lost it when they lost the war. After brief stints in the short-lived Belorusian Democratic Republic and Ukrainian People’s Republic, Brest became part of independent Poland in 1921. Poland was of course invaded by the Germans, although it was initially divided with the Soviet Union, who took control of Brest in 1939. In 1941, Germany broke their pact with the Soviet Union and invaded, taking Brest (along with a lot more territory). In 1944, the Soviet Union re-took Brest, now from Germany, and after the war it became part of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Brest became part of an independent Belarus. If I’m counting correctly, someone born on the eve of WWI in Brest, and still living in the 1990s, would have lived in seven different countries.

JewishGen’s Locality Pages (reachable by searching their Communities Database) can be useful for determining the history of where a town was located. Although they won’t give the granularity of the above description for a town, it does, for example, show that Brest was part of the Russian Empire, Poland, the Soviet Union, and now Belarus (see the Brest, Belarus page). It also shows some of the variant names of the town, has links to many resources for the town, and shows towns with Jewish communities that are near Brisk.


In genealogy we talk frequently of brick walls – those insurmountable challenges, finding one more generation back, finding that one piece of information that links one family to another. Sometimes those brick walls take years to break through, until a new database gets indexed and posted online, you find that one document in an archive, or you find that distant cousin with the last piece of the puzzle hidden away in an album or desk drawer.

My advise is simply not to add more bricks to your walls. Make you research easier by not limiting the avenues you pursue. Always be willing to check variations in names and places, and never take any story at face value without multiple supporting documents. Even with multiple documents, if you’re hitting a dead end, double-check everything. If you received information from relatives without supporting documentation, then research it all from scratch, and add sources to your records so you know what is accurate, and what still needs more research.

I liken genealogy to detective work, and just like a detective needs to document all of his sources, you also need to document what you do, and make sure everything is linked to multiple sources. If you do discover that your family’s ancestral town is in Ukraine, not Russia, or that your family name in Europe was Zylbersteyn, not Silver, you’ll then have all the supporting documents you’ll need to convince your family members, close and distant, of what you’ve found.

You’ll also, and this may seem silly but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this, be able to convince yourself at a later date that the information you have on a specific person or family is accurate. The earliest research I did, probably twenty years ago, had no sources at all. I just entered what I found and wrote who I got the information from, but didn’t link to any sources. When I research the same people today and find conflicting information, I have nothing to compare to from twenty years ago, which is a problem.

In short, step out of the box when researching your family, and be open to your relatives having been wrong about some aspect of your family history (my grandfather told me our family was from one town in Galicia, which we were, but just one generation earlier had come from a different town that had much more information on our family). No name has a set spelling, and no information should be considered the truth without multiple sources to back it up (and even then be open to conflicting information).

Jewish Names from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1917)

Encyclopedia-Religion-Ethics-Names-JewishIsrael Abrahams was the editor, from 1888 to 1908, of the Jewish Quarterly Review. He taught at Jews’ College, London, before he became a reader of Talmudics at the Univeristy of Cambridge from 1902 to his death in 1925. He was perhaps best known for his work, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, published in 1896.

Between 1908 and 1926, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics was published. In volume 9, published in 1917, is an article titled NAMES (Jewish) written by Abrahams. The entire encyclopedia can be downloaded from Archive.org, although I’ve made a PDF of just the page with the entry.

I’ve provided the full text of the article below, with minor changes. These include adding some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read, expanding most abbreviations, and adding links to many of the sources referenced.

NAMES (Jewish) — The post-Biblical period shows much the same general phenomena as are discernible in the Biblical age (see NAMES[Hebrew]; HDB iii. 478 ff.; and George Buchanan Gray, Hebrew Proper Names, London, 1896 — see copy on the Internet Archive – PT). The most significant modification concerns the marking of family sequence by the application to descendants of names borne by ancestors. In Palestine the naming of children after their grandfather can be traced only to the Greek period, about the 3rd century B.C. But the Elephantine papyri carry the custom back some two centuries for the Egyptian Jews (Gray, in Studien zur semitischen Philologie, Giessen, 1914, p. 161 ff.).

In the Rabbinic period the custom was well established, and it was recognized that a change had occurred from the older Israelite practice of naming a child after some circumstance at his birth. The change was justified by Rabbis of the 2nd century A.D. on two grounds: (1) the need of aiding the preservation of family genealogies, and (2) the loss of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in selecting the incident which was to be enshrined in the child’s name (Midrash Genesis Rabbäh, xxxvii. — see this passage in translation in the Internet Archive, pg 299. — PT).

It has never become customary for Jewish children to bear their parents’ names; there are exceptions, but in most cases the child seems to have been posthumous. More usual is the choice of the grandfather’s name, though the tendency has been, since the 13th century, not to name a child after a living relative (Leopold Löw, Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur, Szegedin, 1875, p.95). (This has been the custom of Ashkenzai Jews since 13th century, but not of Sephardi Jews who do name after living relatives, particularly grandparents. – PT)

A full study of the history of Jewish personal names throughout the ages was published by Leopold Zunz in 1836 (reprinted in Zunz’s Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin, 1876, ii. 1-82). At that time the Prussian Government, following a Bohemian precedent of 1787, was proposing to introduce legislation restricting the Jews to Biblical personal names (cf. Joseph Jacobs, in Jewish Encyclopedia ix. 156 f.). Zunz had no difficulty in demonstrating that Jews had freely used non-Biblical names, adopting in succession Babylonian, Persian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and later European designations. Many Hebrew names were translated into the vernaculars of Europe and Asia. Zunz’s work contains long lists of the Jewish names of various periods; and there are some similar lists in Jacobs’ article. In these lists Biblical names by no means predominate. The variety of Jewish names revealed in the English records of the 12th and 13th centuries is very remarkable.

With regard to surnames, there are indications that descriptive epithets were becoming common in the Rabbinic period, and that these were developed chiefly in lands where Arabic influence prevailed. Family-names were turned in surnames; so were place-names. The many wanderings of the Jews in the Middles Ages and more recent times induced the custom of naming a new settler after the town of country from which he had migrated. Then, again, such terms as Cohen and Levi, originally descriptive of descent, became surnames. Such names as Maimuni (or Maimonides), i.e. ‘son of Maimon,’ in the 12th century, and Mendelssohn, ‘son of Mendel,’ in the 18th, are illustrations of the practice of converting the father’s personal name into a surname.

Animal namers are probably more common among Jews than among the general population (See my article Animals and Name Pairs in Jewish Given Names on this topic – PT). In the mediæval period occupations suggested many names, and in the centuries approaching the modern age names were derived, especially in Germany, from the business signs (such as the red shield which gave the Rothschilds their name). The intercourse between Jews and their fellow-citizens after the emancipation period rendered it necessary for the former to bear distinctive civic names. This had been the case long before in Spain, and was growing common throughout Europe when, in 1787, the custom became regular in Central and Northern Europe. In the year named the Jews of the Austrian empire were ordered by law to adopt surnames; if any refused, the registration commissioners were empowered to enforce names of their own selection (cf. Jacobs, loc. cit.).

The naming of the child has at various times been a ceremony of considerable moment. The period covered by Scripture is fully dealt with in the Bible Dictionaries and in article NAMES (Hebrew). From the 12th century, according to Löw (p. 97), not earlier, Jewish boys were names on their eighth day, during the circumcision rite. The formulæ vary; the now common form may be found in the Authorized Daily Prayer Book (ed. Simeon Singer, London, 1914, p. 305 (See a copy of the American edition of Singer’s siddur at the Internet Archive – in this edition look for page 449 – PT); cf. Löw, p. 101). A formula for the naming of girls is given in some rites (see Book of Prayer . . . according to the Custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, ed. Moses Gaster, London, 1901, i. 180); it is becoming customary to name girls at the first visit paid by the mother to the Synagogue after the birth of the child (Singer, p. 312).

The names thus given are mostly in Hebrew, though sometimes the vernacular names are merely transliterated into Hebrew letters – a custom which goes back to Talmudic times. Such names as Alexander and Julian were this treated in the Rabbinic age. Often the Hebrew and common names corresponded either exactly or in meaning, but in modern times there is frequently no exact correspondence between the Hebrew and ordinary names; this the chief Rabbi Hermann Adler had the name Naphtali. There is, however, some remote connexion in meaning between the two names. It is still customary to find a Hebrew name beginning with the same letter as the vernacular name. Most Jews still bear two names (though the two are often identical), the one Hebrew (termed ‘sacred name’ and used in Hebrew documents, in the Synagogue, in epitaphs, and so forth), the other vernacular (termed ‘common name,’ used for ordinary purposes).

The Hebrew names thus conferred are borne throughout life, except that, under Kabbalistic influence, some rites direct the change of name in case of illness, in a prayer for the patient’s recovery (for a formula see Gaster, p. 195). This custom is now more honoured in the breach than in the observance, though it has some Talmudic authority, for in Talmud Bavli (Babylonian) Rosh Hashanah, 16b, mention is made of the efficiacy of a change of name.

Names are still changed on conversion thus a Jewish convert to Christianity is given a new name, such as Paul, while a convert to Judaism receives a patriarchal name (Abraham, Sarah, or the like). On the other hand, it was held by the Rabbis a meritorious trait in the sons of Jacob that in their Egyptian environment ‘they did not change their names’ (Leviticus Rabbah, xxxii. 5).

A pleasant custom with regard to Hebrew names is the selection of a Scriptural text, beginning and ending with the same letters as the Hebrew name; the text is then a kind of motto for the bearer of the name. A long list of such texts may be found in Seligman Baer, Abodat Yisrael, Rödelheim, 1868, p. 106. (See the opensiddur.org project to transcribe Baer’s Avodat Yisroel – PT) Some have sought the source of this custom in the Talmudic references to an older school usage. ‘Repeat to me thy verse,’ says a visitor to the school (cf. the incidents recorded in Hagigah, 15a). But the verse in these passages was some recently-learned text, and apparently had no connexion with the pupil’s name.

LITERATURE. — To the works referred to in the course of the article, add: J. Jacobs, Jews of Angevin England, London, 1893, esp. pp. 345-369; H. Gross, Gallia judaica, Paris, 1897; and, for the ancient period, S. Daiches, Publication no. 2 of Jews’ College, London, 1910.


Other historical articles about Jewish names:
Jewish Surnames: An instructive and suggestive essay on an interesting subject (1904)
Casual racism and onomastics from a century ago

For all articles on Jewish names from this site, go to the Names page.

Jewish Surnames: An instructive and suggestive essay on an interesting subject (1904)

New-Era-Jewish-SurnamesIn 1904, a British man named Albert Montefiore Hyamson wrote an article for a US magazine called The New Era Illustrated Magazine. The publication had been founded in 1902 in Boston as the New Era Jewish Magazine, but changed its name when moving its offices to New York shortly thereafter. In 1904 Hyamson was only 29, but would go on to publish many books, including topical dictionaries and many books on Jewish history and Zionism. One book he wrote not that long after in 1908 was A History of the Jews in England, which can be found online.

Hyamson himself had his own part in Zionist history, first editing a publication called the Zionist Review for the local British Zionist Federation starting in 1917, and by 1921 had gone with Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner of Palestine, to the British Mandate to take a position in charge of immigration. He served in that position until 1934 when his penchant for not delegating work had caused a nine month backlog in immigration applications, but not before angering much of the Jewish population for enforcing Britain’s strict immigration rules. Hyamson would later, become a leader in Jewish opposition to the foundation of a Jewish State. In 1904, however, he was simply a civil servant and a writer, and he wrote the following article on the topic of Jewish Surnames.

The original can be found in a bound copy of the New Era Illustrated at the Internet Archive (pg. 290-297), although I’ve excerpted the article itself so you can just download the relevant pages, and the text is reproduced below. I’ve taken the liberty of adding some additional paragraph breaks to make the text a little more readable here.

Jewish Surnames.



THE adoption of hereditary surnames by Jews took place in different localities on various occasions, The first to have taken them seem to have been the Sephardim, who possessed their beautifully sounding surnames centuries ago, and many of whom, in their exile and wanderings, retained them wherever they went. These surnames were not, however, in every case preserved pure and undefiled. In the Mohammedan countries the tendency was to bring them nearer to the Arabic standard. In Italy and other of the Continental states, they were occasionally changed to new ones bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the old. Such was the case with the Disraelis and the Alontefiores. In England the first Jews after the Resettlement were Sephardim, who came accompanied by their sonorous Spanish names, and since that date every newcomer, whatever his origin, has immediately on his arrival possessed himself of a suitable civil appellation. The Jews of England have, however, in some instances been guilty of vandalism, and within my own knowledge, I regret to state, such historical names as Martinez, Rodriguez and Rey have been shortened and translated into Martin, Rogers and King.

In the Teutonic countries the adoption of hereditary surnames by Jews is comparatively recent. It was not until 1845 that the governments of the last of the German states took measures to compel their adoption. The decree of Napoleon, and the measures subsequent to it, were considered by those towards whom they were directed as savoring of cruel persecution. Protests were made, but passed unheeded. Recourse was had to subterfuges, but they proved of no avail. Attempts were made to evade the decrees, but they were unsuccessful. The final day fixed for the adoption of surnames arrived, and none were allowed to escape the ordeal. Patronymic surnames, those ending in -sohn. etc., were accepted in many cases. Others took merely fancy names derived from trees, plants, jewels or natural features. In some cases chance was called to the assistance of the undecided. The Bible was opened and the first name hit upon adopted as the future patronymic of the family. In one instance at least the congregation assembled in the synagogue, the rabbi opened the prayerbook, and the first word on the page was taken by the first family, the second by the second family, and so on.

It had been the custom for centuries anterior to the ordinances promulgated by Napoleon for a Jew to have a double name, Shem Hakkódesh for religious purposes, and a kinnui by which he was known to the world. The kinnuyim were chosen for several reasons; on account of similarity in sound, for instance George (Gershoni), Robert (Reuben); by translation or similarity of meaning, Freude (Simchah); because the new name was supposed to have some reference to the original bearer of the old Fischel, Fisher (Moses); or by the formation of diminutives, Mirush (Miriam), Koplin, Kaplan, Kaplin (Jacob). These kinnuyim were the foundations, in many instances, of the newly-adopted surnames.

Across the Atlantic, Jewish names have undergone still more wonderful metamorphoses than in the Old World. Such lucre-smacking descriptions as Milldolar, Barndollar, Cashdollar, are to be found in the United States, and these have been proved to be Americanizations of Mühlthaler, Bernthaler and Käsenthaler, denoting families originating in Mühlthal. Bernthal and Kasenthal, towns in South Germany. From America also such apparently un-Jewish appellations as exemplified in the two following illustrations have come. It is related that a Polish-Jewish immigrant, recently arrived in New York, in the course of his endeavors to make a fortune had to give his name to a gentleman with whom he was contracting business. His appellation, Yankele, not being familiar to his interlocutor, was transcribed John Kelly, and Yankele of Lodz was henceforth known as Mr. John Kelly, of New- York. Under the same circumstances it is stated that Yitzchok became Hitchcock, and the descendants of this particular Yitzchok possibly wonder whence their Anglo-Saxon patronymic was derived. It is interesting to note that etymologically Yitzchok and Hitchcock are the same, the latter meaning little Isaac. Of course these two instances may be apocryphal; they probably are, but they illustrate the origin of many Jewish surnames that would otherwise be inexplicable.

In the earliest years of the world’s history, when the population was far more sparse and scattered than it is now, when the system of human government was that of tribes, of clans, of families, there was far less necessity for distinction between personalities. In those days one name was quite sufficient for an individual in most instances, and it seldom occurred that any further designation was necessary. We read of Adam, of Abraham, of Isaac, and of many others who bore but a single name. When, however, numbers had increased to a more considerable extent and the sole description of Abraham or Isaac became insufficient, individuals were distinguished by explanatory additions to their names. We then come across Joshua, the son of Nun; David, the son of Jesse; Elijah, the Tishbite; Judas Maccabæus, Judas Iscariot and others.

These descriptions were, however, only personal to those to whom they were in the first instance applied, and were in no sense hereditary. The nomenclature of the people remained in that condition for centuries, and the world was some hundreds of years older before surnames in the modern sense became common in Western Jewry. During the whole of this period each particular Isaac or Solomon had an explanatory appendix to his name in order to distinguish him from all other Isaacs and Solomons, and in illustration of this custom it might perhaps be useful to quote some of the names borne by English Jews prior to the expulsion of 1290. In the records of that period we find reference to numerous patronymic names; Aaron fil Isaac, Aaron fil Deudone, Aaron fil Samuel, Abraham fil Aaron, Abraham fil Benedict, Abraham fil Benjamin, Abraham fil Jacob, Abraham fil Rabbi, Abraham fil Vives, Bendit fil Mosse, Deulacresse fil Benjamin, Jacob fil Ysaac, Josce fil Leun. Josce fil Manasse, and dozens of others.

Among local surnames are Aaron do Colcestre, Aaron de Lincolnia, R. Aaron of Canterbury, Abraham de Bristol, Abraham de Norwicz, Amiot de Excestre, Benedict de Faversham, Isaac de Joueigny, Ysaac de Russie (probably the first known reference to a Russian Jew in England), Jacob de Paris, Jacob de Westminstre, Deulecresse de Danemarcia, a Danish Jew; Jeremias de Grimesby. Ursel de Bedeford, and also Josco de Domo Samson (Joseph of the house of Samson).

Illustrating surnames of office and occupation we get Abraham Gabbai, a name still borne in the London community; Abraham Vesq (Abraham the bishop), i.e. the dayan (Footnote 1 – Recent researches have shown that Le Vesq equals Cohen rather than “the bishop”); Abraham Pernas, Benedict le Puncteur, Benedict Pernaz, Benjamin Magister, Deodatus Episcopus, also dayan; Isaac Medicus, Isaac Magister puerorum, a schoolmaster; Jacob Presbyter, Jacob Scriptor, Moses Nakdan, Samuel le Prestre, also Theobald Convert, William Convert and others, ancestors of some of the Conyers families of the present day.

Finally, as surnames derived from nicknames or descriptive of the person are to be found Aaron le Blund, i.e., the fair; Benedict Parvus, the modern English surname Small, Little or Short, or the German Klein; Benedict Lengus, in modern English Long, the progenitor of the Langs and Langes that we know; Deudone cum pedibus tortis, a lame man or a cripple, Duzelina vidua Mossy cum naso, Duzelina the widow of Mossy with the nose, a gentleman whose nose was apparently his most prominent feature; Isaac le Gros — we still have the same surname in the London Jewish community; Isaac Senex, Mosse Juvenis.

Coming to the present-day Jewish surnames we find that the classes into which non-Jewish surnames are divided, namely, patronymic, local surnames, surnames of office and occupation, and nicknames, are all represented.

The first class includes a very large proportion of those borne by Jews, and they are all, with few exceptions, easily traceable. Commencing with Biblical names, and taking Abraham (father of many nations) as the first, we obtain derivatives in Ebril, Abers, Aberl, Abcrlin, Aberlein, Abreska, Aberke (in Hungary little Abraham: the termination -ke or -ka denotes an Hungarian or Slavonic origin). Ebermann (the Europeanized form of Abraham + mann) the frequent Abrahams, the plain Abraham, the shortened Braham, Abrahamson, Abromovitch, Abramovitch and Abramovitz in Russia; Abram, Abrams, and also once Babrahams, borne, I believe, by a converted Jew who wished to disguise his origin. In addition, there are Aberzuss (sweet little Abraham) and Aberlich (dear little Abraham).

From Isaac (laughter) we get of course Isaac and Isaacs with various spellings — recently a family spelling the name Izaaks attained some notoriety — Lachman, Sachs, Sacks, Sack, Saxe, Hickman, Hitchcock, and the diminutives Seckel, Sichel and Zeklin. Lachman is also sometimes derived from Leechman (physician).

From Jacob (a supplanter) the innumerable Jacobs, Jacob, Jacobus, Jacobson, Jackson, Jacobi, Jacoby; Yokelson (the son of little Jacob), Koppel (little Jacob), and the same name reversed as Leppok; Benjacob Koppelovitch and Kaplowitch, equivalents of Jacobs and Jacobson, Kaplan, Kaplin,(Footnote 2 – Kaplan and Kaplin are also derived the Russian from Cohen.) and also Kaufman. This last name, being taken for the German word meaning merchant, has sometimes been Anglicised into Marchant or Merchant. No doubt, in some instances it belongs to the class of occupation surnames which will be dealt with later, but it is also in many instances the equivalent through the Hebrew of Jacob + the termination -mann. We also find Koppellmann, a diminutive of the same.

It is perhaps in place here to explain the termination -mann continually recurring in the course of this paper. In most Jewish surnames the suffix -mann is a contraction of Menachem, the comforter, given to many Jewish boys born in the month of Ab, just as Sabbathai or the Polish-Jewish Shebsel is often given to boys born on the Sabbath. Kaufmann therefore in most cases equals Jacob Menachem rather than merchant. Mann is also a term of endearment used by mothers when addressing their boys.

Kopinski, the Polish, and Scobeleff, the Russian, are also equivalents of Jacobs. Israel (prevailing with God) furnishes Israel, Israels, and Israelson only to Jewish nomenclature.

From Joseph we get Joseph, Josephs, Josephson, Yoish, Yosl, Jessel, Joslin and Joskin, all diminutives; Jessop, not often met with among Jews; Jossel, Josselson, Jocelyn in France, and Josephi. From Simeon (hearing) comes the same name used as a surname, and its diminutive Simnel.

From Judah, meaning confession, are derived Judah, Jewell (a diminutive), Judelson, a son of little Judah, and the female name Judith. From this name also a very large number of the descendants of the patriarchs derive their surnames, although at first sight the derivation may not seem very patent. It will, no doubt, be remembered that Jacob, when near his death, called his sons around and gave to each his blessing. To Judah he said : “Judah is a lion’s whelp. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?” Basing their authority on this passage, Jews, that is to say the descendants of Judah, in innumerable instances adopted the surname of Lion. In Germany they called themselves Lö, Löwe, Lowe, Lobusch, Löbel, Löwel, Löblein, diminutives, and Ben-Löb; Leuw in Holland; Leon in France and Spain; Leoni in Italy; Leo, Lion, Lionel the diminutive in England, and perhaps also Lyons, in imitation of the English surname. Leon is also sometimes a local surname, as will be shown later. Others adopted the Hebrew form Ben-Ari.

The frequency of zoological names among Jews has frequently puzzled students of the subject, some of whom have come to the conclusion that they are altogether without meaning and are purely borrowed. The founder of the neighboring tribe of Benjamin (the son of my strength) was told that he should raven as a wolf. In the morning he should devour the prey, and at night he should divide the spoil. Hence Wolf in its countless spellings, Lopez in Spanish, Lopes in Portuguese.

“Naphtali is a hind let loose,” and consequently we have Hirsch, Herz, Hertz, Hart, Harris and Harrison in England; Hertzl and Herschell, German diminutives; Hertzen, the son of Hertz, and Hirschkovitsch and Herskovitz in Russian, names that would occupy many pages in a Jewish directory.

Of Ephraim it was told in Genesis xlvii that he should multiply exceedingly. The symbol of fruitfulness was a fish. The name therefore became the equivalent of Ephraim. This name has also sometimes been substituted for Moses, in allusion to his earliest recorded adventure. The Italian name Menasci is derived from Manasseh, from which is also obtained Manasse.

Levi is more often a tribal name than a patronymic, and perhaps ought not to be treated at this point. It gives us Levy, Levi, Levie, Levay, Lavey, Levin, Lewin, Levene, Levien, Lewinson, Levinsohn, Levison, Levenson, Lewinsky, Levinsky, Lewis very often, Louissohn, Lewey, Löwy, Lowy, Loewe, Loewi, Leve, and by a transposition of the two first letters, Elvy. Löwe, translated into English, becomes Lion also. As purely a tribal name we get Halévy and Ha-Levi, and Aleuy and Haliva among the Sephardim.

Issachar was a strong ass couching down between two burdens, and for that reason we count among our names: Achsel, Schulter (ready to bear the burden), and thence through bearan, Bär, Baer, Beer, Bärell, Berlin, Bärusch, Bernard, Berthold, Barnett (Footnote 3 – Barnett, when of Scandinavian origin, means “the child.”) and Barnard.

Other Biblical names used as modern surnames are Samuel, Samuels, Samuelson, Sanvel, Sanville, Zangwill and Saville; Asher, Ascher, Asherson. Assur and Archer; Solomon, Solomons, Salomon, Salaman, Salomons, Salmon, Salmen, Sloman, Slowman, Salom, Salome, Salomone. All Jewish boys born in the year of Alexander’s visit to the Holy Land were named after him. His name became the kinnui of Solomon, and hence the Jewish Alexander and Saunders. Jonas, Jones, and Jonassohn from Jonah; from Gedaliah, Guedalla; Lazarus, Ellosor, Lazar, Lazan, and Lewis sometimes, equal Eleazar; Samson and Sampson; Nathan, Nathanson, Bennaton and Bennoson; Elkan and Elkin from Elchanan; Mordecai; Joel; from Elijah, Elias, Ellis, Ellison, Eliason, Eliasaf, and also Elliot and Eliotson, although I have never heard of Jews bearing either of these last two names; Zacharias and Zachariah; Abelson; Aaron, Aarons, Aron, Aaronson, Aronson, Aronovich and Aronoff in Russia; Joshua; from David, Davids, Davidson, Davison, Davies, Davis, Bendavid; Enoch; from Moses, Moses, Moss, Mosely, Mosessohn, Mosesson, Mossel, the diminutive, and Möise, the Turkish form; Emanuel and Manuel.

From Menachem we get, in addition to the terminal syllables to a great many other names, the following complete surnames: Mann, Man, Menke, Menkin, Menlin, Mandl, Mendl, Mendel, Mendelssohn, Mendelson, Manin, Monitz and Monnish.

Other patronymic surnames are: Phillips and Phillipsohn, sometimes from Philip; Henry, and the Spanish Henriques, which, if derived from Heinrich, mean the home ruler, the ruler of the home — another suggested meaning of Heinrich is “rich in slaves”; Lewis and Louisson; Marks, Marx, Marcus, Marcuson, Marcussen, Marksohn and Marcovitch; Raphæl and Raffalovitch; Anshell, Anschel, Ansell, equalling Angel; Symons, Simmons, Simons, Simmonds, Simon, Symonds; Gabriel and Gabrielson; Pincus; Bensabat. the son of Sabbathai; Benhakok; Joachimson and Joachim; Tobias; Adolphus; Wilks from William; Perez, whence is obtained the name Peru, meaning the son of Peter; Fernandez, the son of Ferdinand. In this class may also be included such names as Barabbas (son of his father).

The second great group into which the surnames borne by Jews may be divided is that which is known under the designation of Local Surnames. The Jews in their wanderings settled or passed through all countries, and with each they have seemingly retained some connection through the surnames that they or their descendants bear. Most of the states of the world have assisted in supplying the names that would fill a Jewish directory; Germany has been especially prolific in the creation of Jewish local surnames. Holland, Poland and Galicia are, however, also well represented, while among the Sephardim numerous names are reminiscent of the Peninsula and Italy.

In some cases from the name borne by a family the wanderings of one of its ancestors can be deduced. Berlinsky was undoubtedly adopted by a native of Berlin who settled in Poland; the Dutch names of Van Weenen, Van Oven and Van Praagh, by natives of the Austrian dominions who obtained their names while in Holland: the first came from Vienna, the second from Ofen, and the third from Prague.

Holland has furnished the following names to Jewish families: Amstell; De Fries, De Vries and Frieser from Friesland; Leeuwarden; Van Staveren from Stavoren; De Winter and Winter from Deventer; Van Gelder from Gelderland; Helder; Neumegen; Scharl, Van Raalte, Bronkhorst, Van Houten, Winkel, Limburg, Van Vlymen, Van Thal (from the valley); Van den Bergh (from the mountain); Vandersteen (from the hill); Van Buren (from the cottages or boors’ houses); Vandersluis, Vandersluys, Vanderlyn, Vander Linde, Vanderlinden (from the lime trees); Van der Velde (from the field); Van Rhyn (from the Rhine); Vandyck and Vandyke (from the cutting); Van de Molen (from mill): Van der Meer (from the lake); Hollander does not always mean a Dutchman, but sometimes one coming from Holland, a small German town.

By far the greatest number of Jewish local surnames in general use have originated in the German states. From Prussia and North Germany come Blanckensee, Rosenberg, Flatau (Flatow), Posen, Posner and Posener from Posen. Schrimm, Woolstone from Woolstein. Königsberg, and its English forms Kingberg and Kingsberg, Landsberg. Birnbaum and its Anglicised equivalent Peartree. Hamburg. Hamburger and Hambro from Hamburg; Hildesheim and Hildesheimer from Hildesheim; Hochheim, Linden, Vanderlinden, a German Jew settled in Holland; Emden and Embden, Bernberg, Schonthal, Summerfield, whence Summerfield — this name has also been derived from the French Somerville—Behrendt. Bresslau and Breslauer from Breslau; Berliner. Berlinsky from Berlin; Bergen, whence possibly Berger, although another explanation has also been found for this name; Dessau and Dessauer from Dessau; Dancygcr and Danziger from Danzig; Edersheim, a slight alteration of Edesheim; Eicholz from Eikholz; Friedländer from Friedland; Grünberg and Greenborg, Goldberg; Hirschberg, Hannover, Hollander from Holland; Hirschberg, Kempner and probably Kemp from Kempen; De Lissa and Delissa from Lissa; Lautenburg, Lindow, Landeshut, Mansfeld and Mansfield, Nordheim, Neuhaus, Norden, Neumark and Newmark, Offenbach, Schönberg, Sternberg and Silberberg.

From other parts of Germany we get Altdorf and Altdorfer, Assenheim, Auerbach, Bamberger from Bamberg; Bischofsheim, Bernberg, Bonn, Bingen, Bloomberg from Blomberg; Brunswick, Brunschwig and Braunschweiger, Cleve and Van Cleef from Cleves, the latter through the Dutch; Cassel; Van Duran from Düren Dreyfus (Footnote 4 – Another derivation of Dreyfus is from the nickname borne by shoemakers in allusion to the three-legged stools they use.), Dreyfous; Treves and Trier from Trêves; Dinkelspiel from Dinkelsbuhl; Dresden, Dresdner and Dresner from Dresden; Elzas, Elsas, Elsaesser and Elsasser from Elsass (PT – Alsace); Ettlinger from Ettlingen; Fuld and Fulda from Fulda; Friedeberg and Friedeberger from Friedberg; Friedländer from Friedland; Gold, Golding and Goldinger from Gelting in Bavaria; Guttenberg from Gutenberg in Wurtemburg; Günzberg, Grünberg, Goldberg, Heilbronn, Heilbron, Heilbrun and their equivalent Alfron; Hart sometimes from Hertingen in Bavaria; Heidelberg from Heidelberg; Landau and Landauer, Landsberg; Leipziger from Leipzig; Löwenstein, Van Mentz and Mainzer from Mayence; Mannheim, Mannheimer and Monheimer from Mannheim; Meininger from Meiningen; Nassauer from Nassau; Neustetel from Neustadtel; Nordheim and Nordheimer, Neuhaus, Neuburger; Newmark from Neumark; Oppenheim and Oppenheimer from Oppenheim; Pass, Depass, Dupass from Pasingas in Bavaria; de Pinna from Pinne; Ratisbonne, Rosenfeld, Schönberg, Schwabach and Schawabacher from Scbwabach; Saalburg, Saalfeld. Sonnenberg, Sonnenfeld. Sachs, Saxe and De Saxe sometimes from Saxony; Schwartzenburg; Strelitzki from Strelitz; Strassburg, Sternburg, Sinsheim, Speyer, Spier, Spiers, Spires, etc.. from Speyer; Tiktin, Wertbeim and Wertheimer from Wertheim; Wynbergen, Weinberg, Warburg, Wetzlar. Worms, De Worms and Wurmser from Worms and Wittenburg.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire supplies in addition to Strauss and Osterreicher, meaning Austrian, the following names among others: Van Adelberg from Adelsberq, Breslan and Bresslauer from Breslau; Broady from Brod and Brody; Budweis, Boss from Bosinga; Crawcour, Krakawer, Krakower and Krakowsky from Cracow; Freudenthal, Friedländer from Friedland; Gratz, Goldberg; Lunzer possibly from Linz; Neubaus, Prag, Prager, Praeger and Van Praagh from Prague; Rubenstein, Rosenberg, Sternburg. Wiener and Van Weenen from Vienna. From Silesia are derived Schlesinger and Schlessinger. It will be noticed that certain names, such as Rosenberg, Grünberg and Neuhaus recur frequently in a gazetteer of the German states.

From Poland come tbe names terminating in -ski. denoting place of origin, and of similar value to the prefix de in French, von in German, and van in Dutch. In addition to such names as Velensky, Willenski and Wilenski from Wilna; Warschawsky from Warsaw; Lubinski from Lubin; Lublinski from Lublin, we derive from Poland Warschauer from Warsaw; Kalisch, Kalischer, Kaliskie and probably Carlish from Kalisz and Kutner from Kutno. From tbe name of tbe province itself we get Poland, Pollock, Polack, Polak, Pollak, Poole, Pool and De Polacco.


Other historical articles about Jewish names:
Jewish Names from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1917)
Casual racism and onomastics from a century ago

For all articles on Jewish names from this site, go to the Names page.