I’ve been posting the 101 most common Israeli given names for both boys and girls for the last few years, as the data has been released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Recently the data for 2016 was released, and I posted the lists for girls and boys. While going through the data, however, I noticed something I had not noticed in previous years – a link to information on Israeli surnames.
The data consists of over 50,000 surnames, and the number of people with that name in Israel. The smallest number of people with a name is 9, so the least common surnames do not appear (including mine – I guess I need a few more kids to break through, or get my cousins to make aliyah). In theory this data is current as of 2016, although I suspect the top 101 names out of over 50,000 probably don’t change significantly from year to year.
Something significant worth noting is that the list is only in Hebrew, and like any other government data, has no nikudot (diacritical marks used as vowels in Hebrew), so many times names that would be considered different in English are spelled the same in Hebrew.
Sometimes those names have a common origin, such as פלד which could be Feld or Peled. Peled is actually a Hebraization of Feld, so that’s not such a big deal, although many times changes in spelling are useful in genealogy research in detecting different branches of the same family. Sometimes the same family uses different spellings, but many times different families used the same spelling for many years, and this merging of names can be frustrating when researching one’s family history. Consider the most common name כהן which in English could be spelled Cohen, Kohen, Cohain, Cohn, Kohn, Cahan, etc.
When I publish my lists of given names, I add nikudot to the names, since even those fluent in Hebrew might not be able to decipher the name if they’re not familiar with it. Reading without nikudot requires some familiarity with the words you’re reading. If the name is not familiar, it’s not possible in some cases to figure it out. Some given names also use the same spelling, such as אורי which can be Uri or Ori. The problem is significantly worse for surnames, however, where many more variations exist.
As officially names in Israel are written without nikudot, it creates a genealogical problem that documents with names don’t actually reflect what a person called themselves. If you are researching someone whose name is recorded as אורי פלד, is their name Ori Peled, Uri Feld, Ori Feld, or Uri Peled? That’s not a problem I can solve, but what I’ve done with the following list of the 101 most common Jewish Israeli surnames is added nikudot for one common pronunciation, added a few possible English spellings, and linked to all the surname articles at Beit Hatfutsot (in English this was formerly called the Diaspora Museum, but is now called the Museum of the Jewish People) that are for names that use the Hebrew spelling, as well as the English versions of those articles.
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.
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).
Israel 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.