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Jewish Surnames Explained, & Rebuttal by Dara Horn

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Jewish Surnames Explained

http://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/2014/01/jewish-surnames-explained/?utm_source=Mosaic+Daily+Email&utm_campaign=a097ea5e9a-2014_1_9&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0b0517b2ab-a097ea5e9a-42449961
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Richard Andree’s 1881 map of the Jews of Central Europe.

Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

 

In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance). For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government, and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair.

Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation. For example, if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), and they had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), the child would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Sora.

Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted the new last names, which were essential as Jews sought to advance within the broader society and as the shtetles were transformed or Jews left them for big cities.

The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent. This explains the use of “patronymics” and “matronymics.”

PATRONYMICS (son of …)

In Yiddish or German, “son” would be denoted by “son” or “sohn” or “er.” In most Slavic languages, like Polish or Russian, it would be “wich” or “witz.”

For example: The son of Mendel took the last name Mendelsohn; the son of Abraham became Abramson or Avromovitch; the son of Menashe became Manishewitz; the son of Itzhak became Itskowitz; the son of Berl took the name Berliner; the son of Kesl took the name Kessler, etc.

MATRONYMICS (daughter of …)

Reflecting the prominence of Jewish women in business, some families made last names out of women’s first names: Chaiken — son of Chaikeh; Edelman — husband of Edel; Gittelman — husband of Gitl; Glick or Gluck — may derive from Glickl, a popular woman’s name as in the famous “Glickl of Hameln,” whose memoirs, written around 1690, are an early example of Yiddish literature.

Gold/Goldman/Gulden may derived from Golda; Malkov from Malke; Perlman — husband of Perl; Rivken — may derive from Rivke; Soronsohn—son of Sarah.

PLACE NAMES

The next most common source of Jewish last names is probably places. Jews used the town or region where they lived, or where their families came from, as their last name. As a result, the Germanic origins of most East European Jews is reflected in their names.

For example, Asch is an acronym for the towns of Aisenshtadt or Altshul orAmshterdam. Other place-based Jewish names include: Auerbach/Orbach; Bacharach; Berger (generic for townsman); Berg(man), meaning from a hilly place; Bayer — from Bavaria; Bamberger; Berliner, Berlinsky — from Berlin; Bloch (foreigner); Brandeis; Breslau; Brodsky; Brody; Danziger; Deutch/Deutscher — German; Dorf(man), meaning villager; Eisenberg; Epstein; Florsheim; Frankel — from the Franconia region of Germany; Frankfurter; Ginsberg; Gordon — from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman; Greenberg; Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany; Hammerstein; Heller — from Halle, Germany; Hollander — not from Holland, but from a town in Lithuania settled by the Dutch; Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch — from Horovice in Bohemia; Koenigsberg; Krakauer — from Cracow, Poland; Landau; Lipsky — from Leipzig, Germany; Litwak — from Lithuania; Minsky — from Minsk, Belarus; Mintz—from Mainz, Germany; Oppenheimer; Ostreicher — from Austria; Pinsky — from Pinsk, Belarus; Posner — from Posen, Germany; Prager — from Prague; Rappoport — from Porto, Italy; Rothenberg — from the town of the red fortress in Germany; Shapiro — from Speyer, Germany; Schlesinger — from Silesia, Germany; Steinberg; Unger — from Hungary; Vilner — from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania; Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner; Warshauer/Warshavsky — from Warsaw; Wiener — from Vienna; Weinberg.

OCCUPATIONAL NAMES

Craftsmen/Workers

Ackerman — plowman; Baker/Boker — baker; Blecher — tinsmith; Fleisher/Fleishman/Katzoff/Metger — butcher; Cooperman — coppersmith; Drucker — printer; Einstein — mason; Farber — painter/dyer; Feinstein — jeweler; Fisher — fisherman; Forman — driver/teamster; Garber/Gerber — tanner; Glazer/Glass/Sklar — glazier; Goldstein — goldsmith; Graber — engraver; Kastner — cabinetmaker; Kunstler — artist; Kramer — storekeeper; Miller — miller; Nagler — nailmaker; Plotnick — carpenter; Sandler/Shuster — shoemaker; Schmidt/Kovalsky — blacksmith; Shnitzer — carver; Silverstein — jeweler; Spielman — player (musician?); Stein/Steiner/Stone — jeweler; Wasserman — water carrier.

Merchants

Garfinkel/Garfunkel — diamond dealer; Holzman/Holtz/Waldman — timber dealer; Kaufman — merchant; Rokeach — spice merchant; Salzman — salt merchant; Seid/Seidman—silk merchant; Tabachnik — snuff seller; Tuchman — cloth merchant; Wachsman — wax dealer; Wechsler/Halphan — money changer; Wollman — wool merchant; Zucker/Zuckerman — sugar merchant.

Related to tailoring

Kravitz/Portnoy/Schneider/Snyder — tailor; Nadelman/Nudelman — also tailor, but from “needle”; Sher/Sherman — also tailor, but from “scissors” or “shears”; Presser/Pressman — clothing presser; Futterman/Kirshner/Kushner/Peltz — furrier; Weber — weaver.

Medical

Aptheker — druggist; Feldsher — surgeon; Bader/Teller — barber.

Related to liquor trade

Bronfman/Brand/Brandler/Brenner — distiller; Braverman/Meltzer — brewer; Kabakoff/Krieger/Vigoda — tavern keeper; Geffen — wine merchant; Wine/Weinglass — wine merchant; Weiner — wine maker.

Religious/Communal

Altshul/Althshuler — associated with the old synagogue in Prague; Cantor/Kazan/Singer/Spivack — cantor or song leader in shul; Feder/Federman/Schreiber — scribe; Haver — from haver (court official); Klausner — rabbi for small congregation; Klopman — calls people to morning prayers by knocking on their window shutters; Lehrer/Malamud/Malmud — teacher; Rabin — rabbi (Rabinowitz—son of rabbi); London — scholar, from the Hebrew lamden(misunderstood by immigration inspectors); Reznick — ritual slaughterer; Richter — judge; Sandek — godfather; Schechter/Schachter/Shuchter etc. — ritual slaughterer from Hebrew schochet; Shofer/Sofer/Schaeffer — scribe; Shulman/Skolnick — sexton; Spector — inspector or supervisor of schools.

PERSONAL TRAITS

Alter/Alterman — old; Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane; Erlich — honest; Frum — devout ; Gottleib — God lover, perhaps referring to someone very devout; Geller/Gelber — yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair; Gross/Grossman — big; Gruber — coarse or vulgar; Feifer/Pfeifer — whistler; Fried/Friedman—happy; Hoch/Hochman/Langer/Langerman — tall; Klein/Kleinman — small; Koenig — king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch; Krauss — curly, as in curly hair; Kurtz/Kurtzman — short; Reich/Reichman — rich; Reisser — giant; Roth/Rothman — red head; Roth/Rothbard — red beard; Shein/Schoen/Schoenman — pretty, handsome; Schwartz/Shwartzman/Charney — black hair or dark complexion; Scharf/Scharfman — sharp, i.e  intelligent; Stark — strong, from the Yiddish shtark ; Springer — lively person, from the Yiddish springenfor jump.

INSULTING NAMES

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

Billig — cheap; Gans — goose; Indyk — turkey; Grob — rough/crude; Kalb — cow.

ANIMAL NAMES

It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom. Baer/Berman/Beerman/Berkowitz/Beronson — bear; Adler — eagle (may derive from reference to an eagle in Psalm 103:5); Einhorn — unicorn; Falk/Sokol/Sokolovksy — falcon; Fink — finch; Fuchs/Liss — fox; Gelfand/Helfand — camel (technically means elephant but was used for camel too); Hecht—pike; Hirschhorn — deer antlers; Karp — carp; Loeb — lion; Ochs— ox; Strauss — ostrich (or bouquet of flowers); Wachtel — quail.

HEBREW NAMES

Some Jews either held on to or adopted traditional Jewish names from the Bible and Talmud. The big two are Cohen (Cohn, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan) and Levi (Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson). Others include: Aaron — Aronson, Aronoff; Asher; Benjamin; David — Davis, Davies; Ephraim — Fishl; Emanuel — Mendel; Isaac — Isaacs, Isaacson/Eisner; Jacob — Jacobs, Jacobson, Jacoby; Judah — Idelsohn, Udell,Yudelson; Mayer/Meyer; Menachem — Mann, Mendel; Reuben — Rubin; Samuel — Samuels, Zangwill; Simon — Schimmel; Solomon — Zalman.

HEBREW ACRONYMS

Names based on Hebrew acronyms include: Baron — bar aron (son of Aaron); Beck —bene kedoshim (descendant of martyrs); Getz — gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official); Katz — kohen tsedek (righteous priest); Metz — moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness); Sachs, Saks — zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs); Segal — sgan levia (second-rank Levite).

OTHER HEBREW- and YIDDISH-DERIVED NAMES

Lieb means “lion” in Yiddish. It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names, including Liebowitz, Lefkowitz, Lebush, and Leon. It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for lion — aryeh. The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.

Hirsch means “deer” or “stag” in Yiddish. It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names, including Hirschfeld, Hirschbein/Hershkowitz (son of Hirsch), Hertz/Herzl, Cerf, Hart, and Hartman. It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for gazelle:tsvi. The gazelle was the symbol of the tribe of Naphtali.

Taub means “dove” in Yiddish. It is the root of the Ashkenazic last name Tauber. The symbol of the dove is associated with the prophet Jonah.

Wolf is the root of the Ashkenazic last names Wolfson, Wouk, and Volkovich. The wolf was the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin.

Eckstein — Yiddish for cornerstone, derived from Psalm 118:22.

Good(man) — Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for “good”: tuviah.

Margolin — Hebrew for “pearl.”

INVENTED ‘FANCY SHMANCY’ NAMES

When Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “The resulting names often are associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time.” These names include: Applebaum — apple tree; Birnbaum — pear tree; Buchsbaum — box tree; Kestenbaum — chestnut tree; Kirschenbaum — cherry tree; Mandelbaum — almond tree; Nussbaum — nut tree; Tannenbaum — fir tree; Teitelbaum — palm tree.

Other names, chosen or purchased, were combinations with these roots:Blumen (flower), Fein (fine), Gold, Green, Lowen (lion), Rosen (rose), Schoen/Schein (pretty) — combined with berg (hill or mountain), thal (valley), bloom (flower), zweig (wreath), blatt (leaf), vald or wald (woods), feld (field).

Miscellaneous other names included Diamond; Glick/Gluck — luck; Hoffman — hopeful; Fried/Friedman — happiness; Lieber/Lieberman — lover.

Jewish family names from non-Jewish languages included: Sender/Saunders — from Alexander; Kagan — descended from the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people from Central Asia; Kelman/Kalman — from the Greek name Kalonymous, the Greek translation of the Hebrew shem tov (good name), popular among Jews in medieval France and Italy; Marcus/Marx — from Latin, referring to the pagan god Mars.

Finally, there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors (though this is disputed) or by immigrants themselves (or their descendants) to sound more American, which is why “Sean Ferguson” was a Jew.

Let us close with a ditty:

And this is good old Boston;
The home of the bean and the cod.
Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots;
And the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God!

version of this post originally appeared onJewish Currents.

 

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories and Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, among other books.

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Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained

“Dara, you’ll love this!” Actually, I don’t.

By Dara Horn | January 21, 2014

mosaicmagazine.com

Why, O Internet, do you keep doing this to me?

By “this,” I mean turning unsubstantiated nonsense into articles that are then smeared across the globe. And when the fun-filled piece-of-the-week concerns something related to Jewish culture—about which a few million Americans feel a sense of ownership, and millions more feel an intense curiosity, but remarkably few have any substantial knowledge—the phenomenon can multiply exponentially.

The latest in this genre is “Jewish Surnames Explained,” an article by Bennett Muraskin that appeared last November in the online magazine Jewish Currents, was picked up and further popularized a couple of weeks ago by Slate, and even found a spot among Mosaic’s daily listings of noteworthy items from around the web. According to Jewish Currents, not exactly a mass medium, the original piece attracted no fewer than 200,000 visitors; Slate’s posting has already garnered 79,000 “shares” on Facebook; and a quick Google search yields no fewer than 200,000 results for the title alone. All this, for an article that purports to explain the origins of a large number of common Ashkenazi family names.

If you are an American Jew who uses the Internet, I suspect that you, too, have already seen this article, and I even know how you found it or, rather, how it found you. It was sent by your friend, or your mom, or your friend’s mom, or you saw it on Facebook, or retweeted it on Twitter, or came across it republished elsewhere. I myself have been exposed to it at least three dozen times in the past six days, often accompanied by a tag or header: “Dara, you’ll love this!”

Actually, I don’t. Not because there’s anything illegitimate about the subject of Jewish names, or because linguistic and genealogical inquiry is a pointless endeavor. To the contrary: the immense attention paid to this article reveals the degree to which many American Jews are still fascinated to learn where they came from. Unfortunately, it also reveals how the members of a group so highly educated in other respects know so little about their own history that they will swallow any “fact” from the Jewish past that comes flitting across their screens.

 

What’s wrong, exactly, with “Jewish Surnames Explained”? In a sentence: despite its quotient of accurate information, its errors are legion. Yes, I know, everyone makes mistakes. Just yesterday, for instance, I unintentionally put a cat in my microwave. He’s dead now, and I won’t do that to him again. But the mistakes here aren’t of that one-off variety. They’re of the underlying-premise variety, and they are sufficient to place the whole enterprise under suspicion.

The first underlying premise is that one need not actually know Yiddish, Hebrew, German, or Slavic languages, or consult with anyone who does, in order to translate words from those languages and present the resulting fun-filled facts to a new audience. This leads to a symphony of errors, so many that it’s hard to know where to begin or to end. But here are a few.

Consider the name Kagan, which according to the article is derived from the Khazars, a Central Asian people who, according to legend, converted en masse to Judaism in the Middle Ages. Any mention of Khazars and Jews in the same sentence ought to raise a red flag, if only because the mythic Khazar “history” has become a favorite trope of anti-Semites, who use it to negate the Middle Eastern origins of the Jews—archaeology and genetic studies be damned. But to notice the mistake here, you need only know that h’s in other languages can become g’s in Russian. The name Kagan and its variants derive from the Hebrew word kohen, denoting descendants of the biblical high priests.

“Lieb means lion in Yiddish,” we are told. Actually, leyb means lion in Yiddish (with the vowel sound ey as in “hey”), while lib (the word that sounds like the German word lieb) is a verb form for “love”—as it is in German; this error requires an ignorance of two languages. We are told that Berliner means “husband of Berl,” despite the fact that Berl is a man’s name in Yiddish and Berliner is more recognizably derived from Berlin. We are told that Lieberman means “loverman”; it is actually a term of formal address, as in “dear sir.” We learn that Mendel is derived from Emanuel, when a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish makes it clear that it is a diminutive of Menahem. There are more like this, but I needn’t bore you.

A second underlying premise in the piece is that a place-related surname describes where one’s ancestors came from. Seems obvious, right? In fact, such a name usually describes where one’s ancestors didn’t come from.

Take the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, an autobiography by a 17th-century German Jewish businesswoman and a classic of early modern Yiddish literature, written well before the advent of official surnames among Ashkenazi Jews. In this memoir, Gluckel frequently identifies the people with whom she interacts by means of place names. Glikl Hamel, as she is known in Yiddish, married a man from Hameln (“Hamel” to Yiddish speakers). In her memoirs, she refers to her husband and her in-laws by that place name (which isn’t a surname) even though she and her husband spent most of their married life in Hamburg where she was born. In fact, they stayed in Hameln, which she describes as “a dull shabby hole,” only for the first year of their very young marriage—which for her husband meant only until he was fifteen. Yet the book isn’t called Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamburg. Similarly, Gluckel refers to a man with whom she has business ties as Judah Berlin since, yes, he lives in Berlin. But she does that because she lives in Hamburg. Did Judah’s neighbors in Berlin call him Judah Berlin? Unlikely.

 

Another big problem here is the utter lack of sources. Many of the article’s derivations amount to just one among several possibilities; the lack of substantiation makes it impossible to judge. Koenig, we are told, refers to a “Purim king, in reality a poor wretch.” I’d venture that Koenig is probably a place name based on Koenigsberg. Nor does the name Hirschhorn strike me as an animal name referring to deer antlers; it’s likely a simple reference to the German town of Hirschhorn—which does mean deer antler, but so what? When we say people are from Buffalo, are we saying they have meaningful associations with buffalos?

More: while I guess the name Kessler could, in theory, be a patronymic for the (rather unusual) name Kesl, it is more likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The name Zaks or Saks may or may not be a Hebrew acronym for zera k’doshim sh’mo (“his name descends from martyrs”); I’ve heard a similar story about its derivation from zikhron k’doshey shtendal (“memorial of the martyrs of Stendal”), referring to a medieval massacre in that German city. But the Hebrew doesn’t quite fit; in both cases, the final consonant would have to be a “sh,” and I’ve never met a Zaksh. It would make much more sense if the name were simply a reference to Saxony.

Not being a scholar of linguistics, or a historian, I could of course be wrong about all of this. But so could the author of this already suspect list of names. Without a single citation or a single explanation of where any of his information comes from, there is no way for me or anyone else to know.

“Jewish Surnames Explained” concludes, tellingly, with a perennial myth about American Jewish surnames: “Finally, there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors (though this is disputed).” This is like saying: “Finally, the lunar landing may have been faked to impress the Soviets (though this is disputed).” The idea that immigration officers at Ellis Island were a bunch of rent-a-cops scribbling down whatever names struck their fancy falls into the same category as Washington chopping down the cherry tree or the CIA killing Kennedy. Immigration officers at Ellis Island (and its precursor, Castle Garden) were accompanied by interpreters who were required to know at least three languages, while ancillary interpreters with knowledge of more obscure languages circulated to ensure competency—and in this context, Yiddish, German, Russian, and Polish were far from obscure.

None of this even matters, though, because immigration officers at Ellis Island never wrote down immigrants’ names. They obtained those names from ships’ manifests, compiled at the port of origin. Nor is it possible that the same mythic scenario was enacted on the European end. Ships’ manifests were recorded from passports and other travel papers, and the shipping companies were very careful not to make errors, because errors cost them money: inaccuracies were grounds for deporting improperly documented or unqualified people back to Europe at company expense.

True, European Jewish immigrants did have to render their names into Latin or Cyrillic letters to create passports, and yes, passports were sometimes forged—but those forgeries or name changes would have been generated by the immigrants themselves. It is also true that many immigrants chose new names for themselves in America, whether for expediency or to avoid discrimination. But that was after they left Ellis Island. I am not revealing state secrets here, or arcane information. Any school child who has been on a field trip to Ellis Island knows all this. But why use facts when rumors will do?

 

We all know that the Internet is full of unintended errors, not-entirely-unintended distortions, and outright malevolent lies. It has that in common with all human discourse. As Jewish content goes, moreover, “Jewish Surnames Explained” is benign compared with what you’ll find if you Google, say, “Jewish lobby.” (Hint: not the reception area of the King David Hotel.) Amid a sea of mendacity and hatred, complaining about this one article feels a bit like clubbing a baby seal.

And yet it is precisely that toxic sea that makes it all the more important to get Jewish history right. When so many, online and off, are hellbent on denigrating Jews, denying their history, and discrediting their traditions and their culture, mindless gullibility about these matters is in itself distressing. It shames me to think that American Jews, 49 percent of whom claimed in the recent Pew survey that an “essential part of being Jewish” was “being intellectually curious,” are so ignorant of their own heritage as to lay eager claim to the most questionable and transparently dubious fluff, and celebrate it as fact. This, to me, is almost as depressing as when someone tells you he’s sent his banking details to Nigeria.

In the end, and despite the number of true facts it contains, “Jewish Surnames Explained” explains little, and that badly. It is really nothing but a bobe-mayse—which, incidentally, does not mean “grandma story” but is rather a reference to the Bove Bukh, a wildly popular Yiddish romance of the early modern period whose hero, Bove, gets drawn into fantastic and utterly implausible adventures.

But don’t get me started.

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Dara Horn is the author of four novels. The most recent, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published in September.

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