by Bennett Muraskin
I am overwhelmed by the response to my article on the origin and meaning of Ashkenazic Jewish surnames. I did the research long ago, not because I was interested in Jewish genealogy, but because of my interest in the history of Ashkenazic Jewry. I thought that their choice of names could tell us something interesting about where and how they lived and the languages they used. For years I have conducted adult education programs for Jewish organizations, first and foremost for my own Jewish Cultural School and Society in West Orange, New Jersey. The origins and meanings of Ashkenazic last names is but one of my presentations, and by no means the most popular. In fact, I was once invited to make the “Jewish names” presentation at a synagogue in Parsippany — and no one showed up!
In November 2012, my article was posted on the web site of Jewish Currents, a secular progressive Jewish magazine for which I’m a contributing writer. Over the next thirteen months, there was a trickle of comments. A few days before Christmas, 2013, more responses started pouring in, and in the next ten days the article was read by nearly 200,000 people. Then Slate picked it up, so the momentum continues to build.
I have been asked to provide my sources. I do not remember all of them, but I do recall two major ones: The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions by Steven Lowenstein, and A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History by Benzion Kaganoff. I also received some tips from my friend Bob Jacobson of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.
The article has some mistakes that readers, including my brother-in-law, have pointed out to me, both on and off line. I claimed that before Ashkenazic Jews took last names, girls could be named after their mothers as in “Feygele bas (daughter of) Rifke.” Not true. They would be named after their fathers as in “Fegyele bas (daughter of) Moyshe.” I have also been taken to task for claiming that the name “Kagan” refers to Jews who descended from the medieval Jewish country of Khazaria in Central Asia, when it is really a Slavic version of Cohen or Kohan. The name refers to those who claim descent from the Jewish priests who served in the Second Temple before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. My third major mistake was to claim that immigration inspectors changed the names of Jewish immigrants to Americanize them. Apparently, this was not typically or deliberately done, although I can conceive of rare situations in which immigration inspectors would misread the lists of immigrants they were required to check and accidentally change some names.
For those of you who don’t know why Sean Ferguson is a Jewish name, it is an old joke about a Jewish immigrant who could not recall the American sounding name someone had suggested he provide to the immigrant inspector. Instead, when asked his name, he told the inspector, in Yiddish, “Shoyn fargesn,” which means “I forgot already.” This the inspector understood as “Sean Ferguson.” Ha!
Finally, I also should have stressed that names like Bernstein, which means “amber stone,” or other names ending in “stein” or “stone,” are more likely to be invented “fancy shmancy” names than occupational names for jewelers.
No doubt there are other errors in the piece, hopefully minor — and among the 500 or so comments that the article has gathered, there are plenty of corrections, speculations, and excellent analyses.
For all you Sephardic (from Spain or Portugal) or Mizrakhi (from the Middle East) Jews out there, I unfortunately have nothing to offer, except, perhaps, for the Biblical and other Hebrew names. It will be up to someone else to undertake that project.
I wish all the readers luck in discovering the origin and meaning of their own last names, but I am not a genealogy meyvn (expert). One person asked me about Flickman and all I could tell her was that “flick” means “pluck” in Yiddish, but does that mean her ancestors were chicken pluckers? Ver vayst? (who knows?) There are plenty of Jewish genealogy web sites out there for the curious. My mission was to provide the basis for the more common Ashkenazic Jewish last names — and I hope that I have succeeded.
Thank you all for your comments.
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanistic Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.