by Bennett Muraskin
(Editor’s note: Corrections and updates for this article are listed at the end of it. See also Bennett Muraskin’s follow-up piece by clicking here. For a musical exploration of Ashkenazic names by Corey Weinstein, click here.)
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.
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), 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, it would be “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.
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 or Amshterdam. 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 town in Lithuania settled by 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 then 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.
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 — cabinet maker; Kunstler — artist; Kramer — store keeper; Miller — miller; Nagler — nail maker; Plotnick — carpenter; Sandler/Shuster — shoemaker; Schmidt/Kovalsky — blacksmith; Shnitzer — carver; Silverstein — jeweler; Spielman — player (musician?); Stein/Steiner/Stone — jeweler; Wasserman — water carrier
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 from “needle’; Sher/Sherman — also tailor from “scissors” or “shears”; Presser/Pressman — clothing presser; Futterman/Kirshner/Kushner/Peltz — furrier; Weber — weaver
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
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
These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few may remain:
Billig — cheap; Gans — goose; Indyk — goose; Grob — rough/crude; Kalb — cow
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.
Some Jews either held on to or adopted traditional Jews 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.
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 — from moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness; Sachs, Saks — zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs); Segal — se gan 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 work 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 Hebrew work 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; Kirshenbaum — cherry tree; Mandelbaum — almond tree; Nussbaum — nut tree; Tannenbaum — fir tree; Teitelbaum — palm tree.
Other name , 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 people of Turkic speaking Jews from Central Asia; Kelman/Kalman — from the Greek name Kalonymous, popular among Jews in medieval France and Italy. It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “shem tov” (good name); Marcus/Marx — from Latin, referring to the pagan god Mars.
Finally, there were Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors or by immigrants themselves and 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!
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 Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
Author’s note: After this article went viral and fetched more than 500 comments in late December, I gathered the following corrections and additions:
Introduction: Before Jews took last names, girls would be named after their fathers, not their mothers, as in Rifke bas Avrom (Rebecca son of Abraham)
Patronymics: “Vich” and “vitz” should be included along with “wich” or “witz.” Berliner does not mean “son of Berl”
Matronymics should be changed to “Based on Women’s Names,” because most of these names are not strictly matronymics. Other surnames based on women’s first names include: Dvorkin–from Dvora; Frumkin–from Frume; Leaman/Lehman–husband of Leah
Place Names: Dreyfus may come from the German city of Trier, pronounced Treves in Latin.
Occupational Names: Hoffman is an estate manager, not a hopeful man. Feldsher is a barber/soldier with some surgical skills, not a surgeon
Personal Traits: Fried/Friedman may mean peaceful man, rather than happy man, but I have seen both claims. Klugman should be added. It means smart man. Weiss/Weissbard should be added to refer to a man with white hair or a white beard. Susskind or Ziskind should be added to refer to someone with a sweet disposition.
Insulting Names: Gans means goose, but it is not an insulting name. Indyk means turkey, not goose. Billig means cheap, but may also be a place name and if so, not insulting. Kalb means calf, not cow.
Animal Names: Berkowitz does not derive from bear. It is a patronymic for son of Berke.
Hebrew Names from the Bible: Other such names include: Josephs/Josephson; Pincus
Hebrew Acronyms: Shub or Shoub should be added. It derives from shokhet u’bodek, which means meat inspector
Other Hebrew-derived Names: The proper transliteration for lion in Yiddish is Leyb, not Lieb. Jaffe or Yaffe should be added; i is the Hebrew word for beautiful or pleasant.
Invented “Fancy Shmancy” Names: Zweig means branch, not wreath. Lieber or Lieberman does not mean lover (man), rather it means lovely man. Names like Bernstein (amber stone) or other “stein” or “stone” endings are more likely to be invented names rather than occupational names. Farb should be added as an ending, as in Goldfarb. It means colors.
Non-Jewish Languages: Kagan is a Slavic variation of Cohen, not a name derived from descendants of the Khazars, Jews who lived in the Jewish Kingdom of Khazaria that existed in Central Asia in the Middle Ages.
Anglicized Names: Immigration inspectors did not typically change the names of immigrants.
Read Bennett Muraskin’s follow-up post to this article, “Going Viral with Ashkenazic Name Origins,” published January 10, 2014
Make Jewish Currents part of your daily routine by signing up for Jewdayo, our daily email about some aspect of progressive Jewish history and culture. It’s free! Keep up to date with Jewish Currents by liking our Facebook page, updated several times a day.