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Jews living or who grew up in Hamilton County (or the Greater Cincinnati region
for that matter) share something in common. That being a Jewish surname. Now
let’s be honest, a large majority of individuals can hear a last name and
immediately believe that the person is Jewish or at least descends from a
Jewish line. So even if you’re not Jewish, and during the course of your
research you locate a 3rd great grandmother with the name Rabinowitz,
chances are, if you hadn’t already known, you would most certainly assume that
you may have found Jewish Heritage in your bloodlines. So why might you assume
this Jewish heritage? That’s right! It was all from hearing the surname and
determining that it sounded Jewish in origin.
to be fair, there are most definitely Jews who have the name Smith or Miller
which is not the most definitive clue that their ancestors were Jewish. I would
venture to say that in fact, more often than not, those would have not been
Jews, but there is always an exception to the rule. Of course, without going
through an exhaustive list of surnames, I am certain that even when traipsing
through a Jewish Cemetery, you may spot a name or two that you may have never
guessed that that name was linked to a Jewish person. A Jewish immigrant who
wishes to anglicize their surname may have taken on a name that didn’t have
much of a Jewish connection to it. So like many other things we discover in
Genealogy, we know there are never any absolutes. Still, there are more Jewish
surnames than there are not, that would certainly be recognized as such.
suppose I should mention that Jews that migrated to North America would change
their names at will. That is often, they changed their Jewish surnames they had
already established in the country from whence they came. I know this sounds
crazy, but it’s true. They had no national ID like a Social Security number to make
it difficult to just take another name. Also, people didn’t carry around
picture IDs like a driver’s license that we are so familiar with today. The
world back then just didn’t have the kind of structure that made it difficult
for someone to change his/her last name. I am certain that is why as the years
passed on to more current times, that the laws finally caught up with these
individuals and structure and rules were laid down to prevent this kind of
frequent name changes. Now one must go through a court of law or get a married
with the marriage certificate stating your change of name. Of course I realize
that many of you readers may also be thinking, “Geez, with these types of undocumented
name changes, isn’t that going to make my research more challenging?” Well in a
word, “yes.” However, it is not impossible.
Jews were most definitely among the last Europeans to take last names or rather
family names. Surnames were taken on as early as 1787 in the Austro-Hungarian
Empire and as late as 1844 in Czarist Russia. Jews only took these names once
they were compelled to do so by the government. Why were they compelled? Simply
answered they could then be taxed, conscripted into the army (more commonly
known as “being drafted”), and education. And in that order of importance. Education
however was most often an internal Jewish affair.
to the taking of surnames as forced by the government, the Jewish Community
would actually have a change of names each and every generation. Jews would use
patronymics or sometimes matronymics. For instance, a gentleman may have been
named Joshua ben Benjamin. Meaning simply, Joshua, son of Benjamin. Likewise
Benjamin’s grandson Nathan would have been name Nathan ben Joshua. Daughters in
a similar way may have been something like Rachel bat Miriam which I am certain
you have already realized that that would be Rachel, daughter of Miriam. Matronymics
were not used as often, as daughters were still named Rachel, daughter of
Samuel. In other words, patronymics were used more often than matronymics. As a
genealogist, you should be aware of both conventions in Jewish Genealogical
were many conventions used to establish Jewish surnames which were registered
with governmental authorities: Patronymics, Matronymics, Place Names,
Occupations, Personal Traits, Insulting Names, Animal Names, Hebrew Names,
Hebrew Acronyms, Yiddish Derived Names, Invented Names. Below we will go
through these conventions providing you, the reader, some examples of each:
·Patronymics – Since it was
common to label an individual with a somewhat makeshift surname of “Son of”
along with the father’s name, it became simple to take a legal surname from
essentially the same principle. Many last names simply sound like first names.
For instance, some may have the last name of Isaac, Isaacson,and
Isacovitch. In Yiddish, son was denoted by “son” or “sohn.” The name Mendelsohn for instance, derived from
the son of. Mendel. In Polish or Russian, it would be “wich” or “witz.”
Examples: Markowitz or Avromovitch.
·Matronymics – Some families
created surnames out of women’s first names. Such as Gittleman from Gittel. Rivken from the feminine name of Rivke (Rebecca in English). Goldman
from the name Golda.
·Place Names – Often Jews used
the names of the towns or regions from whence they came. Berliner or Berlinsky
from Berlin, Germany. Pinsky from
Pinsk, Belarus. Litwak from
Lithuania. Prager from Prague. Wiener or Weinberg from Vienna. Warshavsky or Warshauer taken from Warsaw, Poland. Berg or Bergman meaning
from a hilly place.
·Occupational Names – Also a very
common convention used by more than just the Jewish population. Graber for an engraver. Miller for
obviously a miller. Stein, Steiner, Stone, Silverstein all used
for a jeweler. Goldstein from an
occupation of a Goldsmith. Zucker or Zuckerman related to being a sugar merchant. Presser or Pressman
derived from a clothes presser.
·Personal Traits – The names Alter or Alterman from simply being old. Dreyfus
meaning three legged (most likely one that had walked with a cane). Shein, Shoen, or Shoenman
meaning pretty or handsome. Gross or Grossman from the trait of being big. Schwartz taken from the trait of having
black hair or dark complexion. Roth
or Rothman from having red hair.
·Insulting Names – Unfortunately,
some names were foisted on Jews who often got rid of them as soon as possible.
However, there are some that still remain today. The name Billig meaning cheap. Gans
for a goose. Grob comes from rough or
crude. Even Kalb for a cow.
·Animal Names – Not at all
unique to Jews, our ancestors took last names from the inspiration of animals. Adler derived from eagle. Karp from a carp. Loeb or Leib from a Lion.
Baer, Berman, Beerman all
representing a bear. Einhorn for a
unicorn. Hirschhorn coming from deer
·Hebrew Names – A number of Jews
would simply hold on to or took on traditional Jewish names from the Bible
& Talmud. The two major groups of names represent the Kohanim, (descendants
of high priests) and Levites (second in line to the Kohanim). Surnames of Cohen, Cohn, Kohn, Kahan, Kahn, and Kaplan have
their origins from Jews who were members of the Kohanim. Likewise, surnames of Levi, Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, and Lewinson have their origins from
Jews who were members of the Levites. Others include Aronson or Aronoff from
the Hebrew name Aaron. Jacobs, Jacobson, or Jacoby from
the name Jacob. The name Menachem gave rise to the surnames Mann and Mendel.
·Hebrew Acronyms – Sample of names
derived from Hebrew Acronyms include: Baron
from Bar Aron (son of
Aaron), Getz from Gabbai Tsedek
(righteous synagogue official), and Segal derive from SeGan Levia (second-rank Levite).
– Hirsh means deer or stag in
Yiddish. Wolf, the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, is the root of the names Wolfson, Wouk, and Volkovich. The
name Eckstein comes from the Yiddish
word for cornerstone.
·Invented Names – During the time
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Jews became required to assume a last
name, often they chose the nicest ones they could think of as they may have
been charged a registration fee by the authorities. These names often came from
nature. Kirschenbaum from cherry
tree, Applebaum from apple tree. Tannenbaum for a fir tree. Others names
chosen Rosen from a rose, Schoen or Schein meaning pretty, Bloom for a flower, or Feld meaning field.
information on this topic consult these in-depth studies. All are available at
the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and Hebrew Union College
Klau Library (except those by Tagger, available only at HUC)
Alexander. A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure,
Pronunciation, and Migrations. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2001.
A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu,
A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland.Teaneck,
NJ: Avotaynu, 1996.
A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Rev. ed.
Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2008.