Monday, December 7, 2015

So What’s in a Name?

Jewish Interest Group
By Rick D. Cauthen

            Many 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.

            Now 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.

            I 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.

            Ashkenazic 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.

            Prior 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 research.

            There 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 antlers.

·         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 Se Gan Levia (second-rank Levite).

·         Yiddish-Derived NamesHirsh 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.


For more 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)

Beider, 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, 2004.

–––. 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.

–––. Jewish Surnames in Prague (15th-18th centuries). Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu, 1994.

Faiguenboim, Guilherme. Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames. Rio de Janeiro: Fraiha, 2003.

Menk, Lars. A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2005.

Tagger, Mathilde A. Dictionary of Bulgarian Jewish Surnames. New Haven, CT: Avotaynu, 2014.

–––. Dictionary of Sephardic Given Names. New Haven, CT: Avotaynu, 2015.
Rick Cauthen, Leader of the Jewish Interest Group, may be reached at: 


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