Jewish surname

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Jews have historically used Hebrew patronymic names. In the Jewish patronymic system the first name is followed by either ben- or bat- ("son of" and "daughter of," respectively), and then the father's name. (Bar-, "son of" in Aramaic, is also seen). Permanent family surnames exist today but only gained popularity among Sephardic Jews in Iberia and elsewhere as early as the 10th or 11th century and did not spread widely to the Ashkenazic Jews of Germany or Eastern Europe until the 18th and 19th century, where the adoption of German surnames was imposed in exchange for Jewish Emancipation.

Although Ashkenazi Jews now use European or modern-Hebrew surnames for everyday life, the Hebrew patronymic form is still used in Jewish religious and cultural life. It is used in synagogue and in documents in Jewish law such as the ketubah (marriage contract).

Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry[edit]

Surnames were not unknown among the Jews of the Middle Ages, and as Jews began to mingle more with their fellow citizens, the practice of using or adopting civic surnames in addition to the "sacred" name, used only in religious connections, grew commensurately. Among the Sephardim this practice was common long before the exile from Spain, and probably became still more common as a result of the example of the conversos, who on adopting Christianity accepted in most cases the family names of their godfathers. Among the Ashkenazim, whose isolation from the mainstream majority population in the lands where they lived was more complete, the use of surnames only started to become common in the eighteenth century in most places.

The use of surnames became common very early among the Arabic-speaking Jews, who naturally carried the custom into the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). Among Sephardi Jews are found such names as Abeldano, corresponding to Ibn el-Danan; Abencabre, corresponding to Ibn Zabara; Avinbruch, corresponding to Ibn Baruch, Hacen corresponding to Hassan or Hazan; and the like. Biblical names often take curious forms in the Iberian records, Isaac appearing as Acaz, Cohen as Coffen or Coffe, Yom-Ṭob as Bondia, Ẓemaḥ as Crescas or Cresquez.

The Ḥen family appears to have adopted a translation of the name of their home-village, Gracia, near Barcelona.[1] Indeed, among the Sephardi the tendency to adopt family names from localities is largely developed; hence were derived such names as Espinosa, Gerondi, Cavalleria, De La Torre, del Monte, Lousada, and Villa Real. The name Sasportas deserves special attention, as it is really the Balearic dialectal form of La Porta. The "Asturias" family name was also said to be adopted by Sephardic Jews who had migrated to the northern province of Spain, which is also called Asturias.

Many families, especially among New Christians (Jewish converts to Catholicism) and Crypto-Jews, but not restricted to them, took Spanish and Portuguese family names, sometimes using translations (such as Vidal/de Vidas for Hayyim, Lobos for Zev, de Paz for Shalom, and de la Cruz or Espírito Santo for Ruah); phonetic similarities according to a kinnui-like system, sometimes choosing between already existing ones (such as Pizarro/Pissarro, Mendes, Fonseca, Calle or Rodrígues); even given names (for example, de Jesus or de Miguel). Julio Caro Baroja, supporting the Leite de Vasconcelos's thesis in his "Anthroponymy Portuguesa, 4" argues, for example, that the surnames related to "calle" (English: "street"), that would be the equivalent in something like a ghetto, are Jewish origin. This is the case of Alonso Calle, treasurer on the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, who was one of the settlers of Sephardic origin who composed the crew.

Many Sephardic Jews used the Arabic ibn instead of bat or ben when it was the norm. The Spanish family Ibn Ezra is one example.

Ashkenazic Jewry[edit]

Until the emancipation of the Jews in the late 18th century, most Jews in Europe used the traditional system of patrimonial Hebrew surnames. Exceptions included Jewish communities in large cities such as Prague or Frankfurt am Main, where many of the names were derived from house-signs; and rabbinical dynasties, which often used a town name, typically the birthplace of the founder of the dynasty. Such surnames were much easier to shed or change than they would be today, and did not have the official status that modern ones do.

The process of assigning permanent surnames to Jewish families (most of which are still used to this day) began in Austria-Hungary. On 23 July 1787, five years after the Edict of Tolerance, the Austrian emperor Joseph II issued a decree called Das Patent über die Judennamen which compelled the Jews to adopt German surnames.[2][3][4] Prussia did so soon after, beginning with Silesia: the city of Breslau in 1790, the Breslau administrative region in 1791, the Liegnitz region in 1794. In 1812, when Napoleon had occupied much of Prussia, surname adoption was mandated for the unoccupied parts; and Jews in the rest of Prussia adopted surnames in 1845.[5]

Napoleon also, in a decree of July 20, 1808, insisted upon the Jews adopting fixed names[6] His decree covered all lands west of the Rhine; and many other parts of Germany required surname-adoption within a few years. Oldenburg was the last principality to complete the process, in 1852.[7]

At the end of the 18th century after the Partition of Poland and later after the Congress of Vienna the Russian Empire acquired a large number of Jews who did not use surnames. They, too, were required to adopt surnames during the 19th century.

Medieval France and Great Britain[edit]

In medieval France the use of Biblical names appears to have been more extended, judging by the elaborate lists at the end of Gross's "Gallia Judaica." True surnames occurred, especially in the south, like Farissol, Bonet, Barron, Lafitte; but as a rule local distinctions were popular, as Samson of Sens, etc.

The early Jews of England, who spoke French throughout their stay, also used Biblical names; the most popular name, in the twelfth century at least, being Isaac, next to which came Joseph. On both sides of the British Channel there was a tendency to translate Biblical names into French, as Deulesalt for Isaiah, Serfdeu for Obadiah, Deudone for Elhanan, but the ordinary popular names were adopted also, as Beleasez, Fleurdelis, and Muriel for Jewish women, or Amiot, Bonevie, Bonenfaund, Bonfil, among men. Deulacres and Crescas both occur (probably corresponding to Solomon or Gedaliah).

In Israel[edit]

Many immigrants to modern Israel change their names to Hebrew names, to erase remnants of galuti (exiled) life still surviving in family names from other languages. This phenomenon is especially common among Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants to Israel, because most of their surnames were taken recently, and many were imposed by authorities in Europe as a replacement for the traditional Hebrew patronymic form.

A popular form to create a new family name using Jewish patronymics sometimes related to poetic Zionist themes, such as ben Ami ("son of my people"), or ben Artzi ("son of my country"), and sometimes related to the Israeli landscape, such as bar Ilan ("son of the trees"). Others have created Hebrew names based on phonetic similarity with their original family name: Golda Meyersohn became Golda Meir. Another famous person who used a false patronymic was the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, whose original family name was Grün but adopted the name "Ben-Gurion" ("son of the lion cub"), not "Ben-Avigdor" (his father's name).

Toponyms (names derived from locations)[edit]

Many modern Jewish surnames are derived from place names. There are general names like Deutsch, Frank, Franco, Frankel, and more localized ones from almost every European country.

The Netherlands has contributed Leuwarden, Neumegen, Limburg, van Thal, and various other vans, as van Ryn, (Rhine), etc.

Germany has contributed the largest number. Some refer to well-known cities as Posen (hence Posener), Berlin (hence Berliner and Berlinsky), Bingen, Cassel (cf.David Cassel), Treves (whence, according to some authorities, originated the very popular Alsatian name of Dreyfus), Dresden, Fulda (hence Foulde), and Oppenheim; others, to less familiar towns, like Auerbach, Bischoffsheim, Utting am Ammersee (hence Utting), Flatow (hence Flathow, and Flath), Hildesheim (Hildesheimer), Landshuth, Sulzberg.

House signs such as those in the Frankfurter Judengasse gave rise to the names of some of the best known of Jewish families: Rothschild ("red shield"), Schwarzschild ("black shield"), Adler ("eagle"), Ganz or Gans ("goose"), Strauß ("ostrich"), and Ochs ("ox").[8]

Some names may seem to be derived artificially, but can also refer to towns, e.g., Birnbaum (translated into "Peartree"), Rosenberg, Sommerfeld, Grünberg (hence Greenberg (surname)), Goldberg, and Rubenstein.

The English Crawcour (cf. Siegfried Kracauer) comes from Cracow, while Van Praag(h) is the name of a Prague family that settled in the Netherlands before going over to England. The name Gordon may in some cases be derived from the Russian Grodno[citation needed] but is also said to have been adopted by Jews in the Russian Empire in honor of Lord George Gordon (1751–1793), a Scottish nobleman who converted to Judaism in 1787 in Birmingham. From Poland have come names such as Polano, Pollock, Polack, Polak, Pollak, Poole, Pool, and Polk. Sephardic surnames, as already mentioned, are almost invariably local, as Almanzi, Castro, Carvajal, Silva, Leon, Navarro, Somogyi, Robles, Sevilla (Spanish), and Almeida, Carvallo, Lisbona, Miranda, Paiva, Porto, Pieba and Verdugo (Portuguese). Many Italian names are also of this class, as Alatino, Genovese (from Genoa), Meldola, Montefiore, Mortara, Pisa, Rizzolo, Romanelli (with its variants Romanin, Romain, Romayne, and Romanel), Vitalis (from Jaim or Chaim and its variants Vidal, Vidale and Vidas); Verdugo and its variants Berdugo, Bardogo, Paradiso an anagram for the word Diaspora (dispersion). Even in the East there are names of these last two classes, Behar (from Bejar), Barron (from BarOn), Galante, Veneziani, though there are a few Arabic names like Alfandari and Ḥaggis; Greek, as Galipapa and Pappo; and a few Turkish, as Jamila, Gungur, Bilbil, and Sabad.[9]

Going still farther east, the curious custom which prevails among the Bene Israel may be mentioned of changing Biblical names to similar Hindu names with the addition of -jee, thus Benjamin into Benmajee, Abraham into Abrajee, David into Dawoodjee, Jacob into Akkoobjee. Before dismissing the local names, the names Altschul or Altschuler, derived from the Altschul ("old school/synagogue") of Prague, should be mentioned.

Official names and nicknames[edit]

Turning to the next great source from which have been derived the Jewish and German-Jewish surnames used in ordinary nomenclature—trades and occupations—such names as Kaufmann and Marchant ("merchant") become prominent. Others of the same kind are: Banks (Surname); Brauer, Breyer, and Brower ("brewer"); Spielmann ("player"); Gerber (tanner); Steinschneider ("stonecutter"); Graveur ("engraver"); Shoemark or Schumacher ("shoemaker"); Schuster ("cobbler"); Schneider, Schneiders, and Snyders ("tailor"; in Hebrew Ḥayyat; hence Chayet and at times Hyatt); Wechsler ("money-changer"). Related (and likewise generically German) are names derived metonymically for a common object or tool of a profession: e.g., Hammer for a blacksmith, Feder ("quill") for a scribe, Lein ("linen") for a dealer in cloth, ...

But there are others that are more distinctively Jewish: Parnass, Gabbay, Singer, Cantor, Voorsanger, Chazan, Cantarini, from the synagogue officials who were so called; Shochet, Schaechter, Schechter, from the ritual slaughterer; Shadkun, a marriage-broker; Moreno[citation needed], Rabe, Rabinowitz, Rabinovich, Rabinowicz, and Rabbinovitz, rabbis; Benmohel (one variant of which is Mahler), son of one who performed circumcision, the sacred rite of Abraham. A number of Arabic names are of similar origin: Al-Fakhkhar, a potter; Mocatta, a mason or possibly a soldier (Al-Muḳatil).[10]



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Loeb. R. E. J. iv. 73.
  2. ^ Original text of the decree issued by Joseph the second on the 23rd of July 1787
  3. ^ Zaleisky, Adalbert (1854). Handbuch der gesetze und verordnungen welche für die polizei-verwaltung im österreichischen kaiserstaate von 1740-1852 erschienen sind. F. Manz. pp. 168–169. ISBN 1-148-91162-6. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Lars Menk: A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames. Avotaynu, Bergenfield, 2005. pp. 3-4
  6. ^ "L'Univers Israélite", lvii. 472
  7. ^ Lars Menk: A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames. Avotaynu, Bergenfield, 2005. pp. 3-4
  8. ^ I Kracauer, Die Geschichte der Judengasse in Frankfurt. Frankfurt, 1909. pp 453ff.
  9. ^ Franco, "Histoire des Israélites de l'Empire Ottoman"',' pp. 284-285.
  10. ^ For the various forms of Cohen see Jew. Encyc. iv. 144.