Back in March 2018 I wrote a blog post about the origin of Jewish surnames in the Russian Empire. I recently came across as series of articles about surnames that covers other parts of the Jewish world too.
Across much of central eastern Europe, surnames became commonly used from the late 18th century with the first of a series of laws that required the population of the Austro-Hungarian empire to adopt hereditary names. One of several decrees issued by emperor Joseph II, who ruled from 1765-1790, stated that new hereditary names should be German, which helps to explain why so many eastern European Jews have German-sounding names.
But not all Jews were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and not all those who were obeyed the decree. For example, those descended from the priestly groups Cohen and Levi often noted this status in their surname, helping to make these some of the most common Jewish names today.
Before the late 18th century, the only Ashkenazi Jews that had adopted surnames were those belonging to certain rabbinical dynasties. For the rest of us, our ancestors would have been known by their name and patronymic, their father’s name, as in Abraham ben Moses or Nathan ben Israel. Indeed, Jews are still referred to in this way in the synagogue, at weddings and in prayers.
But among the Sephardic community, Jewish surnames go back much further. They started to proliferate after the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews in 1492. Many chose to adopt a name to help recall the places their families had left, or local landmarks and places, and passed these onto subsequent generations.
Below is a list common Jewish surnames and their origins, which fall into a number of categories. I was particularly interested to discover that my own family name, Cooper, is a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel, meaning Jacob.
Variations on the name Abraham, including Abramovich, Avraham and Abrahams, are patronymics recalling ancestors named after the first patriarch Abraham. Jacobs and its numerous variations including Jacob, Jacobson, Jacoby, Judah, Idelsohn, Udell and Yudelson are patronyms from the Hebrew name Jacob, the third patriarch of the Jewish people. And Benjamin and Binyamin recall ancestors named after the Benjamin, the son of Jacob and Abraham’s great grandson, who founded one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Another Biblical patronymic is Isaacs or Itkowitz, meaning son of Isaac.
The patronymic name Baruch comes from an ancestor named Baruch, meaning blessing in Hebrew. Perez or Peretz is another common patronymic name derived from the Hebrew name Peretz. Manishewitz, meaning son of Menashe, refers to the grandson of the patriarch Jacob who founded one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Mendelsohn and its variation Mendelovich mean son of Mendel, a variant of the Hebrew name Menachem, which means comforter, and a popular Yiddish name. In German-speaking areas, the suffix -son or -sohn was added to some names to denote ‘son of’. The suffix -ovich means the same in Russian. Kessler (also Kesel and Kesl) are thought to be a patronymic meaning son of Kesl, but may also can refer to a kestler, a Yiddish term for a married man who lives with his in-laws – a common practice among Ashkenazi families – or to a coppersmith.
Many Jewish surnames are derived from matronyms, the that is the name of the mother rather than the father. Dvorkin and its variants including Dworin, Dwarkin and Dvarkin come from the Jewish name Devorah, meaning bee. In Biblical times, Devorah was a famed prophetess and leader who orchestrated Israel’s victory over the tyrannical Canaanite oppressors. Blum comes from the name Bluma, meaning flower in Yiddish, while Malkin, Milliken, Milken and Miliken are all matronymics of Malka, which means queen in Hebrew.
Eidel and its variants Edel and Adel is derived from the Yiddish name Eidel meaning gentle or sweet. One of the first known Jews with the name Eidel was the Polish Rabbi Shmuel Eidel (1555-1631). His mother-in-law Eidel Lifschitz was a businesswoman who financially supported the yeshiva he ran for over twenty years, and he appears to have taken her name as a surname in tribute. And Margolis, Margalis and Margulis, meaning pearl in Hebrew, are derived from Margolit, the wife of the 15th century Rabbi Jacob of Nurenberg, whose descendants included many prominent religious scholars. Margolis is a more common spelling among Lithuanian Jews, while Margulis is favoured among Jews from Poland and Ukraine.
While some of these are self-explanatory – Berlin referring to someone with origins in the German city, for example, and Epstein from the town of Eppstein in the German province of Hesse – many are less obvious or have additional meanings. For example, Berlin and Berliner may also be a patronymic of the name Berl, while Epstein is one of the earliest Jewish surnames – the earliest written mention of Epstein as a Jewish name comes from 1392 – and commemorated a prestigious rabbinical dynasty.
Ash and Asch are a shortened version of various European towns and could refer to Aisenshtadt (Eisenstadt in modern day Austria) or Amsterdam, among others. Eisenstadt means iron town in German and is the capital of the Austrian province of Burgenland. Goldberg meaning golden town, refers to the town of Goldberg in Germany or Złotoryja/Goldberg in Poland, both once home to Jewish communities. Warshavsky and Warshauer both denote a family from Warsaw, while Wiener, Wein and Weinberg indicate someone from Vienna. Wallach can refer to someone from the German town of Wallach, but may also refer to the middle high German word walhe, which means a foreigner from a Romance country. This name is likely to have been given to Jews who migrated to Germany from Italy, or the Papal states. Similarly, Bloch or Block is derived from the old Polish word wloch, which originally meant foreigner and became a common way to refer to migrants from Italy, which had a thriving Jewish population in the Middle Ages. Montefiore is a common name originally referring to someone from the Montefiore region of Italy.
Gordon can refer to the town of Grodno in Lithuania, but may also reference the Russian word gorodin meaning a town-dweller. With its easy pronunciation and non-Jewish connotations – Gordon is also a common Scottish surname – it was a popular choice among Jewish immigrants to America and the UK. Berger and Berg are common names referencing the type of place that a family came from – Berg meaning a hilly or mountainous place, while Berger often referred to someone from a town (burgh in German).
Navaro and Navarro are Jewish surnames denoting someone from the Navarre kingdom of Spain before the expulsion of Jews in 1492. Many of those forced to flee adopted names to remind them of their homeland. Other names of this type include Spinoza, referring to the Spanish town of Espinosa.
Kirghiz is a Turkish Jewish name related to the town of Kagizman in eastern Turkey. Interestingly, this was the maiden name of the singer Bob Dylan’s grandmother (Dylan himself was born Robert Zimmerman).
Many Jewish surnames, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, reference professions. An interesting example from North Africa is Abecassis and its variations Abiksis, Abucassis and Cassis, which incorporates a variant of the prefix Abu, meaning father of, and cassis, which means storyteller in Arabic. In past generation, a cassis was considered a profession and many North African Jews engaged in this job and adopted the surname of their profession.
Surnames denoting professions have their origins in many different languages. From the German we derive Bauman, meaning builder, and Nagler, which comes from nagal, the old German word for nail. It referred to a builder or someone who made or sold nails. The Polish equivalent is Plotnick or Plotnik, also meaning builder. Goldschmidt means goldsmith in German, while Shnitzer and Schnitzer come from the German for carver. Zuckerman – from zucker, the German word for sugar – refers to a dealer in sugar or confectionary, but was also adopted by some Jewish families because of its pleasant connotations, which made it an attractive surname.
Some Jewish surnames derive from the Yiddish name for occupations, such as Fishman, meaning fish-seller. Fingerhut comes from the Yiddish word for thimble, and refers to a tailor. Garfinkel or Garfunkel was probably adopted by families in the jewellery business. The name derives from the Yiddish word gorfinkl (karfunkel in German) which literally means a carbuncle, but in the past was also was used to refer to red precious stones such as rubies and garnets.
In the Sephardic community, Elkayim is a Middle Eastern Jewish surname meaning tentmaker. Teboul and its numerous variations including Toubol, Touboul, Tovel and Abitbol is a popular Sephardic name indicating ancestors that may have been musicians. It derives from the Arabic tabell, a type of drum.
Among German-speaking Jews, it was popular to choose names reflecting beautiful gems or precious metals, such as Diamond and Gold. Similarly, Goldman was a popular choice among Austrian Jews for its connotation of gold and man. Eisen, meaning iron, was another popular choice for Austrian Jews. Colours were popular too, in particular Blau, meaning blue.
Rosenberg – literally mountain of roses – was adopted by many Jewish families because of its beauty and evocative nature. Likewise, Rosenthal, meaning valley of roses in German, was a popular choice, in particular in the area around Minsk in present-day Belarus, where many Russian Jews favoured beautiful and symbolic Germanic names. Another popular name in the same area was Silverstein or Silberstein, meaning silver stone in German.
Human or physical qualities:
Several Jewish surnames were bestowed to reflect the physical characteristics or human qualities of their holders. Ehrlich, for example, was used in the Austro-Hungarian empire to denote a person who is honest. Friedman was a popular Jewish surname from the 1600s, deriving from the old Germanic word fried, meaning peace. Literally a man of peace, Friedman was used to refer to a holy person or a friend. Fogel derives from the old German word fugal meaning bird, which was used as a term of endearment. Hart or Heart is from the Germanic word hart, meaning a stag or deer, which may have symbolic connotations.
Zadok and related names including Sadoc, Zadoq, Acencadoque, Aben Cadoc and Sadox are variations of the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning justice and righteous, and commonly used as surnames in Sephardic communities. Another Sephardic name, this time relating to physical appearance is Bouskila, which is derived from the Arabic word shakila, which was a distinguishing cloth, usually red and white, worn by Jews in North Africa in Medieval times. The prefix bou- or bu- means father of, and the name refers to someone who used to wear this distinctive Jewish outfit.
Ashkenazi surnames relating to Physical characteristics include Gelb and Geller, which both mean yellow in Yiddish, and were often given to people with fair or even reddish hair.
This blog post is based on an article on aish.com. To read the full article, click here www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Meaning-of-Some-More-Jewish-Last-Names.html
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.