I recently came across a surprisingly interesting series of articles about Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire. It turns out that there’s much more to this dry-sounding subject than meets the eye.
In Eastern Europe, Jews acquired their last names between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th, following a series of laws forcing them to adopt hereditary names. Before that, the only Jews with 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.
Surnames across the Russian Empire have their roots in several different sources. Those derived from towns or cities in western Germany, such as Auerbach, Epstein, Ginzburg, Halpern, Landau and Schapiro were particularly prestigious, passed down through rabbinical families living in western Germany during the 15th and 16th centuries before they or their descendants migrated eastwards.
The high frequency of the name Epstein, for example, results from its old age; the earliest reference, from Frankfurt, dates from 1392, and the migration of a rabbi bearing this name to Eastern Europe. It is testimony to the prestige of his lineage rather than a large number of migrants from the town of Eppstein.
Unusually, many were derived from women’s first names, such Belkin, Dvorkin, Malkin, and Rivkin – derived from Belka (Beyle), Dvorka (Deborah), Malka, and Rivka – far more than prevailed outside the Russian Empire. This may be partly because it was often Jewish women who were outwardly facing in areas like commerce and the marketplace, while their menfolk studied in Yeshiva or worked from the home as craftsmen. Many women would have been better known to the inhabitants of a locality than their husbands.
Additionally, a tradition already existed in Eastern Europe before the 19th century of giving men ‘nicknames’ based on female first names, for example, the famous Polish rabbis Samuel Eidels (1555-1631) and Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), both ending in the Yiddish possessive suffix -s. Numerous names of the community leaders in Lviv found in Polish documents from the 1740s–1770s belong to the same category: Bonis, Cymeles, Daches, Fayglis, Menkes, Minceles, Mizes, and Nechles. This naming tradition could have had a direct influence on the names adopted at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries in the same area, as well as in southern Ukraine and Bessarabia.
Just how common these matronymic names were once Jews were required by law to adopt surnames varies from place to place. Surnames based on female names were particularly common in the Mogilev province in eastern Belorussia, where they covered 30-40 percent of the Jewish population. Almost all of them were created by using the East Slavic possessive suffix –in. In many other areas the percentage is only in single figures.
The naming process was administered by the Jewish administration, the Kahal, and it is likely that local Kahal authorities were largely responsible for choosing a model for the distribution of surnames, some choosing to follow matronymic lines, others opting for other patterns.
In the Novogrudok district of Minsk province, one third of Jews received names derived from male given names and for another third surnames were drawn from local place names by adding the suffix -sky. In a number of districts of Volhynia and Podolia, artificial surnames with attractive meanings like Goldberg ‘gold mountain’, Rosenthal ‘valley of roses’, and Silberstein ‘silver stone’ covered about one third of all names, while one quarter of names indicated the occupations of their first bearers. In the area southeast to Kiev, two thirds of Jews received names ending in -sky based on local towns.
Less likely to be true, according to Alexander Beider, a linguist and expert on the subject of Jewish names, is the common perception that Jews paid money for the best names – the attractive ones like the above-mentioned Goldstein, Rosenthal or Silberberg. The widespread nature of attractive-sounding names, and the relative scarcity of derogatory ones supposedly assigned to those too poor to pay a bribe, would appear to debunk this myth. In addition, Beider says, the existence of a list of names and their bribe price across a wide area covering different jurisdictions is simply not feasible.
This post is based on a series of articles in The Forward by Alexander Beider, a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish.
For more see: https://forward.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/d.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/
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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.