Miriam Leye Kuperman, Sore Rivke Weinreich, and Rokhl Ajzenberg, Szydłowiec, Poland, 1925. Their personal names are examples of Ashkenazic forms of biblical names (Miriam, Leah, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel). (YIVO)

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Names and Naming

The most appropriate way of considering names used by Jews in Eastern Europe is to separate the discussion of personal names from that of family names. Indeed, personal names represent an organic part of Jewish culture. Their corpus developed over the centuries in a natural way, inside the community. Their history is closely related to that of Yiddish. On the other hand, but for a very few exceptions, the family names were invented during a short period of time, around the turn of the nineteenth century. Their adoption was forced by state authorities. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, in numerous communities they were marginal for Jewish self-consciousness.

Personal Names

Sources from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries show that in various parts of Eastern Europe, Jews principally bore biblical and postbiblical Hebrew names, while other appellations originated in Jewish communities of western German lands and Austria. Names of Slavic origin were not unusual in Bohemia–Moravia (where all names were of Czech origin) and in the area of Lwów and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (where they mainly were of Ukrainian and Belorussian origin). It was only at the end of the sixteenth century that a large homogenization, or “Yiddishizing,” of Jewish names took place in all of Eastern Europe. It was characterized by the following variations:

  1. Ashkenazic forms of biblical names: Moyshe for Moses, Itskhok for Isaac, Ya(n)kev for Jacob; Sore for Sara and Rokhl for Rachel (at the end of the 1600s, the phonetic shift in the Yiddish dialects spoken in Poland and Ukraine gave rise to the forms Sure and Rukhl).
  2. Yiddish male names derived from German forms of biblical names: Ayzik, Kopl, Zalmen, Zanvl, and Ziml.
  3. Yiddish names with Germanic roots derived from Jewish names in the Rhineland, Franconia, Bavaria, and Austria: Anshl, Ber(man), Herts, Hirsh, Leyb, Lipman, Mendl, and Volf; Freyde, Frumet, Golde, Gute, Mine, Raytse, Toybe, and Zelde.
  4. Yiddish names of Romance origin: Bendit, Bunem, Fayvush, and Shneyer; Beyle, Bune, Toltse, and Yentl. These came to Eastern Europe from German lands.
  5. The disappearance of many Slavic appellations. The rare survivors were Yiddishized, giving rise to Beynesh, Dobre, Drazne, Prive, Rode, Slave, Tsherne, and Zlate (all of Czech origin), and in the East, to Badane, Drobne, Vikhne, and Yakhne.

All personal Yiddish names belong to one of the following classes:

  1. Stylistically neutral full forms (as in all the names cited above).
  2. Hypocoristic forms that are familiar, intimate, and colloquial. Some carry an expressive nuance; others are completely neutral. They are mainly formed through the addition of diminutive suffixes: -l (Yankl, Berl, Velvl; Brayndl, Gitl, and Mindl), -ke (Froymke, Moshke; Leyke, and Sorke), -ek and -ik (Moshek, Levek, Hershlik, and Pertshik), -e (Fole, Leybe; Dobe, and Tsipe), -ush and -ish (Leybush and Berish), -sye and -she (Dvosye, Khisye, Khashe, and Maryashe).
  3. Pet forms that are distinctly expressive and/or emotive. These necessarily include diminutive suffixes: -ele (Berele and Leybele; Hindele and Rivele), -tse and -tshe (Shlomtse, Nyumtshe; Khantse, and Khavtshe), -shi (Khayemshi and Beyleshi)

From a religious point of view, and not just in Eastern Europe, all male names fell into two categories. The first were called shemot ha-kodesh (sacred names) in Hebrew, oyfruf-nemen in Yiddish. These names were given to boys on the day of their circumcision and were used when, as men, they were called upon to read the Torah in a synagogue. The same names appear in tombstone inscriptions. This group includes all biblical names, all the postbiblical names of Semitic origin, and a few appellations of Greek origin borne by Jews for many centuries.

The second and larger category is called kinuyim (secular names) in Hebrew, ruf-nemen (calling names) in Yiddish. These derive from languages other than Hebrew and Aramaic, and include numerous vernacular hypocoristic and pet forms. Both shemot ha-kodesh and kinuyim must appear on Jewish divorce documents.

All female names are equal from a religious point of view. Communities in Eastern Europe had no strict rules about naming newborn girls on specific days. In some places, it was customary to do so right after the child’s birth. In other communities, people waited until the next Sabbath (more rarely, Monday or Thursday), when the father came to the synagogue and was called up to the Torah.

Naming practices in Eastern Europe were part of a general and older Ashkenazic tradition. The custom of calling children after deceased relatives existed in German lands by the Middle Ages and was reinforced over the centuries. In medieval times, Ḥaside Ashkenaz—pietists—also suggested that a man should not marry a woman whose name is the same as his mother’s, or one whose father bears the appellation identical to his own. These rules, however, were not universally observed.

A number of substitute names were specifically assigned to seriously ill or tenderly guarded children to protect them from evil spirits. Among them were Khayem and Khaye (life), Kayem (solid), Kadish (the prayer for deceased relatives), Zeyde (grandfather) and Bobe/Bube (grandmother), and Alter and Alte (old man/woman). The two last examples were sometimes used instead of the genuine name as a way to cheat the angel of death. For the same reason, some Lithuanian Jews did not address their children by their given names.

Hirsh Leyb Brenman, an activist in the Jewish Socialist Bund, Łódź, ca. 1890s. His personal name is an example of both the double names that were common in Eastern Europe and of Yiddish names with Germanic roots. (YIVO)

A tradition of double names also arose in other regions. It was in Eastern Europe, however, that the practice became extremely common; in some communities of nineteenth-century Poland more than 40 percent of all children had double names. Since official surnames were ignored, this form simplified distinctions between individuals. It also allowed the commemoration of two deceased relatives. Often for men the first part represented a shem ha-kodesh and the second one its traditional kinui, or secular name: Yude Leyb, Dov Ber, Uri Fayvish. In other common combinations the parts were linked by the biblical text: Avrom Itskhok (father and son), Sore Rivke (mother and daughter), Rokhl Leye (two sisters), Ester Malke (the second name means “queen”). In numerous cases, however, no relation existed between the parts as in the following names common in Poland in the nineteenth century: Avrum Leyb, Avrum Moyshe, Avrum Yankl, Itsek Mayer, Khaye Feyge, and Khane Rukhle.

The abandonment of the traditional Yiddish corpus of personal names was gradual, and resulted both from state intervention and acculturation. A law of 1787 required Jews of the Habsburg Empire to choose personal names from lists of 123 male and 37 female names. These included German forms of biblical names, a small number of German Christian names, and a few Yiddish appellations. Resistance to this legislation was led by middle-class Jews in Prague who wanted to give German names to their children. In 1836, a new law permitted the choosing of any German name but prohibited name changes. With the proclamation of a general civic rights’ law on 21 December 1867, all onomastic restrictions came to an end.

Beginning in the1830s, typical German Christian given names became increasingly common. In many cases, however, the chosen appellations sounded like or were translations of Jewish names that had been used within the same families. For example, Arnold replaced Aron, and Bernhard was used instead of Ber and Barukh; among other examples are Ignatz (Itskhok), Isidor (Isroel), Julius (Yoyel), Leon (Leyb), and Moritz (Moyshe).

In Polish lands, as acculturation (Polonization) progressed mainly in the larger urban centers from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Jews started to use Polish names. Still, even during the 1930s this tendency was not yet the dominant mode. In the USSR, the substitution of Russian names for Yiddish ones started during the 1920s and lasted about two decades. There, Yiddish forms of biblical names were replaced by Russian ones: Moisei for Moyshe, Semen for Shimen, Anna for Khane, Mariia for Miryem. After World War II, all biblical names that were not also used by non-Jews (such as Abram, Isaak, Moisei, Sarra) were abandoned by Jews as well. As a result, the corpuses of first names assigned to Jewish and gentile children became almost identical. Significant differences existed, however, in the frequency of use for certain names. In the generation born during the 1960s, for example, Grigorii (whose diminutive form Grisha sounds close to Hirsh), Boris (replacing both Ber and Barukh), Leonid and Lev (both instead of Leyb), and Arkadii (for Aron) were much more common among Jewish boys than among non-Jews. In many cases, these Russian names honored deceased relatives who had had traditional Yiddish first names.

Family Names

Before 1787, Prague was the only community in Eastern Europe in which Jews regularly had used hereditary names. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, almost half of these names were derived from place-names in Bohemia and Moravia. Examples include Brandeis, Goitein, Eibenschütz, Kisch, Taussig, and Töplitz. Family names derived from male (Karpeles, Schmelkes) and female (Bassewi, Porges) personal names were also common. Elsewhere, surnames were unusual to have. In Hebrew documents, Jews were referred to by their proper given name and that of their father. Additional names indicated either descent from the (Jewish priestly caste) or Levites. Among the expressions that label the kohanim, most common are ha-Kohen and the acronym KTs (Katz), meaning priest of righteousness. Levite origin is expressed by Hebrew ha-Levi and the acronym SGL (Segal), associate of the Levitic order.

Jews who lived in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth were called in Christian sources by their given names, to which patronymics were often added that were formed by adding the suffix -owicz to the given names of their fathers. Only certain rabbinical families used surnames: Auerbach, Bachrach, Eiger, Epstein, Ettingen/Ettinger, Frenkel, Ginzburg, Halpern, Heifetz, Heller, Horowitz, Jaffe/Joffe (from Heb., Yafeh), Katzenellenbogen, Landau, Lipschitz/Lifschitz, Luria, Margolies/Margulies, Rappoport, Schor, Spira/Schapiro and Te’omim. All of these names originated in Western or Central Europe.

The great majority of European Jews took their surnames from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, when state legislation required the adoption of hereditary names. The first law was promulgated in 1787 by Emperor Joseph II and was applied to all Jews of the Habsburg Empire, most of whom lived in Galicia. Jews were free to choose their names subject to approval of Austrian officials. If a Jew had not chosen a name, one was assigned. The choice depended only on an Austrian official’s imagination.

Almost all names were based on German words. Many referred to occupations, and others designated personal qualities. The most populous category, however, consisted of artificial names drawn directly from various lexical layers of the German language and unrelated to characteristics of their first bearers. Among these were names of flora and fauna, metals and stones, natural phenomena, food, and household utensils. In many names of that group one can distinguish unmistakable ornamental elements: they are drawn from words that have positive associations. This is particularly true of names derived from adjectives: Ehrlich, Rechtschaffen, and Redlich (honest); Freundlich (friendly); Frisch (fresh); Fröhlich (happy); Geduldig (patient); Glücklich (lucky); Herzlich (warmhearted); Lieblich (charming); Superfein (top-quality); and Tugendhaft (virtuous). For other names, the semantics is neutral. Derogatory names exist as well, though their proportion is small. Among the examples are Deligtisch (criminal), Geschwür (ulcer), Kaker (crapper), Harn (urine), Niemand (nobody), Affengesicht (monkey’s face), Bleichfrosch (pale frog), Schmutzbank (dirty bench), and Wanzreich (rich in bugs, or realm of bugs).

A very large number of artificial names are compound, made up of two roots. The first of these roots generally comes from the following series:

  1. Metals: Gold (gold), Silber (silver), Eisen (iron), and Kupfer (copper).
  2. Adjectives designating beauty: Fein (fine) and Schön (beautiful).
  3. Colors: Braun (brown), Grün (green), Roth (red), Schwarz (black), and Weiss (white).
  4. Flora and food: Apfel (apple), Birn (pear), Blum (flower), Korn (seed), Mandel (almond), Rose (rose), and Wein (wine, vine).
  5. Words related to the heavens: Himmel (heaven, sky), Licht (light), and Stern (star).
  6. Size: Klein (small) and Gross (big).

Principal second parts in compound surnames include the following:

  1. Topographical terms: Berg (mountain, hill), Feld (field), and Stein (stone).
  2. Habitations: Dorf (village), Haus (house), and Heim (home).
  3. Words related to plants: Baum (tree), Blatt (leaf), Blum (flower), Holz (wood), Wald (forest), and Zweig (branch).

The resulting names often are associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time. Moreover, the acquisition of these surnames by Jews served the interests of the state, which hoped to achieve acculturation of its Jewish population: the new names thus sounded typically German. In many cases, they were already used by Christians. For example, those ending in topographical and habitational terms often coincided with place-names in Central Europe and surnames of nobility who owned these localities (Grünberg, Rosenberg, Rosenthal, etc.).

The pattern of compound surnames allowed officials to construct numerous names from only a few roots, with various combinations. The method, invented in Galicia, was applied on a larger scale in the area annexed by Austria after the third partition of Poland; there, surnames were added after a law of 1805. These new territories included the cities of Kraków, Lublin, and Radom.

In Polish provinces annexed by Prussia in 1795 (covering the Warsaw area), many names were assigned by Prussian clerks after the law of 1797. Here, as elsewhere, almost all names were drawn from German vocabulary. After the Napoleonic wars, some of these regions were incorporated into Congress Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire. There in 1821, a law obliged local Jews to take family names. For many people, the appellations assigned previously by Austrian and Prussian officials were restored; for others, Polish clerks chose new names, often artificially constructed from Polish words of birds, fish, animals, plants: Drozd (thrush), Gruszka (pear tree), Jagoda (berry), Kanarek (canary), Kwiatek (small flower), Kukawka (cuckoo), Róża (rose), Skowronek (skylark), Wierzba (willow). Other names designated personal characteristics (Biały [white], Ubogi [poor], Wysoki [tall]) or occupations (Farbiarz [dyer], Garbarz [tanner], Gorzelnik [alcohol distiller], Kapelusznik [hatter], Młynarz [miller]). In northeastern Congress Poland, numerous habitational names ending in -ski resulted (Białobłocki, Birszczański, Dumbelski, Gierdziejewski, Kacprowski, Karkliński, Kibejski, Mieszkiński, Pojeziorski, Potylczański, Sidorski, Stroczuński, Taboryszski, Urdomiński, Wazbudzki, Wersztomiński, Zarzecki). In the western and central parts of the country, many patronymic names appeared, including Abramowicz, Jakubowicz, Herszlikowicz, and Lewkowicz.

In the Pale of Settlement, a law forcing all Jews to acquire family names was passed in 1804. The authorities in Jewish kahals (communities) were responsible for implementing the process. No regulations restricted the selection of surnames. However, in many examples Jewish authorities used special patterns to create names quickly. In several districts of eastern Belorussia, approximately one-third of surnames were created by adding the suffix -in to female given names (Dvorkin, Malkin, Shifrin, Zeitlin). In northern Ukraine, nearly half of the Jews had surnames ending in -man. A great number of appellations were created in Yiddish and Hebrew; others came from Ukrainian and Belorussian words. Often these names were immediately Russified, as Russian was the official language of the empire. German was mainly used only to construct artificial compound names such as Blumenthal, Goldberg, Rosenbaum, and Rosenblatt, names that were particularly common in Volhynia and Podolia. Frequently in Courland, patronymic and occupational names were also based in German, the official language of that province until 1893.

Most often, surnames were created from place-names in the Pale of Settlement. These were particularly common in the Kiev and Grodno areas, where they mainly ended in -ski (Belotserkovski, Fastovski, Kanevski, Shpolianski, Smelianski, Umanski; Albertinski, Chepelevski, Diatlovski, Ivashkovski, Molchadski, Pliuskalovski). In the Mogilev area, Volhynia, and Podolia, many names ended in the Yiddish suffix -er (Klebaner, Moshnyager, Prigoniker, Stepaner, Studenitser, Zastenker). In western Lithuania, many names were created without suffixes (Dorbian, Dusheik, Kekst, Kibort, Kretingen, Novoran, Shapkaits, Upin).

In territories that became part of the Kingdom of Prussia after the two first partitions of Poland, Jews acquired surnames in 1812 (in West Prussia) and 1833 (in the Posen province). Numerous appellations derived from male given names (Abraham, Elkanus, Hirsch, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Marcuse, Mendelssohn, Simon). In other surnames, the actual personal names were disguised: Arndt and Arnheim for Aron, Bürger for Barukh, Löwenberg and Löwenstein for Lewin, Maas and Moritz for Moses, Salinger for Salomon. Another large category included surnames derived from place-names (Blaschke, Bleichrode, Bojanower, Bomster, Bukowzer, Czarnikow, Filehne, Flatau, Fordoner, Hammersteiner, Kleczewer, Kobyliner, Krojanker, Landeck, Lobsenser, Margoninski, Oberzycko, Ruppiner, Ryczywoller, Schlochow, Stargardt, Stettiner, Szamotulski, Tilsiter).

Hungarian Jews adopted surnames following the law of 1787. As in other provinces of Austria, these names were mainly based on German words. Beginning with the middle of the nineteenth century, however, and influenced by the general Hungarian nationalist movement, some Jews started to choose appellations that sounded typically Hungarian. That practice lasted about a century. Often the new names represented translations of former German ones: Schwarz became Fekete, Gross turned to Nagy, Metzger to Mészáros, Wolf to Farkas. Several other categories of surnames were created as well. The first encompassed appellations in which the Hungarian suffix -i was added to place-names. The second category corresponded to various Hungarian words, mainly occupations and physical or moral characteristics. As a large number of Hungarian Christian surnames are also constructed following these two patterns, there is overlap between Jewish and Christian surnames. Jews also generally sought to choose names that would not distinguish them (contrary to the previously used German-sounding appellations) from their Christian neighbors. As a result, it is unlikely that their new names always reflected either the semantics of their former names, or their current occupations or places of residence. In numerous cases, they were just borrowing common Christian surnames. Szabó and Varga were not necessarily tailors and shoemakers (or translations of Schneider and Schuster); Székely and Szász may not have been Hungarian and German speakers from Transylvania (as one would believe based on the meaning of the corresponding Hungarian words); nor do people named Somogyi and Hevesi necessarily come from the counties of Somogy and Heves; and Laszlo and Balázs are unlikely to identify masculine given names used in families of their first Jewish bearers. We know that in certain cases, only phonetic resemblances existed between the new and the old names: Ferenczi from Fraenkel, Polányi from Polacsek. In other cases, the new appellations were unrelated to former names or any other feature of their first Jewish bearers.

Hungary represented the only province of Eastern and Central Europe where mass name changes took place. In other parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Galicia, Bohemia, Moravia, Bucovina) events of this kind were extremely rare. In the Russian Empire (including Congress Poland) they were forbidden by the tsarist legislation. Even converted Jews were to keep their family names. In independent Poland in the interwar period and in the USSR name changes were rare exceptions. It was only in the countries to which East European Jews were migrating en masse from the end of the nineteenth century that the former surnames, seen as references to the country of the origin and being in this way obstacles for integration into a new culture, were often replaced with new ones. In North America and Great Britain numerous appellations were Anglicized, while in pre-state Israel many of them underwent Hebraization. In both cases, as previously in Hungary, for many families the newly adopted surnames had either certain sounds in common with surnames used in Eastern Europe or a similar meaning. For other families, numerous as well, the new names were totally unrelated to the former ones.

Suggested Reading

Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (Teaneck, N.J., 1993); Alexander Beider, Jewish Surnames in Prague: 15th–18th Centuries (Teaneck, N.J., 1995); Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland (Teaneck, N.J., 1996); Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation and Migrations (Bergenfield, N.J., 2001); Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia (Bergenfield, N.J., 2004); Jacob Lauterbach, “The Naming of Children in Jewish Folklore, Ritual and Practice,” in Studies in Jewish Law, Custom and Folklore (New York, 1970); Lars Menk, A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames (Bergenfield, N.J., 2005); Edward Stankiewicz, “The Derivational Pattern of Yiddish Personal (Given) Names,” in The Field of Yiddish, 3rd coll., pp. 267–283 (The Hague, 1969); Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (New York, 1939).