Jewish Family Names

To the Anglo-Saxon ear, Schneider and Portnoy sound like typical Jewish names, while Taylor is the quintessence of Englishness. In fact, all three simply mean tailor, in German, Russian and English respectively. So what makes a family name Jewish?

Until the 19th Century most Ashkenazi Jews had no family names. Instead, they were named after their parents; Ya’akov ben Yitzhak, Jacob son of Isaac, or Sarah bat Rachel, Sarah daughter of Rachel.

Spanish Jews, in contrast, have used family names since medieval times. Many derive from the names of flowers. In the Islamic world, Jewish names often denote places of origin, like Al-Fassi (from Fez in Morocco), Isfahani (from Isfahan in Persia), and Yerushalmi (from Jerusalem).

Sephardi and Ashkenazi names may sound different, but often mean the same thing. Montefiore, for instance, is identical in meaning to Bloomberg, ‘Mountain of Flowers’ in Italian and German respectively. Certain surnames can be both Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Often these denote membership of a religious group, Cohen, Levi or Israel. Family names based on Biblical names (Moses, David, Jacob etc) are shared by all communities.

Some family names are actually acronyms; for example, Katz is a contraction of Kohen Tzadik,’ righteous priest’. Most Ashkenazi family names are German or Yiddish in origin; but a few are based on Hebrew: Schochet denotes a butcher; or Joffe, from Yafe, means beautiful.

Family names can reveal interesting ethnic origins. An Ashkenazi called Franks probably has a Sephardi ancestor (Frank was a nickname for Sephardim). Likewise, a Sephardi called Tedesco most likely has Ashkenazi forebears (Tedesco means German). By that logic, a Jew called Ashkenazi or Eskenazi is more likely to be Sephardi.

In 1787 Austria compelled Jews to adopt German-sounding family names. Some Jews apparently paid for attractive examples derived from flowers and gems (like Edelstein, ‘precious stone’; Bernstein, ‘amber’; and Rosenthal, ‘valley of roses’). Less fortunate people received more ordinary names (Klein, small; Schwartz, black); or even undesirable names like Taschengregger (pickpocket) or Ochsenschwantz (ox tail).

In 20th century Britain, and to a lesser extent in South Africa, USA, Canada and Australia, Jewish-sounding names were often anglicised. However, this was not only because Jews wanted to assimilate. Sometimes this was part of a wider trend towards anglicising names, for example, duirng World War I in 1917, popular dislike for Germany even transformed the name of the Royal Family of Great Britain from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor and royal cousins residing in Great Britain were ordered by the King to also anglicise their names (hence, for example, Prince Louis of Battenberg adopted the family name Mountbatten which is an anglicised version of Battenberg). During World War II, Jewish servicemen adopted English-sounding names to avoid certain death if captured by German Nazis e.g. Cohen might be changed to Cahill.

Feeling that German, Arabic and Spanish family names smelt of the ghetto, many Israelis chose authentic Hebrew ones instead. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself was born Perelman. New names often sounded like the old ones. David Ben-Gurion was formerly Gruen, Levi Eshkol was Shkolnik and Shimon Peres was Perski. Others chose names that meant the same: for example, Novik (‘new’) became Hadash.

A combination of Jewish law, inheritance of one’s father’s family name and intermarriage means that today having a Jewish family name is no guarantee of being Jewish. Thus, for example, William Cohen, Barry Goldwater and Caspar Weinberger have ‘Jewish sounding’ surnames, but this only denotes a Jewish ancestor on their paternal side and not that they themselves are Jewish.

How many American Jews got their names

Other than aristocrats and wealthy people, Jews did not get surnames in Eastern Europe until the Napoleon years of the early 19th century. Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon, Russia, Poland, and Germany were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.

After Napoleon’s defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned to “son of” names such as: MENDELSOHN, JACOBSON, LEVINSON, etc.

During the so called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to take surnames. In Austria Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland did so in 1821 and Russia in 1844. It’s probable that some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.

In France and the Anglo-Saxon countries surnames went back to the 16th century. Also Sephardic Jews had surnames stretching back centuries.

Spain prior to Ferdinand and Isabella was a golden spot for Jews. They were expelled by Isabella in the same year (1492) that Columbus left for America. Accordingly, the earliest American Jews were Sephardic.

In general, Jewish surnames fell into one of five categories:

In general there were five types of names (people had to pay for their choice of names; those too poor to pay had names assigned):

Names which described the head of the household:

  • HOCH (tall)
  • KLEIN (small)
  • COHEN (priest)
  • BURGER (city or village dweller, as opposed to a farmer or rural resident)
  • SHEIN (good looking)
  • LEVI (temple singer)
  • GROSS (large or tall)
  • SCHWARTZ (dark or black)
  • WEISS (white)
  • KURTZ (short)

Names describing occupations:

  • HOLTZ (wood) (used for someone whose occupation involved wood)
  • HOLTZHACKER (wood chopper)
  • GOLDSCHMIDT (goldsmith)
  • SCHNEIDER (tailor)
  • METZGER (butcher)
  • KRIEGSMAN (warrior)
  • MALAMED (teacher)
  • FINKELSTEIN (diamond)(used for a diamond merchant)
  • EISEN (iron)(used for someone who was an ironworker)
  • WEIN (wine)(used for someone who made or sold wine) (variant – WEINER, a person who works with wine)
  • FISCHER (fisherman)

Names based on place of residence:

  • BERLINER – from Berlin
  • FRANKFURTER – from Frankfurt
  • DANZIGER – from Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland)
  • OPPENHEIMER – from Oppenheim
  • WIENER – from Vienna (Wien in German) – not to be confused with the name Weiner (see above for its meaning)
  • DEUTSCH (German)
  • POLLACK (Polish)
  • WARSHAW (Warsaw)

Other Bought Names:

  • GLUCK (good luck)
  • ROSEN (roses)
  • ROSENBLATT (rose paper or leaf)
  • ROSENBERG (rose mountain)
  • ROSENTHAL (valley of roses)
  • ROTHMAN (red man)
  • KOENIG (king)
  • KOENIGSBERG (king’s mountain)
  • SPIELMAN (a person who is at leisure)
  • LIEBER (lover)
  • BERG (mountain)
  • WASSERMAN (water dealer)
  • STEIN (glass or stone)

Assigned Names (these were generally undesirable):

  • PLOTZ (to die,explode)
  • KLUTZ (clumsy)
  • BILLIG (cheap)
  • DREK (filth)
  • KOTZE (vomit)
  • OCHSENSCHWANTZ (ox tail)

A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History
by Benzion C. Kaganoff. This is the single best book on the topic of Jewish family names for the general reader (some highly specialised academic tomes have been produced but tend to deal with a restricted geographical area and be very expensive). It delves into the history and development of Jewish family names, how and why names changed over time, gives numerous examples and provides a wealth of very readable information. A thoroughly entertaining and informative book. 268 pages.

Jewish Family Names and Their Origins: An Etymological Dictionary
by Heinrich Guggenheimer and Eva Guggenheimer. Examines more names than the previous book. The current edition of this book appears to be a cheap reprint of an earlier edition.

Finding Our Fathers. a Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy
by Malcom H. Stern and Dan Rottenberg. Includes a section which examines some 8,000 Jewish family names and provides information about them.

The Original Birth Names of Selected Jewish Performers
  • Woody Allen — Alan Stewart Koenigsberg
  • June Allyson — Ella Geisman
  • Lauren Bacall — Betty Joan Perske
  • Jack Benny — Benjamin Kubelsky
  • Irving Berlin — Israel Baline
  • Milton Berle — Milton Berlinger
  • Joey Bishop —Joseph Gottlieb
  • Karen Black — Karen Blanche Ziegler
  • Victor Borge — Borge Rosenbaum
  • Fanny Brice — Fanny Borach
  • Mel Brooks — Melvin Kaminsky
  • George Burns — Nathan Birnbaum
  • Eddie Cantor — Edward Israel Iskowitz
  • Jeff Chandler — Ira Grossel
  • Lee J. Cobb — Amos Jacob
  • Tony Curtis — Bernard Schwartz
  • Rodney Dangerfield — Jacob Cohen
  • Kirk Douglas — Issue Danielovich Demsky
  • Melvyn Douglas — Melvyn Hesselberg
  • Bob Dylan — Bobby Zimmerman
  • Paulette Goddard — Marion Levy
  • Lee Grant — Lyova Geisman
  • Elliot Gould — Elliot Goldstein
  • Judy Holliday — Judith Tuvim
  • Al Jolson — Asa Yoelson
  • Danny Kaye — David Daniel Kaminsky
  • Michael Landon — Michael Orowitz
  • Steve Lawrence — Sidney Leibowitz
  • Jerry Lewis — Joseph Levitch
  • Peter Lorre — Lazlo Lowenstein
  • Elaine May — Elaine Berlin
  • Yves Montand — Ivo Levy
  • Mike Nichols — Michael Peschkowsky
  • Joan Rivers — Joan Molinsky
  • Edward G. Robinson — Emanuel Goldenberg
  • Jane Seymour — Joyce Penelope Frankenburg
  • Simone Signoret — Simone-Henriette Kaminker
  • Beverly Sills — Belle Silverman
  • Sophie Tucker — Sophia Kalish
  • Gene Wilder — Gerald Silberman