Origins of Jewish Names


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Names


Immigrants to the United States frequently changed their foreign names to English sounding names. This was particularly true of people from Eastern Europe and Asia because their names were so different from American names that they were difficult for Americans to pronounce.

This has been true for American Jews, who are mainly descendants of eastern Europeans. These Eastern European Jews had Hebrew names before the middle of the eighteenth century, when the tax collectors in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire forced Jews to adopt secular names in 1787.  Most European countries followed the Austrian example, although in Russia, name changes were not required until 1849, when Jews needed secular names to be drafted into the army for twenty years. Prior to these forced name changes, the Jews who called their sons Elyokim ben Gershon or Yehudah ben Yaakov and their girls Bas or Bat instead of Ben resorted to using the names of their ancestral forebears in Germany as their names. Some Jews continued to call themselves “son” or “daughter” by using the Slavic “wich” or “witz,” meaning son, as in Moscovitz, or Rabinowich.

 Of course it is still the custom of Jews to give their children a Hebrew name in addition to a secular name.

Eastern European Jews came into Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries during the Crusades, when the crusaders killed the defenseless Jews in Germany rather than face the well-armed Muslims in the Holy Land.

Using the names of the German towns and cities which had been the homes of their ancestors led to such names as Hamburger, Frankfurter, Wuerzburger, or Danziger, etc. Other Jews used their occupations as the source of their names. Goldsmiths called themselves Goldberg and Silversmiths became Silverman, merchants became Kaufman and tailors would call themselves Sherman from the German Schere, meaning scissors. Cooperman was a coppersmith. Garfinkel is not Jewish. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gar, or grass, and finkel, or field, and remained part of the English language after the conquest of England by the French in 1066.

Today there are numerous Jews who have such names as Smith, Jones, or Schulz, derived from German or English sounding names, thereby hiding the Jewish connection. However, we also have some Jews who in America use Hebrew names which are common among the American Christian population. Michael, or mee  cha  el, means who is like G’d, Joseph is derived from Yasaph, as Jacob called his eleventh son “He added” in reference to God adding one more son to his many children. Benjamin means “son of my right hand” and is very common in this country. Jeremiah is a well-known name among Irish Americans, as is Daniel, meaning God is my judge. Many American women have Hebrew names, such as Ruth, Sarah, and Esther. Even Hebrew last names are used by Americans who are not Jewish, such as Isaacs and Israel.

My last name Falk was derived from an early eighteenth century Polish immigrant who came to Hamburg speaking Polish as well as Yiddish. He was designated “the Polak” by the German Jews. The three letter Pay, Lamed, Kuf are Hebrew for Polak and made Falk in German.

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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