Origins of Jewish Names

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Names

Most Jewish names in this country are derived from Hebrew, German and Yiddish sources or are efforts to find a near English equivalent for an obvious Jewish name. There are of course Jewish names used in the Sephardic community which have no relationship to the German-Yiddish history, which is the heritage of 85% of American Jews.

In the ancient world, Jews used Hebrew names related to such prefixes as Eli, El or Jahoo, all connoting G’d. Later, under Greek influence, Greek names were combined with Hebrew or Aramaic names. Thereafter, the Latin language, spoken by the Romans (Latin refers to Latinus, the most ancient king of southern Italy, south of Rome) was influential among Jews and resulted in the Latinization of Jewish names. Among the ancients, many people had only one name and used Son or Daughter of…. as their family name. Men were called Ben meaning son so that Daniel the son of Gershon would be Daniel ben Gershon. Likewise women were called Miriam bath Gershon or the daughter of Gershon. Both genders referred only to their father, not their mother. This custom was true in many other civilizations as well. Among the Arabs ibn is used and among the Scandinavians (from the Latin word scanda or height, hence scandal) a similar custom existed. For example, the famous Swedish author Kristianne Lavrensdaghter was evidently the daughter of Lavren. Petersen, Christiansen, Hansen, etc. are still common names in Scandinavian countries.

In Germany and other Ashkenazi communities Jews used such names as Moses ben Maimon or Moses ben Mendel. The latter became Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) when he was appointed court philosopher by the Prussian king, Friedrich II. Moses was the grandfather of the major German composer Felix Mendelssohn (be sure to listen to his Scottish and Italian symphonies).

As Jews began to adopt European names, it became necessary to give Jewish babies Hebrew names as well. These names were used for synagogue (Greek for assembly) purposes. Therefore, we Jews all have two names.

Beginning with the 18th century, surnames came into general use. These names were often constructed by using the occupations of the breadwinner or the whole family. Among the Yiddish speaking Jews such names as Schuster, or shoemaker, and Schneider, or tailor, were as common as among the non-Jewish population.

When the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte overran all of Europe including Germany and Poland, he decreed that all Jews must adopt modern European names as first demanded by the French revolutionary (1789) government. Thereupon the Jews of Europe adopted many geographical names such as Rosenberg or mountain of roses, Goldberg or Silverberg or Lilienthal or valley of the lilies. If a Jew did not adopt such a name, then the state chose a name for him. This led to such names as Goldstein and Rubenstein and Silverstein, all connoting precious stones which, according to anti-Jewish sentiment, were all hidden in every Jewish home because “the Jews had all the money” (If we Jews had all the money, everybody would convert to Judaism this day).

Some Jews derived their names from the cities and towns they visited on business. If an Avrohom or Jacob, living in Poland, frequently visited Berlin on business he might be called Abe Berliner or Jake Frankfurter or Joseph Hamburger.

There were also Jews who translated their Yiddish or German names into French or Italian or English. For example, the agent of the Rothschild family in New York, whose name was Schönberg, or beautiful mountain, called himself Belmont and thereby entered upon New York “society” as a quasi Frenchman. The name Rothschild means red shield, a sign attached to the house of the family in the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt a.M. (on the Main river - there is also a Frankfurt a.O., i.e. on the Oder river).

There were and are Jews who concealed their Jewish names by adopting common names reflecting the language of the country of their residence. Levy became May of the department store May Co., Cohen became King and Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas.

Changing names was of course an ancient Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical days, when Avram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel. In fact, all German Jews became Israel or Sarah in 1938 when the Nazi killers decreed these names for every Jew in Germany and Austria. It was their opinion that these names would forever dishonor us, although the contrary is the case. There are no more honorable names than Israel and Sarah. Furthermore, unknown to Germans, many Americans who are not Jewish use Hebrew names, including Moses (Malone), Abraham (Lincoln) and Jacob (Riis).

There are many American Jews whose ancestors adopted such English names as Irving, which were then avoided by people of English ancestry lest they be identified as Jews. This was also true of Seymour (brother of seeless).

The same effort existed in Germany where we were called Gerhard, Hans or Eric by our Germanized parents. Of course Hans is a Hebrew name, directly derived from Johann or Jochannan.

In this country and at this time, names are no longer a certain sign of ethnic affinity. There are now people named Goldstein who are not Jewish because their grandfather married a non-Jewish woman although the name remains. There are Jews with Irish or Polish or Italian names who are the descendants of non-Jews who converted to Judaism. That is why it was said in the days of Senator Goldwater (Goldwasser) that if a Jew is ever elected President of the United States he would no doubt be an Episcopalian.

Incidentally, did you know that he current Catholic archbishop of Paris is a Jew named Lustiger?  Lustiger is the son of Jewish parents. His name means “joyous”.

Today, some Jews have returned to our Hebrew roots. This is of course true in Israel but sometimes here as well. We now have well known Israeli politicians whose names are Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres and ben Eliezer, etc. Some American Jews have adopted Hebrew names, which in our polyglot society arouse no particular interest any more. However, our Jewish actors seem to change their names en masse. That makes for some surprises, when we find that someone who seems to have no Jewish connection at all was born with an obvious Jewish name like Gerhard.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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