Monday, March 11, 2019

What’s in a (Last) Name?

When using proper names in the Jewish ritual, such as receiving an Aliyah to the Torah, marriage, divorce, on conversion documents, on tombstones or in memorial prayers, Jews are identified by their first and middle Hebrew names, and the name of their mother, or father, or sometimes, both. A convert who, according to Jewish law, is considered newly-born, assumes a Jewish name and is considered the child of the patriarch Abraham or matriarch Sarah. Jewish surnames are a much later development. On March 11, 1812, Jews in Prussia received citizenship, conditioned upon adopting last names. Jewish Treats proudly offers a glimpse into Jewish surnames.

Spanish Jews began using last names as early as the 10th or 11th century. The practice only became popular in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the governments insisted on it as a condition for emancipation. The rationale for last names in Eastern Europe was for the government to be able to tax, draft and educate its citizens. It’s hard to send a tax bill to Moshe the son of Avraham. The general distrust Jews had of the authorities, compelled them to avoid taking last names as long as they could. The emancipation that spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, which brought greater Jewish assimilation into general society, also saw Jews adopting last names so they would fit in.

Jewish last names were selected based on several criteria. Some knowledge of Yiddish is needed in order to understand many last names. Some took names referencing parents (e.g., Mendelson, Gittelson) including Jews who could trace their lineage to Aaron the first High Priest. Often their last names, such as Cohen, Kagan and Katz, were chosen to stress their special status as a “Kohen.” Others chose their surnames in order to pay homage to their cities of origin (Berliner, Frankfurter, Moscowitz) while others referenced occupations. Farber means painter, Feinstein means jeweler, Kramer means storekeeper, Bronfman means distiller, Feder means scribe, and Richter means judge.

Some only used their last names when interacting with the authorities, and did not take it very seriously. Somewhat arbitrary names were taken such as Feiffer (whistler), Fried (happy), Hoch (tall), Klein (small), Gross (big), Weiss (white) and Schwartz (black). Some took the names of animals such as Baer (bear), Adler (eagle), Falk (falcon), Fuchs (fox), Loeb (lion) and Ochs (ox). Others opted for last names that referred to the arboreal world such as Birnbaum (pear tree), Kirshenbaum (cherry tree) and Teitelbaum (palm tree).

Lineage is important to Jews. Knowing one’s Hebrew name and that of one’s parents’ is ultimately more important to Jewish continuity than knowing one’s last name.

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