Popular Articles

While Sephardim got last names in 1492, permission for Ashkenazim took centuries. Then, they started changing them

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Joan Molinsky was a pioneer for women stand-up comedians as Joan Rivers, with her big break coming after cracking up Johnny Carson in her first Tonight Show appearance | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Having done family heritage research for over 30 years, I have had many challenges in my research due to the fact that our Ashkenazi Jewish surnames do not go back in time past the 1700s. Sephardic Jews have surnames that go back further but then we run into naming conventions that are different from Ashkenazi.

Part of the Alhambra Decree of 1492 contained a provision mandating fixed legal surnames for Sephardic Jews, but it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the rest of Europe followed suit.

In fact the only reason that we have surnames was due to institution of taxation laws by governments and rulers who wanted to ensure that all of their subjects would fill their coffers.

Emperor Joseph II of Austria made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland followed suit in 1821, and Russia in 1844.

Historically, Jews used Hebrew patronymic names. In the Jewish patronymic system the first name is followed by either ben- or bat- (“son of” and “daughter of,” respectively), and then the father’s name. (Bar-, “son of” in Aramaic, is also seen).

The major differences in Sephardic and Ashkenazi naming conventions is that the Ashkenazi do not name their children after living persons, unlike the Sephardic. When it comes to naming after relatives, some Sephardim are particular to name the first grandson for the father’s father, the second for the mother’s father, and vice versa for girls. Likewise, this would be followed by naming forthcoming children after aunts and uncles. Ashkenazi will normally name their children after a recently deceased parent, grandparent or relative to ensure their memory is carried on and honoured. Ultra Orthodox Jews also name their children in humour of Torah scholars, learned rabbis and/or respected members of the community.

Get thej.ca a Pro Israel Voice by Email. Never miss a top story that effects you, your family & your community

When the Jews were instructed to create names for themselves, they were mainly developed from: 

Occupations: Garber/Gerber (tanner); Shuster (shoemaker); Fishman (fishmonger); Fleishman (butcher); Wollman (wool merchant); Presser (pressman); Schneider (tailor); Feldsher (surgeon); Bronfman (distiller); Weinglass (wine merchant) 

Locations: Minsky (Minsk, Belarus, formerly Lithuania); Wiener (Vienna); Berlinsky (Berlin); Posner (Posen, Germany) 

Community: Singer (cantor); Schreiber (scribe); Rabin (rabbi); Rabinowitz (son of rabbi); Richter (judge); Sandek (godfather) 

Personal traits: Alter (old); Frum (devout); Kurtsman (short); Rothbard (red beard); Schwartsman (black hair)

 We even took, or more likely were given, insulting names: Billig (cheap), Grob (crude), or names of animals: Baer/Berkowitz (bear); Gelfand (camel); Ochsenberg (ox); Wachtel (quail).

One of the largest (and most annoying) myths in our surname anthology is that our names were changed at Ellis Island or Pier 21 as our ancestors arrived, by an immigration inspector who did not understand the pronunciation of the new arrival’s name.

A vaudevillian who became an Oscar winner at age 80, George Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum) was beloved worldwide for his wit and timing | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

“You may have heard the story of the Jewish immigrant, who arrives in New York and when the Ellis Island clerk asks him his name, the immigrant becomes flustered, crying out in Yiddish, ‘Sheyn fergessen!’ (‘I already forget!’). And so he ends up with a new name.” – Sean Ferguson

 No one ever had their name changed at entry. Documents had to be created and filed with the shipping line at point of departure based on passport and/or travel documents. More likely the person transcribing the document when it was created may have misspelled a letter or two, or more likely the traveller may have changed his or her name before travel in order to escape the country they were travelling from with falsified or counterfeit documents. There are many instances of families changing their names in order to leave a country where they are wanted for not reporting for military service or criminal activity. 

There are also many instances of immigrants changing their names after they arrived in order to fit into the local society for gainful employment. Hence Marvin Smith came from Moisha Smithofsky.

A huge radio star who made the successful transition to TV, Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky) "serenaded" audiences with his persistent violin playing. In this photo US President Harry Truman plays along | Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Most articles discussing these name changes created to help us fit in and gain better public acceptance include famous examples, so who am I to differ: 

Woody Allen – Alan Stewart Konigsberg

June Allyson – Ella Geisman

Lauren Bacall – Betty Joan Perske

Jack Benny – Benjamin Kubelsky

Milton Berle – Mendel Berlinger

Irving Berlin – Israel Beilin

Joey Bishop – Joseph Gottlieb

Karen Black – Karen Blanche Ziegler

Victor Borge –  Børge Rosenbaum

Fanny Brice – Fania Borach

Mel Brooks – Melvin Kaminsky

George Burns – Nathan Birnbaum

Eddie Cantor – Isidore Itzkowitz

Jeff Chandler – Ira Grossel

Lee J. Cobb – Leo Jacoby

Tony Curtis – Bernard Schwartz

Rodney Dangerfield – Jacob Cohen

Kirk Douglas – Issur Danielovich Demsky

Melvyn Douglas – Melvyn Hesselberg

Bob Dylan – Robert Zimmerman

Paulette Goddard – Marion Levy

Elliott Gould – Elliott Goldstein

Lee Grant – Lyova Haskell Rosenthal

Judy Holliday – Judith Tuvim

Al Jolson – Asa Yoelson

Danny Kaye –David Daniel Kaminsky

Michael Landon – Eugene Maurice Orowitz

Steve Lawrence – Sidney Liebowitz

Jerry Lewis – Joseph Levitch

Peter Lorre – László Löwenstein

Elaine May – Elaine Berlin

Yves Montand – Ivo Livi

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 – Sofia Kalish

Gene Wilder – Jerome Silberman

When you are looking for your ancestors, remember to either use search engines developed for our heritage and check all possibilities that come to mind for your ancestors’ surnames. 

Discover your family’s history by contacting your local Jewish Genealogical Society, or join us on our webinars and meetings, listed on our website at www.jgstoronto.ca

Mel Fishman is the President of The Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto (JGS Toronto).

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Read More

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

cOMING SOON…….

Breaking News

Recent

Features

News

Current Events

Opinions

Politics

Religion

Culture

Memoriam and Obituaries

PodcastS

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved

Previous
Next