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Why Do I Have a German Last Name? And Other Mysteries of Jewish Onomatology

This month’s Moment magazine has a fascinating article by David Zax explaining the origins of Jewish surnames. For instance, I always wondered why so many Eastern European Jews have German last names, many drawn from a fairly small set of surnames that are considered distinctively Jewish. Zax’s article offers some answers:

Portraits of Emperor Joseph II—who ruled the Austrian Empire near the end of the 18th century—show an apparently urbane, somewhat weary man draped by the pomp of courtly garments. Influenced by the ideas of Voltaire and the Encylopedists, the heir of the Hapsburg Dynasty fancied himself an enlightened ruler, a reformer and modernizer. From his palace in Vienna, he issued decrees abolishing the death penalty and demanding religious tolerance. Though Catholic, he was by no means a fervent one. Once, given a tour of the Sorbonne library by an archivist who apologized for the dim lighting conditions, the emperor quipped, “Ah, when it comes to religion, there is never much light.”

One of his goals was to “emancipate” the Jews living under his rule, by granting them equal rights and making efforts to assimilate them. This may not have been pure benevolence; the geopolitics of fragmented Europe actually made it a brilliant tactical move. Some historians see Joseph’s Jewish policy as “a shrewd maneuver,” writes Kaganoff, “to have the Jews serve as the Germanizing element in Poland to offset the Polish influence.”

One part of the emperor’s grand plan for Jews involved a law he promulgated in 1787. The decree circulated to Austrian Christian officials throughout the vast empire; it was then relayed to the rabbis of various villages, who in turn alerted their congregations:

“With regard to Jews in all provinces. By January 1788, fixed hereditary surnames should be taken by every head of household for his family….Every person without exception must have a German given name which cannot be changed during the entire life.”

The emperor’s law applied only to Jews living in the Austrian Empire over which he presided, but similar laws were issued elsewhere. Czar Alexander I issued a ukase making hereditary family names mandatory in 1804 (30 years later, the law had to be reissued, implying that not all Jews heeded the law at first). Jews living in regions subject to Napoleon were required to declare family names in 1808; the several German states issued similar laws in the early 19th century.

For thousands of years, most Jews had simply been known by their given names, the word ben (meaning “son of” in Hebrew), and their fathers’ given names. Shmuel ben Moshe was, say, the son of Moshe ben Jehudah, who was the son of Jehudah ben Phinehas, and so on. For women, bat (“daughter of”) took the place of ben. In addition to these official names, Ashkenazi Jews often had a Yiddish kinnui, or nickname, used by friends and family. But with the notable exception of Cohen and Levy (and their many variants)—ancient names prized by descendants of members of priestly castes—the notion of a family name was foreign to most Ashkenazi Jews.

The new laws making names mandatory cut both ways. Equal rights came at the price of assimilation, since Emperor Joseph’s law required that all names be German—not Hebrew or Yiddish. The recording of family names also aided efforts to levy taxes and conscript Jews for military service.

The rest of the article has similarly revelatory passages about Sephardic names, Israeli names and more.

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