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How Yiddish Family Names Discreetly Honor Jewish Mothers (Hint: ‘Rivkin’ Comes From ‘Rivka’)

A version of this article originally appeared in the Forverts.

What attitude towards women do we find in Yiddish, and is it fair?

One time, several years ago, a number of us were sitting around a table at Yugntruf’s Yidish-vokh retreat, singing songs. Someone brought up the subject of political correctness, and a discussion ensued about politically correct Yiddish songs. We went through all the songs we knew, but couldn’t find a single one that met today’s standards.

The question of the attitude towards women among Orthodox Jews is a matter for another day. What is certain is that in Yiddish folk songs, men and women play traditional roles, that is, men dominate. In Yiddish literature, men may not scorn women, but their attitudes are certainly mixed. For example, Tevye (the original one, not the “Fiddler on the Roof” adaptation) definitely loves his wife and daughters very much, and he frequently demonstrates it. However, when something out of the ordinary happens, he tends to dismiss the entirety of women and girls.

When Golde strays from the subject of a conversation, he dismisses her with “You women talk too much.” (Of course, who’s the real chatterbox in the book? Tevye, of course.) In one scene, Khave faints, and along with Golde and Tseytl, Tevye panics too; but as soon as Khave recovers, he accuses them of panicking unnecessarily, as if he hadn’t, and adds, “It’s no wonder that King Solomon disliked you women so much!” If he were alive today, would Sholem Aleichem have written that?

But there is one field where women have been honored in Yiddish tradition: family names. Of course, most Jewish family names are actually German and have nothing to do with women. For example, “Birnbaum” is German for “pear tree”; the Yiddish equivalent is “Barnboym,” and the only obvious instance of this is the conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Interestingly, real Yiddish-derived family names are quite often based on women’s first names. One such name currently in the news is that of the man nominated to be Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. The running joke is that his name is actually “Munchkin.” But the real basis of the name is the woman’s name Menukhe, with the addition of a suffix “-in.” This name was shared by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, although with a different spelling. Other such names are: Khanin, Khaykin, Sorkin/Serkin, Dvorkin, Beylin, Braynin, Rivkin/Rivlin, Leykin. As it happens, most of these names are unpronounceable in English, so they turn into “Chanin,” “Chaikin,” and, of course, “Mnuchin.” It’s cold comfort that Americans mangle all foreign names, not just Yiddish ones…

Another group of women-based family names end in “-es”: Khanes, Khayes, Beyles, Rives, Toybes, Yakhnes. One famous name, the 1911 victim of a blood libel, was Mendl Beilis. And if you can’t pronounce “kh”? You say “Chanes, Chayes,” and the like.

We could go on at great length about the relations between the sexes, but not in a language column. It’s better left to sociologists and historians. The takeaway from this article is that if you are Jewish and your family name is Yiddish, rather than German, Polish, or Russian, you are probably named not after your great-great-great-grandfather, but your great-great-great-grandmother.

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