Other than aristocrats and wealthy people Jews did not get surnames in Eastern Europe until the apoleonic years of the early 19th century. Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon - Russia, Poland, and Germany - were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.
After Napoleon’s defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned to “son of” names such as:
Mendelsohn, Jacobson, Levinson.
During the so-called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to take surnames. In Austria the Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland in 1821 and Russia in 1844. It’s probable that some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.
In France and the Anglo Saxon countries surnames went back to the 16th century. Sephardic Jews also had surnames stretching back centuries. Spain, prior to Ferdinand and Isabella, was a golden spot for Jews. They were expelled by Isabella in the same year that Columbus left for America.
The earliest American Jews were Sephardic. In general there were five types of names (people had to pay for their choice of names; the poor had assigned names):
Names that were descriptive of head of household:
Hoch (tall); Klein (small), Cohen (rabbi ); Burger (village dweller); Shein (good looking); Levi (temple
singer); Gross (large); Schwartz (dark or black); Weiss (white); Kurtz (short).
Names describing occupations:
Holtz (wood); Holtzkocker (wood chopper); Geltschmidt (goldsmith); Schneider (tailor); Kreigsman
(warrior); Malamed (teacher); Eisen (iron); Fischer (fish).
Names from city of residence:
Berlin; Frankfurter; Danziger; Oppenheimer; Deutsch (German); Pollack (Polish); Breslau; Mannheim;
Gluck (luck); Rosen (roses); Rosenberg (rose mountain); Rosenblatt (rose paper or leaf);
Rosenfeld (rose field); Rothman (red man); Diamond; Koenig (king); Koenigsberg (king’s mountain)’
Spielman (to play); Lieber (lover); Berg (mountain); Wasserman (water dweller); Kershenblatt (church
paper); Stein (glass).
Assigned names (usually undesirable):
Plotz (to die); Klutz (clumsy); Billig (cheap); Drek (shit).
Original birth names of Jewish performers:
Woody Allen - Alan Stewart Koenigsberg; June Allyson - Ella Geisman; Lauren Bacall - Betty Joan Perske; Jack Benny - Benjamin Kubelsky;
Fanny Brice – Fanny Borach; Mel Brooks - Melvin Kaminsky; George Burns - Nathan Birnbaum; Eddie Cantor - Edward Israel Iskowitz; Jeff Chandler - Ira Grossel; Lee J.. Cobb - Amos
Jacob; Tony Curtis - Bernard Schwartz; Rodney Dangerfield - Jacob Cohen; Kirk Douglas - Issue Danielovich Demsky; Melvyn Douglas - Melvyn Hesselberg; Bob Dylan - Bobby Zimmerman; Paulette
Goddard - Marion Levy; Lee Grant - Lyova Geisman; Elliot Gould - Elliot Goldstein; Judy Holliday - Judith Tuvim; Al Jolson - Asa Yoelson; Danny Kaye -David Daniel Kaminsky; Michael Landon - Michael Orowitz; Steve Lawrence - Sidney Leibowitz; Jerry Lewis - Joseph Levitch; Peter Lorre -Lazlo Lowenstein; Elaine May - Elaine Berlin; Yves Montand - Ivo Levy; 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 - Sophia Kalish; Gene Wilder - Gerald Silberman.
Published originally in ESRA Magazine. For a FREE copy of magazine email: