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Ashkenazi Jewish surnames

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Until a few hundred years ago, Ashkenazim (Jews from Northern and Eastern Europe) followed no tradition of surnames, but used patronymics within the synagogue, and matronymics in other venues. For example, a boy named Joseph of a father named Isaac would be called to the Torah as Joseph ben Isaac. That same boy of a mother named Rachel would be known in business as Joseph ben Rachel. A male used the Hebrew word ben ("son") and a female used bat ("daughter").

When Northern European countries legislated that Jews required "proper" surnames, Jews were left with a number of options. Many Jews (particularly in Austria, Prussia, and Russia) were forced to adopt Germanic names. In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of Austria announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews, which established the requirement for hereditary family names. The Jews of Galicia did not adopt surnames until 1785. He issued a law in 1787 which assumed that all Jews were to adopt German names. The city mayors were to choose the name for every Jewish family. A fee was charged for names related to precious metals and flowers, while free surnames were usually connected to animals and common metals.

Many took Yiddish names derived from occupation (e.g. Goldschmidt "Gold-smith"), from their father (e.g. Jacobson), or from location (e.g. Berliner, Warszawski or Pinsker). This makes Ashkenazi surnames similar to Scandinavian and especially Swedish ones.

Many Jews also took names of their Jewish lineage. A person of Priestly (Cohanite) descent could take the last name related to his lineage (e.g. Cohen - Hebrew/Yiddish or Colons - Spanish). If a Jew was a descendant of the Levites, then he could take a surname like Levin or Levenson.

In Prussia, special military commissions were created to choose the names. It became common that the poorer Jews were forced to adopt simply bizarre names or even derogatory, offensive ones. Among those created by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann were:

  • Ochsenschwanz ("oxtail")
  • Temperaturwechsel ("temperature glitch")
  • Kanalgeruch ("sewer stink")
  • Singmirwas ("sing me something") [citation┬áneeded]

The Jews of Poland adopted names much earlier. Those who were adopted by a szlachta family usually changed the name to that of the family. Christened Jews usually adopted either a common Polish name or a name created after the month of their baptism. Thus, many Frankists adopted the name Majewski after the month of May in 1759.

Both the given names and surnames of Ashkenazim today may be completely European in origin, though many will also possess a traditional Hebrew name for use only in the synagogue.




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