This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at the IAJG Conference in Chicago, August 18, 2008—Ed.
|Generally speaking, it is relatively easy to distinguish Sephardic surnames from Ashkenazic surnames. For example, if one sees two lists, the first with the names Abitbol, Cordovero, Haddad, Modigliani, Oliveira and Toledano, and another list with the names Bergelson, Goldman, Kramnik, Stein and Tartakower, it is not necessary to be a specialist in Jewish onomastics to make the correct choice. Actually, only a few names such as Cohen, Levi, Gabay—all derived from Hebrew—can be both Sephardic and Ashkenazic.|
The task of identifying the country of origin of a particular Ashkenazic name is less trivial. Numerous names that are identical or have a similar structure were acquired at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries in Alsace, German provinces, Austria, Czech lands, Hungary, Galicia, Congress (Russian) Poland and the Russian Pale of Settlement. Apparently, however, large numbers of hereditary appellations were specific to some particular provinces. Since many people interested in Jewish genealogy
- have a general culture that allows them to distinguish German, Polish and Russian spellings, and, moreover
- have some knowledge of European political history of the 19th and 20th centuries, people often speak of German, Polish or Russian Jewish surnames.
Significantly less known is the fact that Russian Jewish surnames are extremely heterogeneous. Consider the following lists of family names common in different regions of the Russian Pale of Settlement:
- Azimov, Chernin, Dvorkin, Khaikin, Khanin, Khavkin, Malkin, Minkin, Mirkin, Rivkin, Rokhlin, Sorkin, Tseitlin
- Eidelman, Feldman, Fishman, Gluzman, Groisman, Koifman, Kroitor, Roitman, Saponar, Shvartsman, Vaisman, Vaserman, Zilberman
- Bezkrovny, Chubatovsky, Dolgonos, Golodailo, Gorbaty, Gubenko, Gulko, Kramarov, Krutonog, Rozumny, Shatailo, Shpolyansky, Sirotovsky, Skalozub, Smelyansky, Tolstonog, Torbotras, Trusigolova, Zaderikhvost.
Names in list 1 come from eastern Belorussia (now Belarus). Names in list 2 come from Bessarabia (now Moldova). List 3 includes surnames from the Kiev area (now in Ukraine). Even a superficial glance at these three lists allows one to see that Jewish names in these three regions are based on different patterns, use words from distinct languages and correspond to different types. The three samples are not atypical for the areas indicated but are representative names. Surnames adopted in other parts of the Russian Empire also show striking geographical peculiarities. This article discusses the most typical characteristics of these names.
Languages Used to Create Surnames
Table 1 shows the prevalence of Jewish surnames by language for the Russian Empire as a whole. Only those surnames for which the source language was indisputable were taken into account. Several thousand names created outside of the Empire and brought to Russia during the 19th and 20th centuries by migrants (mainly from Congress Poland and Galicia) also were omitted from the calculation. Approximately 61,400 names were categorized.
|Language||Percentage ofJewish Surnames|
Source: Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (rev. ed.) (Bergenfield, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2008)
Slavic-sounding surnames constitute the largest category among Jewish surnames. Four Slavic languages are represented:
- Ukrainian: Examples are Miroshnik, Sklyar, Kholodenko
- Belorussian: Examples are Gorelik, Soloveichik, Zelichenok, Druyan
- Russian: Examples are Portnoy, Sapozhnik
- Polish: Examples are Bialik, Zayonts (Zając in Polish), Glembotsky (Glębocki), Dlugach (Długacz)
- Every name in these categories possesses either a root or a suffix that permits assignment to only one language. Since Slavic languages have many features in common (e.g., roots and suffixes), such distinctions are difficult or even impossible to make in numerous cases. For example, both Kravets and Koval may be derived from Ukrainian, Belorussian or Polish (krawiec, kowal) words for tailor and smith, respectively. The same three languages may be the source for Abramovich and Berkovich (in Polish: Abramowicz and Berkowicz). Kaplan may be either Belorussian or Polish. In both cases kaplan is derived from the word meaning “priest” and represents a calque1 of the Hebrew Cohen. Names such as Dvorkin, Mirkin and Shulkin may be either Belorussian or Russian. Khomsky may be Belorussian, Russian or Polish (Chomski).
- Slavic-sounding names were distributed unevenly within the Empire. Among the regions where their proportions were particularly high:
- Kiev guberniya (province)
- Poltava, Chernigov, Ekaterinoslav and Kherson guberniyas, currently all in Ukraine. Jews did not live in these areas at the time of the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. They migrated there from other parts of the Pale of Settlement only during the 19th century and early 20th century.
- The Białystok-Bielsk-Sokółka area of Grodno guberniya (now in Poland). Polish surnames were particularly common in this area.
- Slavic-sounding names mainly belong to the following types:
- Toponymic, patronymic and metronymic names that include Slavic suffixes.
- Occupational names and names derived from personal characteristics that have Slavic roots.
- In the Russian Pale of Settlement, numerous surnames are drawn from two Yiddish dialects, Northeastern (peculiar to Lithuania, Latvia, Belorussia and northern Ukraine) and Southeastern (characteristic of southern Ukraine and Bessarabia). The differences between these dialects mainly concern the pronunciation of vowels, as illustrated in the following samples:
- Northeastern Yiddish: Treger, Margolis, Nodelman, Borekh, Gorfunkel, Beim, Likht
- Southeastern Yiddish: Treiger, Margulis, Nudelman, Burikh, Gurfinkel, Boim, Lekht
- The regions in which the Yiddish names were particularly common were Bessarabia, Podolia and Volhynia.
- The two surname types for which the number of appellations derived from Yiddish is particularly high are:
- Occupational surnames: Vaserman (water carrier), Shenker (tavern keeper), Shuster (shoemaker), Shnaider (tailor)
- Surnames derived from personal characteristics: Shvarts (black), Roitman (red man), Kliger (clever)
- Surnames derived from German words and/or with German suffixes were common in two areas a good distance apart:
- A continuous region in the southwestern part of the Empire comprising Bessarabia, Podolia and Volhynia. In this area, almost all surnames based on the German language belong to the category of artificial surnames—surnames that had nothing to do with either the origin or personal characteristics of their first bearers. Often them represent compound names, with two roots appended to each other: Apfelbaum, Kirschenbaum, Prinzenthal, Rosenzweig, Rotblatt and Weissberg. Certain names came to this area of the Empire from neighboring Galicia; others, even more numerous, were constructed locally, immediately after enactment of the law of 1804 that forced all Jews of the Empire to acquire hereditary family names.
- Courland, a guberniya outside the Pale of Settlement with a large Jewish population authorized to continue residence there after Russia’s annexation of the area in 1795. In this guberniya, the German language was the source of the creation of a large majority of surnames. German-sounding names in Courland may be of any type: Ahronstamm and Jacobsohn (patronymic), Bernstein (patronymic [related to the masculine given name Ber] or artificial [meaning amber]), Braun, Gelbarth, Grossmann (personal characteristics: brown, yellow beard and big man, respectively), Fleischer (occupation: butcher), Allschwanger and Danziger (toponymic), Birkhahn, Blumenthal, Grűnfeld and Paradiesgarten (artificial: black cock, valley of flowers, green field and the Garden of Eden, respectively).
- Numerous surnames based on the Hebrew language were created in Lithuania, Vitebsk guberniya and Volhynia. In Lithuania, these surnames are mainly occupational: Soifer (scribe), Dayen (judge), Melamed (teacher) and Khait (tailor). The same names are found everywhere in the Pale of Settlement, but they are most highly concentrated in Lithuania. Formally speaking, most of these names would be better characterized as Yiddish rather than Hebrew, because the corresponding words (soyfer, dayen, melamed) were a part of the vernacular Jewish speech as terms belonging to the Hebrew component of Yiddish. In Vitebsk guberniya, however, a large number of genuine Hebrew names existed, often taken directly from the text of the Bible. Examples include: Efros (Bethlehem), Katalkherman (from “as the dew on Hermon,” Psalms 133:3), Amkhir, Gaitsgori, Gamus, Zarkhi (all quotes from the Book of Numbers). Numerous Hebrew surnames from Volhynia are almost exclusively acronymic, derived from the abbreviation of the expressions meaning “son (Hebrew בֶּן) of Reb X,” for example:
- Barag, Barak, Barakh, Baral, Baram, Baran, Barash, Barats, Baraz, Bargad, Barmak, Barman and Barza, or “son-in-law (Hebrew חָתָן) of Reb X”, for example
- Kharab, Kharad, Kharal, Kharash, Kharat, Khardas, Kharlats, Kharon, Kharpak, Kharshak and Kharzas
In Bessarabia, several dozen surnames are derived from Romanian (examples are Croitor, Ciocla, Ciulak, Saponar and Ştefanesco). A small number of names in other provinces come from Latin (Capilatus, Chimicus, Opticus, Jacobi), Lithuanian (Baltakaklis, Gražutis, Žemaitis) and Latvian or with Latvian suffixes (Lempes, Brauns, Bonks).
Language and the Age of Surnames
- Can we judge a surname’s age from the language on which it is based? Consider, for example, the following names: Levi (Hebrew), Rosenbaum (German) and Portnoy (Russian). Some people believe that Hebrew names generally are older than German names, which in turn are older than Slavic names. Therefore, those people would consider Levi to be the oldest name and Portnoy the most recent. They would be incorrect.
- The surnames Levi, Rosenbaum and Portnoy emerged in the Russian Empire at the same time, immediately after the law of 1804. The only exceptions to this rule are the rabbinical surnames that appeared before the beginning of the 19th century. Even regarding rabbinical surnames, however, language is not relevant in determining the age of the surname. For example, Eiger (related to Eger, the German name of the town called Cheb in Czech) first appears in Central Europe during the 17th century, while the Morawczyk family (a name derived from the Polish word for someone from Moravia) was used in Poland during the 16th century. Consequently, in this example, the Slavic name is older than the German.
Typology of Surnames
- Table 2 shows prevalence of Jewish surnames by type for the entire Russian Empire. Only those surnames for which the type of etymons was clear were taken into account. The total number is about 71,100.
- Table 2.
Percentage of Jewish Surnames by Type
|Drawn from personal characteristics||12|
|Kohen or Levite origin||1|
Source: Alexander Beider, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (rev. ed.) (Bergenfield, N.J.: Avotaynu, 2008).
- The largest group, toponymic surnames (i.e., derived from place names), were especially common in three regions:
- Kiev guberniya (especially in the Chigirin and Cherkassy districts)
- A compact area covering the portion of the Grodno guberniya that now belongs to Belarus, the Lida district of Vilna guberniya and the Novogrudok district of Minsk guberniya. At the time when surnames were adopted en masse, this entire area belonged to Grodno guberniya.
- In the two first regions, almost all toponymic surnames ended in the suffix ski (also spelled sky in the English transliteration from the original Russian Cyrillic ский). In Lithuania (and more specifically in Kovno guberniya), family names often were drawn directly from place names without the addition of any suffix (e.g., Daviots, Galyun, Gitar, Gorzhd, Grinyun, Ivanishok, Kapsud, Kekst, Kibort, Margenik, Montvid, Ozik, Poshvityn, Pubzhub, Sudzon, Suntovt, Svabisok, Uzvent, Vodokt and Yavshits). In Podolia and Mogilev guberniya, numerous names end in the Yiddish suffix er (Bogopoler, Gordover, Moshnyager, Ovsishcher, Prigoniker, Zastenker).
- Patronymic names (derived from masculine given names) are particularly common in Courland, Lithuania and Belorussia. Many end in the suffixes ovich/evich (Leibovich, Mordkovich, Palterovich), ov/ev (Kopelev, Rubinov) and son/zon (Natanzon, Mendelson). Names that lack suffixes (Abram, Liber, Zalkind) are rare.
- Metronymic names (derived from feminine given names) were extremely common in eastern Belorussia and not rare in Podolia and Volhynia. In eastern Belorussia, most of these names end in the Russian/Belorussian suffix in (Zlatin, Belkin, Goldin, Tsirkin), while in Podolia and Volhynia they end in the Yiddish possessive suffix s (Malkis, Buntsis, Freidichkis, Pesirivkis). Scholars have tried to understand why metronymic surnames are so common in the Russian Empire, while in other regions—such as Germany and Poland—they are almost nonexistent. Several hypotheses have been suggested:
- High esteem for women in the Jewish tradition
- The Ashkenazic tradition of creating nicknames from the names of mothers (or even wives or mothers-in-law). Examples are found in Jewish literature from the centuries that preceded the surnaming.
- Women’s key role in the economic and social life of Eastern Europe
- None of these ideas, however, explains the absence of numerous metronymic surnames in Poland or Galicia; the reasons cited above would have been valid for these provinces as well.
- An interesting theory was suggested by Michael Falk, who noted that the standard Russian naming pattern has three parts:2
- Given name of the individual
- Patronymic (father’s given name to which a suffix ovich/ evich/ich or ov/ev/in is added).
- Surname. If the newly adopted surname was primarily a patronymic drawn from the father’s given name, the second and the third elements would be tautological. For example, Ber, son of Abram and Rivka, would be called Ber Abramovich Abramov(ich). The construction of the surname from the given name of the mother would, in the same example, yield Ber Abramovich Rivkin.
- Falk’s hypothesis is unlikely to be the only explanation for the frequent use of metronymics in the Russian Empire, but rather a significant factor. Indeed, it does not explain the numerous surnames that end in the Yiddish suffix s created in southern Ukraine and Bessarabia. Also, despite some redundancy from the Russian three-part naming pattern described by Falk (i.e., given name, patronymic, surname), numerous surnames drawn from masculine given names were created in various Russian provinces. In all regions they were even more popular than metronymics, with the notable exception of Mogilev guberniya. Even in Mogilev guberniya, naming patterns other than metronymics were available to the members of the Jewish (kahal) administration in the creation of hereditary surnames: place names, occupations, physical features and a variety of artificial constructions.
- The fact that the choice was made in favor of metronymics ending in in could be explained in part by Falk’s hypothesis, but globally speaking we should consider it to a great extent fortuitous. Falk is correct in noting that the widespread use of metronymics was typical only for the territories under Russian administration. This correlation, however, is not necessarily related to the three-part Russian naming pattern contrasting to the two-part (given name plus surname) pattern typical of other countries. On at least one other dimension, Russia differs from other countries. Only in Russia did the mass adoption of surnames occur inside the Jewish community. In other provinces, Christian state clerks were involved directly in the assignment of surnames, and the creation of surnames from feminine given names was almost unknown in various European Christian cultures.
- Artificial surnames—those unrelated to any characteristic of their first bearers—were particularly common in Bessarabia, Podolia and Volhynia. A specific group of names are compound two-part appellations such as Goldberg, Silberstein, Weinstock, Blumenthal, Rosenzweig and Birnbaum. Why is this type of name so common?
- Onomastician E.M. Dreifuss suggests that the creation of these surnames reflects in large part the tendency of Jews from German-speaking countries to have been emancipated from legal and political restraints at the time that surnames were adopted.3 But this argument does not appear valid. Most surnames of this type are found not in Germany, but in Eastern Europe, where emancipation had not yet reached.
- Majer Bałaban introduced the idea of bribery (widely quoted by other authors) that would take place in Galicia and wrote about the categories of “expensive” (flowers, precious stones), “cheap” (ordinary metals) and “free” (animals) surnames.4 His hypothesis is weak, however, because in Galicia, the group of surnames related to flowers and precious stones is the most common, but the richest Jews—those able and willing to pay significant bribes—could not have represented the largest group of Jews in the country. Moreover, this theory ignores the general absence of interest among the Jewish masses in newly acquired surnames, well documented by Bałaban himself.
- Edgar Samuel conjectured that the entire process of surname assignment was administrated directly from Vienna where the lists of surnames recommended for adoption could have been compiled.5 Even if no direct archival confirmation exists for his idea, it seems plausible. It was most likely in Vienna that the authorities realized that the compound naming pattern offered an excellent opportunity to quickly construct large series of names by varying a selection of first and second segments. This factor is significant when one considers that the surname assignment process took place over a short time period and was imposed on the populous Jewish communities of Galicia.
- For other countries, Samuel suggests, artificial compound names resulted from migrations of Galician Jews. This hypothesis has no basis in fact. First, numerous names from the same category are found in various German provinces and within the Russian Empire (including Congress Poland) that are unknown in Galicia itself. Second, and more importantly, no data indicates the existence of massive migrations from Galicia outside of the Habsburg Empire. It is not possible that the large number of bearers of these names in other countries descended from immigrants from Galicia.
- The explanation lies not in the displacement of persons, then, but in the propagation of policies. The new pattern invented by Christian officials in (East) Galicia was copied in other parts of Europe during ensuing decades. In the Russian Pale of Settlement, surnames were chosen by the kahal, whose officers were obliged to create surnames in cases when the surnames were not assumed by their future bearers. The pattern used to form compound surnames offered a way to create a great number of surnames in a short period of time. Most likely, kahal authorities were aware of the results of the surname process in Galicia and decided to reuse the same patterns.
Surnames Borrowed from Christians
- Russian Jews borrowed only a limited number of existing surnames from their Christian neighbors. Among these are several appellations taken from German or Polish (but of German origin) aristocratic families: Kliot (Polish Klott; German Kloth) in Vilna guberniya; Manteifel (German Manteuffel) and Fitingof (German Vietinghoff) in Vitebsk guberniya; and Tizengauz (Polish Tyzenhauz; German Tiesenhaus) in Volhynia.
- In Courland and northern Lithuania, one finds Jewish bearers of the surnames Martinson and Peterson in the same general area where numerous Christian bearers of the same names also lived, mainly Latvian peasant stock. For Christians, these names are of patronymic origin, but for Jews the same origin is impossible: Martin and Peter were Christian and not Jewish given names. Jews likely acquired these names as ready-made forms. Such borrowing could be artifi Alternatively, one can imagine that these Christian surnames, when adopted by Jews, allude in some way to the Yiddish given names of the fathers of their first bearers: Meyer or Matis for Martinson and Peysekh for Peterson. A Jewish surname Stefani from Courland (spelled Stephany in German) might be of similar origin. Derived from a non-Jewish masculine given name and used by German Christians, Stefani is likely to have been borrowed as is from Christians. It is unclear whether or not it alludes to some Jewish given name.
Surnames of Migrants to Russia
- The group of surnames brought to the Russian Empire as ready-made forms can be divided into several categories. The first category corresponds to rabbinical surnames (Günzburg, Joffe, Lurie, Halperin, Katzenelenbogen, Auerbach, Landau, Schor, Margolis, Frenkel, Rappoport and others). The second category covers a few Sephardic names known in Ashkenazic communities of the Pale of Settlement; among these are Abarbanel, Abas, Abugov, Abulafiev (Russified form of Abulafia), Algazi, Bondi, Delion, Karo and Kuriel, and also possibly Agranat, Alfes, Avinezer, Passi and Montefiore. The third category corresponds to the surnames that originated in Congress Poland, mainly at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Immediately before the First World War, these names were not rare in Białystok, for example, a large economic center that attracted a number of Polish Jewish migrants, mainly from neighboring Łomża guberniya.
- The fourth and largest category includes names that originated in Galicia. These were particularly common in Odessa and Kishinev, large cities whose Jewish population was constituted during the 19th century primarily by migrants from various provinces of the Russian Empire. Because of Odessa and Kishinev’s geographical proximity to Galicia, these new important centers of Jewish life also attracted a number of families from that province. Still, the proportion of surnames of Galician origin in the Russian Empire should not be exaggerated. Numerous identical surnames found in the two areas result not primarily from the displacement of persons, but from the spread of ideas. Kahal officials in the Pale of Settlement often used the naming patterns invented by Austrians to assign large series of surnames in Galicia. As a result, in the case of Russian Jewish families with rare names also found in Galicia, it is more than likely that the name originated outside Russia. Examples include Bergenfreid, Frühhof, Knischbach, Links, Löwenstark and Schwertfinger.
- On the other hand, for more common names, such as Goldenberg, Rosenthal, Friedmann and Schwarz, no assertions about origin may be made without detailed genealogical study. In some branches of these families, their forefathers may have been migrants from Galicia or Congress Poland. In other branches, these names were assigned after 1804 in the Russian Pale of Settlement, and these families would have had no Galician or Polish Jewish bearers of these surnames.
In this article it is shown that the distribution of the Jewish surnames in the Russian Empire was far from uniform. In Courland, almost all names were based on German. In the southwestern provinces of the Pale of Settlement (Podolia, Volhynia and Bessarabia), a majority of names were drawn from Yiddish or German names. Often they were artificial, unrelated to any characteristic of their first bearers. In eastern Belorussia, a large majority of names were of Slavic origin; many of them were derived from female given names. In Kiev and Grodno areas, the pattern of creating a surname from a place name by adding the Slavic suffix –ski/sky was dominant. In all provinces, a large number of surnames were also derived from Hebrew words, although it was in Vitebsk guberniya that numerous peculiar Hebrew names were created as direct quotation from the Bible. On the other hand, only a few cases of surnames borrowed from Christians (mainly nobles) are found for all of the Empire.
- Calque is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word translation. In this case, the Hebrew word for “priest” created the surname Cohen, which translated into the Polish word for “priest,” Kaplan.
- Michael Falk. “Why So Many Matronymics among Jewish Surnames?” In: Onomastica canadiana, Vol. 83, 2, 2001: 81–88.
- E.F. Dreifuss, Die Familienamen der Juden (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1927): 108.
- Majer Bałaban, Dzieje żydów w Galicyi (Lwów, 1914): 44.
- Edgar Samuel, “The Great Surname Hand-Out,” At the End of the Earth (London, 2004): 35–38.
Alexander Beider is a linguist and author of a number of books and papers dealing with the etymology of Ashkenazic surnames and given names, as well as the history of Yiddish. Born in Moscow, he currently lives with his family in Paris.