One important thing to know about your ancestors is their surnames. Knowing a last name, and how it is spelled, can help you to find a vital record. It can also be really interesting to learn what the surname of a particular ancestor actually means. Surnames can give you clues about your family’s history. Many Jewish surnames have meanings that you may be unaware of.
Bennett Muraskin wrote an article titled “Here’s the Fascinating Origin of Almost Every Jewish Last Name”. I would highly recommend taking a look at it, especially if you have Jewish ancestors. Chances are you will find your ancestor’s surname, and what it means, somewhere within that well researched article.
Even if you don’t happen to have Jewish ancestors, the article is still interesting. Many cultures have surnames that signify something important about the family. For example, there are many surnames that “translate” to the type of job that someone within high up in that branch of the family tree held.
If you have ancestors who were English, there could be some with the surname Smith. This indicates that at least one of them might have been employed as a blacksmith. A Jewish ancestor who has the surname Schmidt, or Kovalsky, may also have been a blacksmith. The surname Cooperman “translates” to coppersmith. A goldsmith may have the surname Goldstein.
One interesting thing about Jewish surnames is that there was a span of time in which the surname would change from one generation to the next. The example that Bennett Muraksin gives makes it clear that instead of traditional surnames, a child would be given a name that indicated who he was the son of (or who she was the daughter of). It seems that this method of naming wasn’t quite the same as what we think of as surnames today.
Between 1787 and 1844, Jewish people were compelled to take on a surname. Many adapted the name they already had. This resulted in the use of patronymics (son of..) and matronymics (daughter of…) as a surname. Abramson and Avromovitch both mean “son of Abraham”. The ending -son means “son” in Yiddish or German. Manishewitz means “son of Menashe”. The ending -witz indicated the ancestor who adopted the surname spoke a Slavic language like Polish or Russian.
This is just the tip of the iceberg! There is a lot more to be learned from the surnames of Jewish ancestors. Some surnames were connected to locations (towns, cities, or general areas) that the family either lived in for a long time or originated from. Others described the type of job a person held. There are surnames that relate to religious concepts, physical traits, animals, and more.
Image by Ruslan on Flickr.
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