Mosaic Magazine

Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained

“Dara, you’ll love this!” Actually, I don’t.


Why, O Internet, do you keep doing this to me?

By “this,” I mean turning unsubstantiated nonsense into articles that are then smeared across the globe. And when the fun-filled piece-of-the-week concerns something related to Jewish culture—about which a few million Americans feel a sense of ownership, and millions more feel an intense curiosity, but remarkably few have any substantial knowledge—the phenomenon can multiply exponentially.

The latest in this genre is “Jewish Surnames Explained,” an article by Bennett Muraskin that appeared last November in the online magazine Jewish Currents, was picked up and further popularized a couple of weeks ago by Slate, and even found a spot among Mosaic’s daily listings of noteworthy items from around the web. According to Jewish Currents, not exactly a mass medium, the original piece attracted no fewer than 200,000 visitors; Slate’s posting has already garnered 79,000 “shares” on Facebook; and a quick Google search yields no fewer than 200,000 results for the title alone. All this, for an article that purports to explain the origins of a large number of common Ashkenazi family names.

If you are an American Jew who uses the Internet, I suspect that you, too, have already seen this article, and I even know how you found it or, rather, how it found you. It was sent by your friend, or your mom, or your friend’s mom, or you saw it on Facebook, or retweeted it on Twitter, or came across it republished elsewhere. I myself have been exposed to it at least three dozen times in the past six days, often accompanied by a tag or header: “Dara, you’ll love this!”

Actually, I don’t. Not because there’s anything illegitimate about the subject of Jewish names, or because linguistic and genealogical inquiry is a pointless endeavor. To the contrary: the immense attention paid to this article reveals the degree to which many American Jews are still fascinated to learn where they came from. Unfortunately, it also reveals how the members of a group so highly educated in other respects know so little about their own history that they will swallow any “fact” from the Jewish past that comes flitting across their screens.


What’s wrong, exactly, with “Jewish Surnames Explained”? In a sentence: despite its quotient of accurate information, its errors are legion. Yes, I know, everyone makes mistakes. Just yesterday, for instance, I unintentionally put a cat in my microwave. He’s dead now, and I won’t do that to him again. But the mistakes here aren’t of that one-off variety. They’re of the underlying-premise variety, and they are sufficient to place the whole enterprise under suspicion.

The first underlying premise is that one need not actually know Yiddish, Hebrew, German, or Slavic languages, or consult with anyone who does, in order to translate words from those languages and present the resulting fun-filled facts to a new audience. This leads to a symphony of errors, so many that it’s hard to know where to begin or to end. But here are a few.

Consider the name Kagan, which according to the article is derived from the Khazars, a Central Asian people who, according to legend, converted en masse to Judaism in the Middle Ages. Any mention of Khazars and Jews in the same sentence ought to raise a red flag, if only because the mythic Khazar “history” has become a favorite trope of anti-Semites, who use it to negate the Middle Eastern origins of the Jews—archaeology and genetic studies be damned. But to notice the mistake here, you need only know that h’s in other languages can become g’s in Russian. The name Kagan and its variants derive from the Hebrew word kohen, denoting descendants of the biblical high priests.

“Lieb means lion in Yiddish,” we are told. Actually, leyb means lion in Yiddish (with the vowel sound ey as in “hey”), while lib (the word that sounds like the German word lieb) is a verb form for “love”—as it is in German; this error requires an ignorance of two languages. We are told that Berliner means “husband of Berl,” despite the fact that Berl is a man’s name in Yiddish and Berliner is more recognizably derived from Berlin. We are told that Lieberman means “loverman”; it is actually a term of formal address, as in “dear sir.” We learn that Mendel is derived from Emanuel, when a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish makes it clear that it is a diminutive of Menahem. There are more like this, but I needn’t bore you.

A second underlying premise in the piece is that a place-related surname describes where one’s ancestors came from. Seems obvious, right? In fact, such a name usually describes where one’s ancestors didn’t come from.

Take the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, an autobiography by a 17th-century German Jewish businesswoman and a classic of early modern Yiddish literature, written well before the advent of official surnames among Ashkenazi Jews. In this memoir, Gluckel frequently identifies the people with whom she interacts by means of place names. Glikl Hamel, as she is known in Yiddish, married a man from Hameln (“Hamel” to Yiddish speakers). In her memoirs, she refers to her husband and her in-laws by that place name (which isn’t a surname) even though she and her husband spent most of their married life in Hamburg where she was born. In fact, they stayed in Hameln, which she describes as “a dull shabby hole,” only for the first year of their very young marriage—which for her husband meant only until he was fifteen. Yet the book isn’t called Memoirs of Gluckel of Hamburg. Similarly, Gluckel refers to a man with whom she has business ties as Judah Berlin since, yes, he lives in Berlin. But she does that because she lives in Hamburg. Did Judah’s neighbors in Berlin call him Judah Berlin? Unlikely.


Another big problem here is the utter lack of sources. Many of the article’s derivations amount to just one among several possibilities; the lack of substantiation makes it impossible to judge. Koenig, we are told, refers to a “Purim king, in reality a poor wretch.” I’d venture that Koenig is probably a place name based on Koenigsberg. Nor does the name Hirschhorn strike me as an animal name referring to deer antlers; it’s likely a simple reference to the German town of Hirschhorn—which does mean deer antler, but so what? When we say people are from Buffalo, are we saying they have meaningful associations with buffalos?

More: while I guess the name Kessler could, in theory, be a patronymic for the (rather unusual) name Kesl, it is more likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The name Zaks or Saks may or may not be a Hebrew acronym for zera k’doshim sh’mo (“his name descends from martyrs”); I’ve heard a similar story about its derivation from zikhron k’doshey shtendal (“memorial of the martyrs of Stendal”), referring to a medieval massacre in that German city. But the Hebrew doesn’t quite fit; in both cases, the final consonant would have to be a “sh,” and I’ve never met a Zaksh. It would make much more sense if the name were simply a reference to Saxony.

Not being a scholar of linguistics, or a historian, I could of course be wrong about all of this. But so could the author of this already suspect list of names. Without a single citation or a single explanation of where any of his information comes from, there is no way for me or anyone else to know.

“Jewish Surnames Explained” concludes, tellingly, with a perennial myth about American Jewish surnames: “Finally, there may have been Jewish names changed or shortened by immigration inspectors (though this is disputed).” This is like saying: “Finally, the lunar landing may have been faked to impress the Soviets (though this is disputed).” The idea that immigration officers at Ellis Island were a bunch of rent-a-cops scribbling down whatever names struck their fancy falls into the same category as Washington chopping down the cherry tree or the CIA killing Kennedy. Immigration officers at Ellis Island (and its precursor, Castle Garden) were accompanied by interpreters who were required to know at least three languages, while ancillary interpreters with knowledge of more obscure languages circulated to ensure competency—and in this context, Yiddish, German, Russian, and Polish were far from obscure.

None of this even matters, though, because immigration officers at Ellis Island never wrote down immigrants’ names. They obtained those names from ships’ manifests, compiled at the port of origin. Nor is it possible that the same mythic scenario was enacted on the European end. Ships’ manifests were recorded from passports and other travel papers, and the shipping companies were very careful not to make errors, because errors cost them money: inaccuracies were grounds for deporting improperly documented or unqualified people back to Europe at company expense.

True, European Jewish immigrants did have to render their names into Latin or Cyrillic letters to create passports, and yes, passports were sometimes forged—but those forgeries or name changes would have been generated by the immigrants themselves. It is also true that many immigrants chose new names for themselves in America, whether for expediency or to avoid discrimination. But that was after they left Ellis Island. I am not revealing state secrets here, or arcane information. Any school child who has been on a field trip to Ellis Island knows all this. But why use facts when rumors will do?


We all know that the Internet is full of unintended errors, not-entirely-unintended distortions, and outright malevolent lies. It has that in common with all human discourse. As Jewish content goes, moreover, “Jewish Surnames Explained” is benign compared with what you’ll find if you Google, say, “Jewish lobby.” (Hint: not the reception area of the King David Hotel.) Amid a sea of mendacity and hatred, complaining about this one article feels a bit like clubbing a baby seal.

And yet it is precisely that toxic sea that makes it all the more important to get Jewish history right. When so many, online and off, are hellbent on denigrating Jews, denying their history, and discrediting their traditions and their culture, mindless gullibility about these matters is in itself distressing. It shames me to think that American Jews, 49 percent of whom claimed in the recent Pew survey that an “essential part of being Jewish” was “being intellectually curious,” are so ignorant of their own heritage as to lay eager claim to the most questionable and transparently dubious fluff, and celebrate it as fact. This, to me, is almost as depressing as when someone tells you he’s sent his banking details to Nigeria.

In the end, and despite the number of true facts it contains, “Jewish Surnames Explained” explains little, and that badly. It is really nothing but a bobe-mayse—which, incidentally, does not mean “grandma story” but is rather a reference to the Bove Bukh, a wildly popular Yiddish romance of the early modern period whose hero, Bove, gets drawn into fantastic and utterly implausible adventures.

But don’t get me started.


Dara Horn is the author of four novels. The most recent, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published in September.


  • Capital District genealogist

    Bull’s eye. By the way, loved Guide.

  • JS7

    I am not a linguist and even I noticed all the glaring errors in Bennett’s article. In fact, Bennett actually contradicted himself within his own article, first identifying “Berliner” as relating to the name “Berl” and later in the piece identifying it with the city of Berlin.

    Misidentifying Kagan, one of the most easily identifiable Jewish names and outrageously linking it to the Khazars put this article squarely out in left field. Thanks for this correction.

    • lloyd

      I thought a Berliner was a pastry?

  • Pep

    Your points may be valid …but your article was so snarky, it was hard to read. The same information written in a calmer tone would be better received.

    • Trish94903

      Tastes differ — the snarkiness is what made the article amusing while being informative. Everyone’s a critic…

  • mouskatel

    Actually, I believe Zakash is a widespread pronunciation of the name Sachs/Zacks/Saks in modern Hebrew. There’s a whole small appliance company with that name:

  • mouskatel

    And Ellis Island name mistakes did happen. My grandfather had his name shortened to Spiro from Shapiro (probably from his thick Hungarian accent that chopped off the “a”). His brothers who went to Israel before and after the war all had the name Shapiro.

    • Barbare

      Where is the documentation for this? His “thick Hungarian accent” may have caused the clerk at the origination point to issue documents as Spiro. Find the manifest in the Ellis Island records and see if Shapiro was crossed out and replaced with Spiro. I guarantee that you will find him entering as Spiro.

      • mouskatel

        Huh? Where is the documentation for what? My grandfather’s real family name was Shapiro. It ended up as “Spiro” on all of his American documents. (The Hungarian accent was my own conjecture) The documentation for his real name being Shapiro is that all 4 of his brothers who didn’t come to America still carried the name Shapiro. Yes, I’m sure he entered as Ellis Island as Spiro because that’s how the clerks probably heard the Hungarian accented version of Shapiro. But that’s the whole point of Ellis Island mistakes. Accents and misunderstandings create new names.

        • Nachum1

          Nothing was changed at Ellis Island; the names were recorded in Europe. It’s more likely the ones going to Israel “changed” their names (in reality, wrote it in a very different, unvocalized alphabet, which makes all the difference).

    • Alex Abramov

      The confusion here is Hungarian spelling. The letter “S” is pronounced “sh” and “Sz” is pronounced “s”. Hence, Shapiro is actually spelled Spiró in Hungarian.
      Another example is the famous WW2 hero Hannah Szenes ( pronounced Senesh.

      Your Israeli cousins most likely pronounce their name Shapira (שפירא) Aramaic for beautiful, good.

  • Henry Abramson

    Thank you for writing this!

  • Angela

    Thanks a lot for commenting on that article.
    Maybe just one aspect missing… recently I passed my European identity card to a young assistant at the Jerusalem Theatre. When he had taken down the information he handed me my subscription card which had my first name on it and the name of my birth place as my familyname!
    Dara, I really loved this!

  • The Wise Bard

    Thank you, Dara.
    The article in question, while perhaps well-intended, received similar critiques when published previously elsewhere. Its apparent republication or link without correction reflects poorly on Mosaic’s editorial process.

  • kevin

    Thanks, Dara. I haven’t had the heart to say this to all the people who excitedly sent me the article.

  • Ben Birnbaum

    Thank you, Dara Horn, for this demolition. I felt the same way about this “report,” and as a personal matter would add that the name Birnbaum is considered to derive from County Birnbaum (as the Irish might say) within the then-Prussian province of Posen (today’s Polish Poznan), and not, as Bennet Muraskin would prettily have it, from “the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time” that favored tree surnames. Whatever the abilities of my late 18th and early 19th century ancestors—and they were many, I’m sure—they were Germans only by accident of conquest and almost certainly did not speak German but Yiddish and Polish (as did the majority of Birnbaum’s residents under Prussia), and were uneducated beyond cheder, a circumstances that obtained right up to my father’s generation in 20th century America—and so about as likely to be devotees of Schlegel, Herder, etc. as of L. Ron Hubbard or A-Rod.

    Ben Birnbaum

    • mishqa_fayyim

      Birnbaum = pear tree = Pereira (common Portuguese Jewish name).

  • J Steinberg

    Explaining surnames? I don’t think so – still no idea what a “Grackin” is and the linguistic explanations in that piece offered no help.

    • Susan B.

      I sympathize. Gives no clue what “Breitzer” means, either.

  • Schelly Talalay Dardashti

    Thank you, Dara, for your attempt to refute the nonsense in the original article, in general, and specifically to address the two major problems (many other minor and not so minor ones) about the misguided Khazar theory and the biggest genealogical myth of all, that names were changed at Ellis Island, when not one such name change has been documented over the millions and millions of people who went through that port of entry.

    With best wishes,

    Schelly Talalay Dardashti

    Tracing the Tribe – Jewish Genealogy on Facebook

    • Jonathan Baker

      I know of a non-Jew who changed his name at Ellis Island. He was Polish, and his name was Sielstra. He gets to Ellis Island, and wants a more American name. So he asks the clerk what his name is. “Sisko”. “Ah, how fortunate, I am Sisko too.” So his name changed from one Polish name to another.

  • mycatjustdiednotinamicrowave

    You lost me at the cat. Not funny.

    • MicrowavedKitty :(

      It wasn’t funny, but it didn’t lose me. The rest of the article was pretty awesome, I thought.

    • Donald Eckhardt

      What color was the cat?

  • 9Athena

    And what about Sephardic names? Italian? Greek? Bedouin? Dutch? Arabic? Egyptian? (I’m still waiting for the Afghanistan geniza to reveal names of those authors) The Ashkenazi who wrote the article obviously knows nothing about the brethren who traveled and traded around the world and established communities that were sophisticated, knowledgeable and multilingual (for starters he should read about the Jews of the Silk Road). Oy. And what about the Ethiopian Jews and the Yemeni in his back yard? Triple oy. But don’t get me started either–I tend to break out in a screed about inbred ignorance.

    • JBDestiny

      Exactly what I thought when I read the original article!

    • John Kinory

      It’s about Ashkenazi names. You write one about Sephardic ones, instead of whining.

      • reinzig

        I have an Ashkenazi name, which is German, but was not originally German, but Hungarian (the German translation was to make it easier to pronounce, or to be more acceptable). I found the original article not to be about Ashkenazi names at all, but about names of Germanic origin.

        • N. Mara Czarnecki

          It works for Non-Germanic Ashkenazi names as well.

      • 9Athena

        Whining? Is that your take on searching for authenticity? I also did not exclusively focus on Sephardim; I’m pointing out the glorious world history of the intrepid courageous traders who very often risked their lives to discover cultures, disparate communities, their histories and skills. They were out-looking, not inward looking, cosmopolitan not self limiting I recommend Salo Wolf-Baron’s “History of the Jews”:( 5 volumes) as a starting point.

    • Cloggie

      I get annoyed at non-Ashkenazis being ignored, this criticism would be better leveled at the writer of the Slate article, which this article is responding to. Honestly, Dutch Jewish names wouldn’t make that much of an article on their own:
      Dutch last names (including traditionally Jewish ones) are made up. They were patronymic for a long time in the form of Firstname van Father’sfirstname. It got really tough to keep track of the Jan van Piet and Piet van Jan-s, so people had to pick a name and register it in 1811. Dutch Jews largely ended up with Cohen, de Bruijn (the brown) or Hollander (person from the province of North or South Holland). My family ended up with Houben/Hoeben which we think is basically “son of Huib” (a common Dutch name) and there are a few similar names. Some people also reclaimed the Spanish names that they had shed or hid when Spain occupied the Netherlands (~1581-1714 and still referenced in the Dutch national anthem) with Lopes and Cardoso being the one most common ones I’ve heard.

    • truk

      My wife’s maiden name is Albaranes, (her mother was born in Egypt), which the museum in Jerusalem stated was derived from the Berber tribe of northwest Africa.

      • Everfion

        Hi, Does any body know if the surname Green is Jewish?

        • N. Mara Czarnecki

          It can be.

  • ambetz

    “Another big problem here is the utter lack of sources.”

    Good point! Where are yours?

  • aqf

    The oral history in my family had always been that my grandfather’s surname was Americanized at Ellis Island. However, when my father started going through folders of memorabilia, it was clear that the change was some years later. My grandparents’ marriage announcement, in Yiddish and English, had the Russian surname; they were married in New York (family lore was that, while they’d met in Russia, their two families emigrated separately, and he came to New York to find her). Some years later, when he went into business, the ads for the business showed the Americanized surname. I suspect a lot of other stories of Ellis Island name changes similarly conflate a few years of the early immigrant experience (putting aside the jokey and bigoted “Sam Ting” type stories).

  • Truth

    Not only changing of names was done, but in my case hidden from my Family unit I figured it out, they still deny “Bethel” was Jewish and even made up stories to prove their point. It is sad that so many families had to hide their identities. I am just now learning my Hebrew Roots and have a long way to go in doing so. Great Point about really researching the truth. Blessings.

  • Elsebeth Paikin

    Thank you so much Dara! Bennet Muraskin’s article really needed comments like yours! I wanted to write myself, but have not had the time because of illness in the family…

    • levinjf

      As one of the many commenters on the Muraskin article, I can assure you that all the criticisms of Dara are there among the comments. But I intended to congratulate her, not quibble. Sorry.

  • 54Forty

    Great article- your illustrations and “snarkiness” (apparently) kept it interesting and readable.

  • Barbara

    Muraskin’s posted reaction to my (and others’) comments pointing out his mistakes was only that he had acknowledged a few errors!

  • KMontreal

    Thank you Dara Horn.

    I had been troubled by numerous false attributions and simply ignorant mistakes in that piece (e.g. everyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddishkeit or even simple synagogue procedure knows that ‘Kagan’ denotes a ‘Cohen’). You do a service in explaining the deeper problems.

    Here’s an interesting irony, given your passion for linguistic and historical accuracy: by following common practice and using the term ‘American’, you unwittingly write us Canadians out of the story. Up here we prefer the term ‘North American’.

    But I quibble. Bravo on an important piece.

  • Daria

    Really, what was that disturbing cat thing for?

  • SYB

    The portrait accompanying this article is wonderful, but of course, it depicts Bertha Pappenheim posing as her ancestor Glickl of Hameln! (

  • ag

    If you spent less time being snarky, and more time just saying what you had to say, this would have been a much smoother read.

    • HJJ

      Why do so many attack Dara for her style of writing and “snarkiness” rather than acknowledge that her point is well taken. Her style makes for a fun read.

  • Yenta

    Very interesting piece. I had always been told my maternal grandfather’s name “Falchuk” had been changed to “Falk” at Ellis Island. After a lot of looking, I found my grandfather’s boat records under the name of “Falczyk”. It was Anglicized later but no idea when. They didn’t go to court to do those things officially in the early 20th century. They changed them themselves informally.

  • Rachel

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I posted comments on Slate and Jewish Currents asking that they take down this article. I’ve asked every friend who “shared” it with me to stop sharing it. As a genealogist, I am particularly frustrated by popular articles like this that obviously have no research behind them, at least at any reliable source. There are experts on Jewish onomastics who could have been asked to vet the article, but clearly that didn’t happen.

  • lazer

    The phrase “bubbe mayse” does mean grandma’s story. Those are literally the words in Yiddish. But yes, the origin is from the Yiddish book, printed in Italy, called the Bove Bukh.

    • Andy Jacoby

      I learned that the “bubbe mayse” does mean grandma’s story, but the grandmother passed the families history (usually) to a bride upon the joining to the family thus the Grandmothers story carries significance in this conversation.

  • Baron Z

    I am puzzled by the denial of name changes at Ellis Island, when my family, as do so many others, have their stories of changing their name at that point of entry. My family entered as Blehert, when that had not been their name in any way, previously. And yet, there is not yet any trace of them under any name at all in their shtetls. It’s not like we had had “last names” for a long time. There is no one “correct” answer to this, and you cannot account for every officer at immigration or the presence of accurate interpreters for every family.

    • Nachum1

      Yes, you can account for every single officer. They copied off of lists made in Europe, and had no authority to change anything.

    • Jonathan Baker

      I know both Jews and non-Jews who changed their name at immigration (not necessarily Ellis Island, most of my family arrived either too early or too late for Ellis Island). My great-great-grandparents changed from Gutkowski to Cohen. A college friend’s grandfather changed from Sielstra (Polish) to Sisko – when he got to Ellis Island, the immigration guy asked his name, he looked at the guy’s nametag, and figuring that was a real American name, took the name Sisko.

      And people changed names for all kinds of other reasons. My great-grandfather changed from Beckerman to Fishberg (his grandmother’s name) to escape the Russian draft c. 1860. Dad changed from Beckerman to Baker in 1939 because he didn’t want a Germanic last name as we were entering WW2.

    • levinjf

      All these stories of name change at Ellis are founded on premises that can be shown to be false:
      1. The officials were ignorant hicks from the backwoods of America. In fact half were naturalized immigrants themselves, who were very familiar with the ethnicities of people arriving, and the languages they spoke.
      2. The officials listened to the surname and tried to write it down as they heard it.

      No! The officials had manifests supplied by the ship listing all passengers. They checked off the arrivals, not writing down a name. Any arrival not on the manifest would be a stowaway and would be returned to the ship! And it is just idiotic to imagine an immigration official would mishear Shapiro as Spiro or vice-versa. Or that they would be stymied by a typical Polish or Slavic name, much less a German name, given that by the 1870′s there were probably more German surnames in America than English names!
      3. Finally we come to motive. It would be against the law for an official to change a name on the manifest. Why risk his job for what? Would a poor immigrant try to bribe an official to change the name on the manifest? I would guess that most immigrants would already know how easy it was to change one’s name in America–the earliest wave were sending letters back to the old country! To see how improbable your family story is, imagine our Mexican border today. Would our current INS people–half of them Hispanic themselves–be changing immigrants’ names when they cross at check points?

  • NickiB

    And the Kuzari (book of the Khazars), maybe you’ve heard of it? It just came out of thin air?

    • daized79

      The Kuzari itself pretty much did come out of thin air. That is, it is not a historical account, but historical fiction. A device the author uses to debate the Abrahamic religions so to speak. But of course the Khazars converting to Judaism is historical fact (though how many and what percent is unknown and probably unknowable). Her us of the word “myth” is ridiculous.

  • Berl

    I’m still confused as to where your resources are even if I agree with many of your points. If you could please cite your sources it would be a useful resource for those who are not so informed about their own origins. For example, I would like to know why you state that Berl was a man’s name. It has been a woman’s name in my family for generations.
    That and nastiness in an article doesn’t become any writer.

  • Ilene Winn-Lederer

    Excellent article, Dara! With your honest admission that you, too may be in error on certain points (“Not being a scholar of linguistics, or a historian, I could of course be wrong about all of this.”), this article is a great service to your readers and the American Jewish community; reminding us of the need to question all information that flits across our eyeballs. In past generations, the printed word (even slander) in broadsides and newspapers was considered verifiable truth by virtue of its physical presence to the masses. Today, our tendency to consider virtual information, so easily and irresponsibly posted by anyone with an electronic device with the same reverence portends a frightening trend of willful ignorance on so many levels.

  • Andy Jacoby

    Thank you Dara,
    I have yet another bone of linguistic quackery to pick with this misguided author. As stated in the original article:
    “Lieb means “lion” in Yiddish. It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names, including Liebowitz, Lefkowitz, Lebush, and Leon. It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for lion — aryeh. The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.”

    Leib may mean Lion in Yiddish, but is not the Yiddish translation of aryeh the hebrew word for Lion. There are three hebrew words for lion that I know: Aryeh, Lavi, and Schachal. Of the three Lavi would be the most likely candidate for the yiddish Leib if you are going with the Lion theory. I always thought that that “Leib” names came from Lev, heart in Hebrew. This theory may or may not be true, but I am not writing an article full of misinformation.

    Other things the article completely ignored the Spanish Diaspora, Spanish Jews including my ancestors were refugees in Europe as well as North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin. All the Jews of Arab Countries are omitted as well. There are many Ashkenazi people with Mizrahi and Sephardi surnames whose ancestry is not Ashkenazic. These “Ashkenazi” people have every right to understand their origins. Until the year Fifteen hundred about ninety two percent of world Jewry lived in Islamic controlled lands. (Spain Included)

  • Shamai Kanter

    Dear Dara:
    Thank you for your welcome response. Many Jews believe that, rather than being an objective body of knowledge, Judaism consists of their personal opinions or whatever they make up that day. My own personal bête noir is the flood of errors in the spelling of Hebrew or Yiddish words in works by American Jewish authors. Most recently, Alan Dershowitz’ autobiography is transgressive in this respect. One might think that, with all the Jews in the publishing world, someone would copy-edit a manuscript to remove such errors. But the flood continues.

  • Elli Sacks

    The author of the original piece actually got one right with Zaks, Saks. Dara Horn points out that the Hebrew doesn’t quite fit and the last name should be Zaksh, but she’s never met a Zaksh before. Actually, those members of the Lithuanian family who returned to Israel kept the surname Zak”sh, as such in Hebrew. When members of the family moved to Western Europe they anglicized or germanized (or vernacularized) it to Saks.

    • daized79

      Right, because shin and sin are written with the same character and Zaks is a heck of a lot easier to pronounce.

  • yehudah

    Even if one could decipher the content embedded in a family name it would tell us next to nothing about family history, as these names were based on the male line only. So going back say seven generations, in the Ashkenazi case, this content might represent about 1% of the ancestral family (although marriages between cousins could of course bump up this percentage).

    The name Kessler, by the way, likely refers to a cooper or coppersmith (hat tip to my friend Daniel Kessler), and Ms. Horn is incorrect to see this as likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The corresponding Jewish name for that “occupation” is probably Koestler, as in Arthur K. – like Ms. Horn a novelist and public intellectual.

  • RAM

    If a topic is important, the level of scholarship in articles about it should be as high as possible, and as free of folk etymology and guesswork as possible.

  • JD

    Few people of any heritage really “know” their history or take the time or trouble to pursue with “intellectual curiosity” the validity or context of what they hear or read as “fact”. Pick a topic from any era or form of human discourse and you’ll find the same issues you describe. And, unless I missed them, you don’t cite sources either. For me the take away is a reenforcing of my existing bias—if it’s important, validate it yourself. Great article.

  • John Yohalem

    I found your corrective to the original article quite refreshing! I wondered, by the way, at the number of “matronyms” the original article cited. Are they accurate? Did Jews use matronyms (citing their mother’s name) before they had surnames? They are very rare in most cultures. (All but unknown in Russia, German, Spanish, Greek, etc.) Why would Gitel daughter of Rebecca and Isaac be known as “Rebecca’s daughter” and not “Isaac’s daughter”? Is this another of the original article’s absurdities?

    Our story, as I understand it, is that none of the Russian Jews had surnames before Russia’s first census, in 1834. None of the Russian Christians or Muslims had them either, except among the upper classes and the descendants of many Dutch and German immigrants, imported to help the tsar administer his empire. My great-great-great-grandfather, a rich innkeeper in a terribly select and elite shtetl in what is now Belarus, was playing cards with a couple of friends and the census taker was due in a couple of days, would probably set up shop in the inn (where boys gathered to be chosen for the draft). And why (one of them wondered) should they take names (probably of bad omen) off the goyim anyway? Were they not rich men, well able to afford the surcharge for picking your own? They were.

    So someone fetched a copy of Torah, and probably didn’t have far to go. And they did a bibliomancy: They opened it to a page at random and someone put a forefinger into it. Let us say it was Baruch Abraham ben Moshe, the innkeeper of Antipolye (now Antopal). And his finger lit upon the passage we number (KJV) Exodus 28:18 (but I think we can assume they did not have a copy of King James). This is the second line of the four that name the twelve gems on the breastplate of the High Priest. And one of his friends took the first stone (netzach?), the other took the second (safir) and he took the third (yahalom).

    Fifty years later, in the aftermath of the explosion of Alexander II, there were disorders and pogroms of every sort, and at the height of the chaos they dared to attempt to draft my great-grandfather, Kaddish Yahalom, though he was already a married man with four children. It was 1886, and after paying a quack for something to put on his head to make him too sick for the army — it didn’t work but his scalp itched the rest of his life — Kaddish skidaddled. The family had business contacts in Germany where they sometimes went to trade horses, and he reached Bremerhaven and bought a ticket in steerage for New York. $7 in those days.

    He arrived at Castle Garden with who knows what papers? As you note, he might well have forged a passport. Something besides a bribe had got him across the German border, and then onto the boat. What, besides the ship manifest, did he show to the immigration clerks? I have no idea. All he ever said was that it took half a day of arguing with the clerk over his surname before they settled on an American spelling from which his descendants have never wavered: Yohalem.

    • daized79

      Yes John, that os another absurdity. Matronyms are only used for praying when somebody’s sick to invoke divine mercy because you know mom’s are merciful. (Whence also the custom of davening for Mama Rochel’s intervention.) Both boys and girls are referred to patronymically (as we still see today in Orthodox schuls when generally giving blessings to family members).

  • Schelly Talalay Dardashti

    For those commenters below wondering why Sephardim were not recognized either in the original article or in Dara’s, please note that I wrote “The Other Side of Jewish Genealogy,” for Family Tree Magazine a few months ago. It contains many resources and information on researching Sephardic families.

    Schelly Talalay Dardasthti

    Tracing the Tribe – Jewish Genealogy on Facebook

  • Connie Krupin

    As someone who has researched and currently speaks on this topic (including both Sephardic and Ashkenazi name origins!), I found the unfortunate errors in the original article and appreciate Dara’s corrections. Absolutely agree that Ellis Island officials had ship manifests and cross-checked them, making many family stories, in fact, myths. Sorry, folks! Actually, Berl does not mean “husband of Berl,” but “son of Berl,” so the fact that it’s a man’s name is irrelevant. Jewish names like Berlin also indicate that the Berliner became addressed as such only after migrating to another city and being identified as such. For this reason, those whose surname is Ashkenazi are Sephardic (unless intermarried with Ashkenazim in the intervening years)! My research, however, does substantiate the origin of Zacks / Sachs as being an acronym for “Zera Kedosh Shemo,” meaning descended from martyrs and referring to Speyer, Germany, Stedahl, Prussia, and perhaps other cities where Jews were martyred during the Crusades into the 16th century. The name may in some cases, trace back to Saxony, where Jews settled as early as the 14th century.

    • ahad haamoratsim

      But if Ashkenaz is Germany, why wouldn’t they be someone who had moved from Germany (or one of the pre-unification German states) to Poland, Russia, Lita, or ich vais nisht?

  • jradzilow

    Koenig is the equivalent of the English “King”; this can come from multiple sources–someone who lived on a royal estate or village; or from a place name that was once royal, owed the king duties or had a royal charter, etc. Someone from Koenigsburg would be Koenigsberger. Most of these surnames don’t appear until the late 1600s or 1700s. Great article.

    • daized79

      Duh–once I read this, why didn’t I think of that. What a great idea to look at English parallels and where they came from! I hate to say it but Horn’s almost doing the same thing as the original guy. But then again, she didn’t set out to write an article and admits she did no research.

  • wordsmith

    I am a historian and a bit of a genealogist, and I agree wholeheartedly with your criticisms – errors I pointed out to the individuals who shared it with me. As for those asking you for sources, I suggest they take a look at as a starting point, and understand that anyone with a basic knowledge of European Jewish history will have been able to come to similar conclusions as you did.

  • yehudah

    Even if one could decipher the content embedded in a family name it would tell us next to nothing about family history, as these names were based on the male line only. So going back say seven generations to the origin date for these names (in the Ashkenazi case), this content might represent about 1% of the ancestral family – although marriages between cousins could of course bump up the percentage.

    The name Kessler, by the way, likely refers to a cooper or coppersmith (hat tip to my friend Daniel Kessler), and Ms. Horn is incorrect to see this as likely derived from kestler, a Yiddish word denoting a married man who lives with his in-laws. The corresponding Jewish name for that “occupation” is probably Koestler, as in Arthur K. – like Ms. Horn a novelist and public intellectual.

    • daized79

      Still an odd name–why would that be a surname? Doesn’t that describe everybody?

  • Heshy Rosenwasser

    I did, in fact, meet a Zaksh. Also the name of a textile company in Israel. Not far-fetched at all.

  • Eugene

    Oh, please, kids. She didn’t do anything to any cat. Look up hyperbole and then look up hyper critical.

  • jessiesmama

    Very interesting since my surname is Lieberman…I was always under the assumption that it was “loverman”, but now I know the truth, although being a “lover of man” wasn’t so bad!

  • Noa

    You are Levites, but you are called Leibowitz because you had someone called Leib in your ancestry, probably the father of the one who had his surname certificated and fixed.

  • awegweiser

    Anyone familar with German recognizes my name and its several related meanings. I very, very rarely have found anybody else with that name – even in Germany. I have old family documents from Europe written in Hebrew, German and Polish. I think the last of these is closest to my forebears. Incidentally, except for my father, all his several brothers dropped the first three letters and passed it on as “Weiser” but I and my sons hold firm. What ever the reason, it sure wasn’t to sound less Jewish! Also, I much prefer being called a Jewish American, not an American Jew – reflecting my primary affiliation.

  • levinjf

    Your refusal to acknowledge historical facts–no name changes at Ellis–in favor of family legends, puts into perspective your opinion re Khazars and conversion. No one disputes that some Khazars accepted Judaism, although possibly it was Karaite Judaism, not Rabbinic. The question is whether their descendents are prominently part of the Jewish community today. Historically the Khazars disappeared. Genetically there is no evidence they are part of modern Jews. As for the Slavic names, more Christians than Jews came through Ellis Island with those funny names, though your example is impossible. How come the Polish Americans, the Serb and Croatian Americans, etc., etc., don’t always go on about changing their names? When their kids got around to asking their grandparents why the name was changed, perhaps they were too embarrassed to just say they felt the name was “too Jewish.” By the way, in England it is common to see name changes: Ginsburg becomes Ginsburry. But English Jews don’t blame Ellis Island. Think about it.

  • Peter

    You are referring to the famous Shane Fergusson, I assume.

    • daized79

      Check out a 2008 article in The Forward on the same.

  • R M Davis

    The word “Kagan” does have Khazar origins as well and your snarky article has other errors.

  • Golum

    I can’t believe the “simpletons” here that insist the clerks at Ellis Island never made any mistakes!

    “Immigration officers at Ellis Island were accompanied by interpreters who were required to know at least three languages, while ancillary interpreters with knowledge of more obscure languages circulated to ensure competency— Yiddish, German, Russian, and Polish were far from obscure.”

    They went to all that trouble in the 1890s? After 911, the CIA & FBI couldn’t even find any one to interpret Arabic languages to prevent terrorism…but clerks at Ellis Island had every language in the world available at a moments notice? And they double checked the ships info…because we all know the ships clerks also had all those language experts available also!
    So all those immigrants who for years insisted that their names and those of their children had been miswritten by harried & hurried clerks at Ellis were lying?

    • Aaron Siegel Considering you probably won’t actually click that link, LaGuardia, one of the most famous Mayors of New York, worked as an interpreter at Ellis Island. But please, by all means, don’t let small things like “facts” get in the way of your ranting.

    • levinjf

      You are the simpleton. Half the immigration officers were themselves naturalized immigrants. And in general, Americans were less monolingual in the 19th Century than they are now. The largest circulation newspaper in America was a German-language paper. And mistakes were made, but hardly enough to account for all the Jewish bobbe mayses. And by the way, why weren’t all the Italian and Polish names changed? In any case, mistakes or not, they had no more authority to change a surname then, than a modern official at our border with Mexico has the authority to change a surname. What would be the motive? They did NOT write down anything–they checked off names from a manifest written in Europe.

      As for “lying”, my own cousins assured me the name was changed at Ellis. Then I found out our grandparents came before Ellis was opened, and the old name was still being used on documents 7 years after arrival. Maybe they were just too embarrassed to say they dumped the Jewish-sounding name for business reasons. Or maybe with the pressure of making a living and raising 4 or 5 kids they just forgot and said the first thing that came to mind. Or maybe THEY were the simpletons, like you.
      And by the way, the FBI and CIA could have hired all the Arabic translators they wanted in Israel.

  • riva

    I had no idea! It sounds like a very interesting form of harmless fraud.

  • riva

    I had no idea the depth of it all – how about we all lighten up a bit on this one?

  • Paul Weiss

    I belive Gottlieb means lover of God, not lion of God

  • French Sefardia

    A quick fact: 80 % of Jews of France are Sefardim, they mostly live in the South around the Mediterranean Sea where they settled after leaving Spain. Same for Jews of Italy.

    • Lowell

      Actually, most came after 1948 in the wake of the fear that swept through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia after the State of Israel was born.

  • Fat_Man

    Thanks. I knew that the article was under researched when I got to Kagan as well. In my mother’s Russian Jewish family, her mother was surnamed Kahn, but they had many cousins who were Kagan, Kohen, and Cohen. My mother, who taught Russian language at a local college, explained the derivations to me many years ago.

  • fuscator

    Indeed. I stumbled upon the “explanations” piece having been sent, by a reputable service I subscribe to, a link to it.
    I hated it, because the assumptions which the author presented as facts were not only blatantly wrong, but also contrived. I wondered at the time whether the author has ever made use of IMO (never mind IMHO).

  • fuscator

    Dara, please pay no attention, NONE, to the complaints about your “cat incident” parable. People have got to eat more fiber, if you catch my drift.

  • Dave

    All Kagans are invariably “kohanim”. An Asiatic convert does not acquire this hereditary status. While your research is impressive,the application of pronunciation rules may have been improperly applied by recent immigrants

  • Aleph Perez

    Obviously this does not cover how we arrive at some sefardim names, LOL.

  • Paul Kronos

    In keeping with the academic quality of this discussion, and to not upset Dara Horn, could you please provide properly cited (MLA, or APA ) references for your claim.

  • QuiHai

    “Just yesterday, for instance, I unintentionally put a cat in my microwave. He’s dead now, and I won’t do that to him again.”
    That was so hilarious, I had to stop reading.

  • daized79

    What a great point. And what did they do with Cyrillic? Not sure why she dismisses it so completely like that. The rest bnfo her article is very good though (except the Khazars thing which I remarked on).

  • daized79
  • daized79

    Not so much, because she admits she could be completely wrong and that she didn’t research and write an article on the topic. On the the hand she probably should’ve done a bit more research on the few names she does highlight (and as I point out her Khazar thing is flat-out wrong and her Garden Castle and Ellis Island thing aren’t so cut and dried).

  • daized79

    Thanks Victor–I wrote on this before I saw your post. Our claim to Israel is not genes necessarily, but cultural continuity. That is, we are the Jewish people (or Hebrews if you insist) because we’ve preserved our ancestors culture. i might have as much Jewish genes as a Spaniard or even a Palestinian, but those two relinquished any cultural continuity by dropping out of our people.

  • daized79

    I have never seen that. I think that happened much earlier in Germany, when names were first assigned (that’s also how many Jews got the color names–randomly chosen: Braun, Weiss, Schwartz, Blau, Green, Roth,.Gelb, Gold, Silber, Rose, or even Farber (color).

  • Melissa

    You had me until the cat comment. That is the point at which I quit reading.

  • levinjf

    You ignore crucial points–half were immigrants themselves, not native English speakers. They wrote NOTHING down, they checked off lists. Manifests were not written in Cyrillic; few people came directly from Russia, and with millions of immigrants passing through ports of Europe, the people who dealt with them were not machine-like, but they were professionals. The actual rare mistake cannot explain the fact that every Jew with a changed name says it happened at Ellis, even if like my cousins, the ancestors arrived before Ellis was opened and the old name was on documents in the USA! You are in denial that people were just too embarrassed to admit they changed the name because it sounded to Jewish. How come Italian- or Polish-Americans didn’t have their weird names changed at Ellis? People smarter than you would admit the truth.

  • bat levi

    A note: Russians cannot pronounce H. They pronounce it as G. Something Nabokov had great fun with in Ada. Where a hamlet is called Gamlet, Hence Kohen becomes Kogan, And like that.

  • N. Mara Czarnecki
  • jobardu

    Thank you Dara Horn for shining light through the smoke the media blows about anything Jewish. I too was in error about many of the things you described in the article.

  • Myron Chaitovsky

    see under Schrodinger (of course his cat was/was not harmed)

  • Mark76

    Could Zaks/Saks and (presumably) Sacks/Sachs be variations of Isaacs? As in Sir Jeremy.

  • Ross Barnard

    This might be better as a lead into the literature: at least it has references. There are plenty of good explanatory articles around (even on line) , but they don’t seem to grab the limelight like the bad ones.

  • Myriam

    Could we get a reference to a really
    good source on Jewish surnames ?

  • benkaf

    Immigration officials may have been very workmanlike and scrupulous in their approach to copying names from ship’s manifests. And the repercussions for errors may have been quite severe. However, I know in my own family, my great grandfather arrived as “Rockfeld” and his wife and daughter who arrived separately were recorded as “Rachfeld.” All my great-grandmother’s other documentation (both prior to immigration and afterwards) was spelled “Rockfeld” and it is pretty easy to see how a transcription error could have occurred, for whatever reason (i.e. bad handwriting on the manifest). This isn’t really a name “change” but it would suggest that some changes at immigration were possible, if unlikely.

  • TRakei

    The surname Zaksh is alive and well in Israel. In fact, the eminent poet Nelly Sachs is spelled Zaksh in Hebrew. Both the surname Zaksh and the surname Zachs can be considered abbreviations of several different phrases, as explained in the Hebrew Wikipedia.

  • Jacob

    Excellent article.
    Kessler is more likely to derive from the German term for “coppersmith”. Kessel=kettle. Kessler= someone who make kettles.

  • disqus_qZ6DCvpsy9

    As an infrequent contributor to the pages of Jewish Currents — and one who’s been “corrected” by Bennett Muraskin on more than one occasion — I lol’d at the Kagan howler and immediately informed the editor, who advised that Mr. Muraskin had corrected that particular item of rank ignorance. I’ve just become aware of Dara Horn’s article and am grateful for it.

  • Sternenfarben

    actually, there is another reason.
    Under Napoleon and his administration there was the directive that each person had to carry a surname. So all of a sudden the Jewish people had to be named, even though very often denied other names in the times before.
    A surname usually was something for royalty.
    Yet, not every name was suitable for religious reason. So there were names, that were not possible. Very often, Jewish people had to struggle for their last names, if you were a jew and could afford giving money, you were given a good name. if not, you had been given a random name or sometimes even an awkward or funny name, like Tischbein, or fischbein (leg of a tabe, or leg of a fish)….
    So, if the jewish people could chose, they from then on carried names that carried also energy from their religion or their job. Yet a lot of time they had no real meaning, or were odd, e.g. names with “stein” or “bein” etc.. are also rooted in that Napoleonic name giving time.
    So a name with “berlin” or so in it might not have a real meaning other than they had to chose something or were given randomly a name.

  • Deb

    Having worked at Ellis Island I’m aware that names didn’t change there but did change en route to America — not at the embarkation sites but before they got to those sites. Many people could only get out of the various countries (especially Russia) only by using other names or buying fake passports etc. This was the documentation shown to authorities at embarkation when the ship manifests were made up — hence the different names which they arrived with at Ellis. Further — in order to escape the draft, sons were often listed as being part of other families (those with only daughters for example) and so for official purposes their ‘last’ names were the ones belonging to these other families.

  • Jonathan Baker

    I happen to know exactly where my surname comes from. Baker, shortened by Dad from Beckerman because he didn’t want to have a Germanic last name in 1939. Beckerman, because my grandmother says they used to bake the matza for their town. Matza, because (I speculate) the family trade was really music (it was). The speculation is that they also had a matza business to get some extra income before the 7-week dry spell between Pesach and Shavuot, when observant Jews don’t marry.

    Other family names are more speculative. The Wisans, shortened from Wizansky, from Suvalk, well, there’s a small town a bit north of Suvalk called Wijzany, which Litvak-SIG census record translations says had a number of Wisanskys living there. So I suspect some kind of connection with that town. Cohen is obvious, but that was an Ellis Island change from Gutkowskii, and I have no idea what that means. Fishberg (fish mountain?) – presumably bought for some small amount of money c. 1800 when Russian Jews had to take surnames – these were related to the musicians. Lagusker? No idea. They lived in Moskva and then Moghilev, probably had family there.


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