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How and Why Jews Hebraized Their Family Names at the Founding of Israel

“If there is no overriding reason for the Major to retain an awkward-sounding German name that our people finds hard to pronounce, . . . he [should] change it to a Hebrew one.”

Government Press Office.

Government Press Office.

Observation
April 25 2018
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

In connection with Martin Kramer’s Mosaic essay, “The May 1948 Vote that Made the State of Israel,” Robert Licht has written to point out that Kramer refers to each of six senior figures in the Jewish leadership of British-mandate Palestine by two different family names: a Hebrew name that they took for themselves soon before or not long after Israel’s establishment, and their former name. (The six are: Golda Meir, formerly Meyerson; Israel’s first foreign minister Moshe Sharett, formerly Shertok; its first military chief-of-staff Yigal Yadin, formerly Sukenik; its first minister of education and third president Zalman Shazar, formerly Rubashov; its first minister of justice Pinhas Rozen, formerly Rosenblueth; and its first ambassador to the United States, Eliyahu Eilat, formerly Epstein.)

Mr. Licht’s question is this:

I had always thought that these Zionist leaders changed their names to Hebrew ones upon their aliyah to Palestine in the period of the Ottoman empire or the British Mandate. Now I see that this happened much later. The changing of first names, of course, goes back to the Torah and is also traditional for Jews seeking recovery from illness. But the fact that these secular Jews took Hebrew last names only at the time of the founding of Israel is an interesting one, don’t you think?

It is indeed interesting, and there’s a story here. Before we get to it, though, it’s necessary to make two observations. The first is that the changing of Jewish first and last names by immigrants in the late-19th and 20th centuries was by no means limited to Hebrew-speaking Palestine. It was widespread elsewhere, especially in English-speaking countries like America where, as many of you know from the histories of your own families, not only did Moshes become Morrises and Berls become Barrys but Cohens became Cowans, Manischewitzes became Manns, Weisbergs became Whitehills, and so on. On a more limited basis, Jewish name-changing goes back much farther. When, for instance, the Spanish Jewish physician and scholar Avner of Burgos converted to Christianity in 1321, he turned into Alfonso de Valladolid.

The second thing to be noted is that some early Zionist immigrants to Palestine did Hebraize their last names soon after their aliyah or at the time of it. (All of them had Hebrew first names from birth.) David Ben-Gurion was one of these. Arriving in the country in 1906 as David Grün, he became Ben-Gurion in 1910. Yitzḥak Ben-Tsvi, Ben-Gurion’s close colleague and Israel’s second president, changed his name from Shimshelevitz immediately after disembarking in Jaffa in 1907. In an age when few Palestinian Jews had Hebrew last names, this was both a both personal and an ideological statement, meant to stress the fact that one had cast off one’s diaspora identity and been reborn as a Hebrew-speaking Jew in one’s new-old homeland.

As the Hebrew-speaking community of Palestine grew rapidly in the years after World War I, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Tsvi stood at the head of a Hebraization campaign. In 1933, Ben-Tsvi published an article in the Labor-party newspaper Davar headlined, “Get Rid of Your Alien Names!” In it he wrote:

Now that we are blessed with 200,000 Jewish inhabitants [in Palestine], that is, 50,000 Hebrew-speaking families, we have on our hands 50,000 foreign names: German, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Georgian, Tatar, etc. . . . Shouldn’t it be clear by now that this inheritance from the Middle Ages and the ghetto is undesirable? Isn’t it obvious that all these names make us seem strangers in the Land of Israel?

Ben-Tsvi concluded:

We must establish special action committees in every town and community, every kibbutz and moshav . . . composed of linguists who will advise everyone [how to change his or her name] free of cost. Most important is the personal example of the leaders of our [Labor] movement and its institutions. It’s your duty to go first in carrying out this great obligation!

 

The advice of the “linguists” was nearly always to follow one of three methods. The first was the time-honored Jewish one, familiar from the synagogue, of being called “So-and-so the son of So-and-so.” When, for example, the well-known German Jewish composer Paul Frankenburger settled in Palestine in 1933, he changed his last name to Ben-Haim. The second method was homophony or likeness in sound; thus, Levi Shkolnik, Israel’s future third prime minister, became Eshkol—the Hebrew word for a cluster of fruit. The third was translation: by means of it, the Haganah commander Moshe Klaynboym exchanged his family name, which means “little tree” in Yiddish, for the Hebrew Sneh, meaning “bush.” Many thousands of Palestinian Jews, old-timers and immigrants alike, followed suit in these years.

Still, despite name-changing drives in the 1930s and 40s, numerous holdouts remained, and not a few of them were individuals in high positions. Many Palestinian Jews felt attached to their family names, exilic though they might be. Some had ideological objections; while they had left the diaspora behind them, they had no wish demonstratively to repudiate it or their roots in it. Others were simply disinclined to go through the necessary bureaucratic paperwork.

And so, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, an impatient Ben-Gurion, the new state’s prime minister, issued an administrative order that all senior army officers, and all senior diplomats representing Israel abroad, had to have Hebrew last names. He followed up on this with characteristic tenacity. Finding a military memo by a certain Major Goldenzweig on his desk one day in September 1949, Ben-Gurion sent him a personal note:

If there is no overriding reason for the Major to retain an awkward-sounding German name that our people finds hard to pronounce, I would with all due respect and sincerity recommend that he change it to a Hebrew one. Should he one day have to represent the Israel Defense Force in a public capacity, it would ill-behoove him to be mistaken for a German.

 

It was in this period that most of the public figures cited by Martin Kramer changed their names, as did many of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Middle East who flooded Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. Then, too, however, many chose not to. Perhaps the most prominent personage to refrain at the time was Ben-Gurion’s longstanding political rival and Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann. Numerous other Israelis of note behaved similarly, among them Menachem Begin, the first speaker of the Knesset Yosef Shprintsak, and the Modern Orthodox political leader and perennial cabinet member Yosef Burg. Ben-Gurion could only fume at such cases.

By the 1960s and 70s, the Hebraization of family names in Hebrew had ceased to be fashionable, and today it is a relative rarity. Of the nearly one-million Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, nearly all have retained the names they came with. Various factors have contributed to this, including the overall de-ideologization of Israeli society, a revised and more positive attitude on its part toward the diaspora, and the anti-conformist individualism of contemporary life with its stress on authenticity and “being true” to who one is. Today, the Israeli army can have a chief-of-staff named Gadi Eisenkot and no one bats an eyelash, though many Israelis wonder how the son of Moroccan immigrants came by a name that sounds as German as Goldenzweig.

There’s a story to that, too. Azenkot is actually a good Moroccan Jewish name of Berber origin. But when Eisenkot’s parents arrived in Israel in the 1950s, the Ashkenazi immigration official they encountered took it to be German, and wrote it down accordingly. It’s a lucky thing that he didn’t, as sometimes happened in those days, Hebraize it on the spot and change it to Botsbarzel or “Ironmud,” which in the best of cases (Kot can have a more scatological sense, too) is what its German meaning is.

 

* * * * *

A correction: in my previous column, I suggested that Dara Horn was original in speculating about the meaning of Pharaoh’s heart being “made heavy” in the book of Exodus. (Horn guessed that the expression came from an ancient Egyptian belief in hearts being weighed for their evil deeds after death.) Stuart Halpern, Alexandra Dunietz, Gideon Schor, and Zach Garber have all let me know that I was mistaken. Dunietz cites a 2003 article on the subject by the Albright Institute scholar Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg; Halpern, a 2009 article by the Yeshiva University professor Yael Leibowitz; Schor, the Internet site AlHaTorah; and Garber, a guide at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Actually, Horn herself made no claim to being original; on the contrary, she thought it unlikely that she was. The error was mine and I stand corrected.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

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