Why Many Russian Jewish Surnames Derive from the Names of Women

Feb. 26 2018

Among Jews who trace their origins to Eastern Europe, and especially to the Russian empire, substantial numbers have last names deriving from the given names of women. Hence Sorkin, Serkin, and Serkis derive from Sorke and Sirke, which are Yiddish forms of Sarah; Rivkin and Rivkes from Rivka (Rebecca), and so forth. Jewish men generally took these surnames from their mothers, mothers-in-law, or even wives. As Alexander Beider explains, many began as nicknames of sorts, sometimes passed down within prestigious families. He writes:

The tradition of surnames based on female names was surely influenced by the economic and social structure of the East European Jewish community. The surname of [the famed Polish] rabbi Samuel Eidels [1555-1631] was taken after the given name of his mother-in-law Eidel Lifschitz, who for twenty years assumed all the expenses of the yeshiva he led. [Such] Jewish women occupied important commercial roles. Many Jewish men were craftsmen who worked at home, but the women often could be found trading in little shops or in the marketplace. Certain women were better known to the inhabitants of a locality than were their husbands. . . .

The fact that for Jews in Eastern Europe the need for surnames was an artificial requirement imposed by the Tsarist government was of crucial importance for the inception of matronymic surnames. The naming process was administered by the Jewish administration, known as the Kahal and, as such, was greatly affected by the imagination of the Kahal authorities. We know that matronymic surnames were quite common in the Mogilev province in eastern Belarus, where they covered 30-40 percent of the total Jewish population. Almost all of them were created by using the East Slavic possessive suffix -in. . . It seems unlikely that in this region, women had the most honored position or were the most active in commerce. It is more reasonable to assume that such a pattern was decided upon, almost on a random basis, by local Kahal authorities, while in other areas Jewish officials chose different patterns. . . .

[Thus the main] factor that makes Russia different from other areas was [that] only in Russia did the massive adoption of last names take place in a Jewish community where the matronymic tradition was already established. In other provinces, Christian state clerks were directly involved in assigning surnames, [and] the creation of surnames from female given names was almost unknown in various European Christian cultures.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Forward

More about: History & Ideas, Names, Russian Jewry

 

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at New York Times

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror