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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.

Read more at Forward

More about: History & Ideas, Names, Russian Jewry

The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah