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 Danger of Hollow Fixes to the Iran Deal

March 20 2018

In January, the Trump administration announced a 120-day deadline for the so-called “E3”—Britain, France, and Germany—to agree to solutions for certain specific flaws in the 2015 agreement to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Omri Ceren explains why it’s necessary to get these fixes right:

[Already in October], the administration made clear that it considered the deal fatally flawed for at least three reasons: a weak inspections regime in which the UN’s nuclear watchdog can’t access Iranian military facilities, an unacceptable arrangement whereby the U.S. had to give up its most powerful sanctions against ballistic missiles even as Iran was allowed to develop ballistic missiles, and the fact that the deal’s eventual expiration dates mean Iran will legally be allowed to get within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear weapon. . . .

A team of American negotiators has been working on getting the E3 to agree to a range of fixes, and is testing whether there is overlap between the maximum that the Europeans can give and the minimum that President Trump will accept. The Europeans in turn are testing the Iranians to gauge their reactions and will likely not accept any fixes that would cause Iran to bolt.

The negotiations are problematic. The New York Times reported that, as far as the Europeans are concerned, the exercise requires convincing Trump they’ve “changed the deal without actually changing it.” Public reports about the inspection fix suggest that the Europeans are loath to go beyond urging the International Atomic Energy Commission to request inspections, which the agency may be too intimidated to do. The ballistic-missile fix is shaping up to be a political disaster, with the Europeans refusing to incorporate anything but long-range missiles in the deal. That would leave us with inadequate tools to counter Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that could be used to wipe Israel, the Saudis, and U.S. regional bases off the map. . . .

There is a [significant] risk the Trump administration may be pushed to accept the hollow fixes acceptable to the Europeans. Fixing the deal in this way would be the worst of all worlds. It would functionally enshrine the deal under a Republican administration. Iran would be open for business, and this time there would be certainty that a future president will not act to reverse the inevitable gold rush. Just as no deal would have been better than a bad deal, so no fix would be better than a bad fix.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Donald Trump, Europe, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy