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.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Forward

More about: History & Ideas, Names, Russian Jewry

The Palestinian Authority Deliberately Provoked Sunday’s Jerusalem Riots

Aug. 16 2019

On Sunday, Tisha b’Av—the traditional day of mourning for the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples—coincided with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. While the Israeli government had initially banned Jews from the Temple Mount on that day, it later reversed its decision and allowed a few dozen to visit. Muslim worshippers greeted them by throwing chairs and stones, and police had to quell the riot by force. Just yesterday, an Israeli policeman was stabbed nearby. Maurice Hirsch and Itamar Marcus place the blame for Sunday’s violence squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinian Authority:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Palestinian Media Watch

More about: Palestinian Authority, Temple Mount, Tisha b'Av