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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jewish names: Then and now

Moses Mendelssohn  (by Anton Graff)
Many Jewish names have markedly changed over the years.

Bennett Muraskin of Slate reports that the "overwhelming majority" of Eastern European (Ashkenazic) Jews "did not take last names until compelled to do so" by governing authorities who wanted them "taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance)."

Up until then, these Jewish names had "generally changed with every generation."  Children were usually called "son of" (the father) or "daughter of" (the mother).  Thus, there were names such as "Moses son of Mendel" ("Moyshe ben Mendel") and "Sarah daughter of Rebecca" ("Sara bat Rivka").

Jews reluctantly began to comply with these orders, some by retaining the essence of their traditional names.  "Ben" in Hebrew became "sohn," "son," or "er" in Yiddish or German.  Therefore, "ben Mendel" became "Mendelsohn."

Jews also drew upon other sources for their new names:  places (e.g., "Berlinsky" – from Berlin, and "Wiener" – from Vienna); occupations (e.g., "Salzman" – salt merchant, and "Wasserman" – water carrier); personal traits (e.g., "Gottleib" – God lover, and "Springer" – lively person); and Hebrew derivatives (e.g., "Baron" – from bar aron, meaning "son of Aaron," and "Segal" – from se gan levia, meaning "second-rank Levite").

Copyright January 11, 2014 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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