Jewish Surnames

The Origins of Jewish Surnames

Other than aristocrats and wealthy people Jews did not get surnames
In Eastern Europe until the Napoleon years of the early 19th century.

Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon, Russia, Poland
And Germany were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.

After Napoleon’s defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned
To “son of” names such as: MENDELSOHN, JACOBSON, LEVINSON, etc.

During the so called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to
Take surnames. In Austria The Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland in 1821 and Russia in 1844.

It’s probable that some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.

In France and the Anglo Saxon countries surnames went back to the 16th century.

Also Sephardic Jews had surnames stretching back centuries..
Spain prior to Ferdinand and Isabella was a golden spot for Jews.
They were expelled by Isabella in the same year that Columbus left for America.
The earliest American Jews were Sephardic.

In general there were Five types of names
(people had to pay for their choice of names;
the poor had assigned names):

1– Names that were descriptive of the head of household:
KLEIN (small),
HOCH (tall),
COHEN (rabbi ),
BURGER (village dweller),
SHEIN (good looking),
LEVI (temple singer),
GROSS (large),
SCHWARTZ (dark or black),
WEISS (white),
KURTZ (short)

2 — Names describing occupations:
HOLTZ (wood)
HOLTZKOCKER (wood chopper),
GELTSCHMIDT (goldsmith),
SCHNEIDER (tailor),
KREIGSMAN (warrior),
MALAMED (teacher),
EISEN (iron),
FISCHER (fish)

3– Names from city of residence:
DEUTSCH (German),
POLLACK (Polish),

4 — Bought names:
GLUCK (luck),
ROSEN (roses),
ROSENBLATT (rose paper or leaf),
ROSENBERG (rose mountain),
ROTHMAN (red man),
KOENIG (king),
KOENIGSBERG (king’s mountain),
SPIELMAN (spiel is to play),
LIEBER (lover),
BERG (mountain),
WASSERMAN (water dweller),
KERSHENBLATT (church paper),
STEIN (glass).

5– Assigned names (usually undesirable):
PLOTZ (to die),
KLUTZ (clumsy),
BILLIG (cheap)

Original Birth Names of Jewish Performers:
Woody Allen — Alan Stewart Koenigsberg
June Allyson — Ella Geisman
Lauren Bacall — Betty Joan Perske
Jack Benny — Benjamin Kubelsky
Irving Berlin — Israel Baline
Milton Berle — Milton Berlinger
Joey Bishop —Joseph Gottlieb
Karen Black — Karen Blanche Ziegler
Victor Borge — Borge Rosenbaum
Fanny Brice — Fanny Borach
Mel Brooks — Melvin Kaminsky
George Burns — Nathan Birnbaum
Eddie Cantor — Edward Israel Iskowitz
Jeff Chandler — Ira Grossel
Lee J. Cobb — Amos Jacob
Tony Curtis — Bernard Schwartz
Rodney Dangerfield — Jacob Cohen
Kirk Douglas — Issue Danielovich Demsky
Melvyn Douglas — Melvyn Hesselberg
Bob Dylan — Robert Zimmerman
Paulette Goddard — Marion Levy
Lee Grant — Lyova Geisman
Elliot Gould — Elliot Goldstein
Judy Holliday — Judith Tuvim
Al Jolson — Asa Yoelson
Danny Kaye — David Daniel Kaminsky
Michael Landon — Michael Orowitz
Steve Lawrence — Sidney Leibowitz
Jerry Lewis — Joseph Levitch
Peter Lorre — Lazlo Lowenstein
Elaine May — Elaine Berlin
Yves Montand — Ivo Levy
Mike Nichols — Michael Peschkowsky
Joan Rivers — Joan Molinsky
Edward G. Robinson — Emanuel Goldenberg
Jane Seymour — Joyce Penelope Frankenburg
Simone Signoret — Simone-Henriette Kaminker
Beverly Sills — Belle Silverman
Sophie Tucker — Sophia Kalish
Gene Wilder — Gerald Silberman

On 3rd July 2013, we received this correction from Kyle Echakowitz:

“I was browsing your site when I came across some erroneous information.  On it is claimed that Cohen means Rabbi and Levi means temple singer. This is neither etymologically correct, nor historically correct.

Kohen is the Biblical Hebrew word for “priest.” The title “haKohen” denotes descent from Aaron, brother of Moses. However, the secular surname Cohen is not necessarily used for all Kohanim, nor are all Cohens Kohanim. In fact, many are not even Jewish. The only surnames that might definitively indicate descent from a rabbi would contain the word “rabbi” or some variation thereof. Examples include Rabin and Rabinowitz (and other permutations of the -ович patronymic).

As for Levi, the descriptor of temple singer is both oversimplification and entirely incorrect in terms of determining an ancestor’s occupation, as is the case for Cohen. While this may have been one of the duties of the ancient Levites in Jerusalem, it has nothing to do with the use of the term, as the Temple was, obviously, destroyed 2 centuries ago. Like “haKohen,” “HaLevy” simply denotes Levitical descent from the priestly tribe of Levi, of which Aaron was a member. Also like Cohen, the secular surname in no way indicates Levitical descent. In fact, it might simply be a patronymic surname in many cases, as Levi was, and continues to be, a common given name. Thus, Levi often has nothing to do with the father’s occupation or his tribal status.”

Many Thanks Kyle