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Our ancestral names

A common stumbling block for genealogists is names — and as you might imagine, Jewish names can be quite challenging.

Given Names

A quick primer for given (first) names:

Most of our Eastern European ancestors had “Jewish” names that were often a combination of Yiddish and Hebrew names. In addition, they probably had a secular name for whatever country they lived in.

Most children were named after grandparents or other relatives with traits that parents admired and wanted to see develop in their child. (While Sephardi Jews often were named after the living, Ashkenazis were named after deceased relatives).

But, as we know, most our ancestors did not keep their Jewish name in this country (there are exceptions) — most wanted to assimilate and get employment as soon as feasible.

Shlomo or Chaya were not very popular American names — but Sam and Kay were.

There is a bit of a myth that most Jewish names automatically translate into American ones, but, in fact, the American names are far more random. Of course, Binyamin would likely be Benjamin, but Chaya could be Anna, Charlotte, Kate, etc.

While often the American name started with the same letter as the Jewish name, that wasn’t true all the time.

So when you are looking through census or other documents, you might be surprised to find a given name you hadn’t heard before — because your ancestor used that name for officials, not for the family.

As with all names you find of that person, record them and the source you found them, for future reference.


Surnames (last names) are rarely what they were “in the old country.” As I discussed in my first article, those names were almost always changed by the immigrant themselves or by family, not at Ellis Island. Regardless of who changed it, you need to know the original name so that you can find it in the country of origin.

European governments required most Jews to have last names by the late 1700s to mid-1800s for tax or military purposes. Before that, families primarily went by their first name, son of their father’s name: i.e. Yitzhak ben Avram, or Moishe ben Shmuel.

Depending on time and place, families were assigned a name or chose their own. Some stories claim that if families paid well, they could get a “good” name.

Some of the most common origins of names include patronymic — named after the father (Abramovitz, son of Abraham, in Polish); geographical features (mountains — Berg, forests — Wald); personal characteristics (big — Gross, small — Klein, dark — Schwartz, etc.); occupation (tailor — Shneider, goldsmith — Goldschmitt, shoemaker — Shumacher, buyer — Kaufman, butcher — Fleischer); religious function (Levy, Cohen); or town or region region they were born in (Berliner or Litvak).

Of course, many Jewish names don’t easily fall into these categories, but can still be helpful in finding places of origins.

Some researchers have painstakingly put together the largest concentration of Jewish surnames, tracing the etymology of the name along with where the highest concentration of people with those names lived. While this research is not proof positive, it can be an invaluable method for starting your search.

A series on this research in a number of regions in Eastern Europe was written by Alexander Beider, including A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire.

You can find that book and many other books of interest for Jewish genealogy at the Avotaynu. com website, or at some genealogy libraries (including Denver Public Library).

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