Origins of Jewish Names
Immigrants to the United States
frequently changed their foreign names to English sounding names. This was
particularly true of people from Eastern Europe and Asia because their names
were so different from American names that they were difficult for Americans to
This has been true for American
Jews, who are mainly descendants of eastern Europeans. These Eastern European
Jews had Hebrew names before the middle of the eighteenth century, when the tax
collectors in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire forced Jews to adopt secular names
in 1787. Most European countries
followed the Austrian example, although in Russia, name changes were not
required until 1849, when Jews needed secular names to be drafted into the army
for twenty years. Prior to these forced name changes, the Jews who called their
sons Elyokim ben Gershon or Yehudah ben Yaakov and their girls Bas or Bat
instead of Ben resorted to using the names of their ancestral forebears in
Germany as their names. Some Jews continued to call themselves “son” or
“daughter” by using the Slavic “wich” or “witz,” meaning son, as in
Moscovitz, or Rabinowich.
course it is still the custom of Jews to give their children a Hebrew name in
addition to a secular name.
Eastern European Jews came into
Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries during the Crusades, when
the crusaders killed the defenseless Jews in Germany rather than face the
well-armed Muslims in the Holy Land.
Using the names of the German
towns and cities which had been the homes of their ancestors led to such names
as Hamburger, Frankfurter, Wuerzburger, or Danziger, etc. Other Jews used their
occupations as the source of their names. Goldsmiths called themselves Goldberg
and Silversmiths became Silverman, merchants became Kaufman and tailors would
call themselves Sherman from the German Schere, meaning scissors. Cooperman was
a coppersmith. Garfinkel is not Jewish. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gar,
or grass, and finkel, or field, and remained part of the English language after
the conquest of England by the French in 1066.
Today there are numerous Jews who
have such names as Smith, Jones, or Schulz, derived from German or English
sounding names, thereby hiding the Jewish connection. However, we also have some
Jews who in America use Hebrew names which are common among the American
Christian population. Michael, or mee cha
el, means who is like G’d, Joseph is derived from Yasaph, as Jacob
called his eleventh son “He added” in reference to God adding one more son
to his many children. Benjamin means “son of my right hand” and is very
common in this country. Jeremiah is a well-known name among Irish Americans, as
is Daniel, meaning God is my judge. Many American women have Hebrew names, such
as Ruth, Sarah, and Esther. Even Hebrew last names are used by Americans who are
not Jewish, such as Isaacs and Israel.
My last name Falk was derived from
an early eighteenth century Polish immigrant who came to Hamburg speaking Polish
as well as Yiddish. He was designated “the Polak” by the German Jews. The
three letter Pay, Lamed, Kuf are Hebrew for Polak and made Falk in German.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).