Common Jewish, German and North-American Surnames Explained

I just had to share this fascinating information about the most common Jewish surnames by Bennett Muraskin with you. But before I proceed any further I need to point out that many of the names Muraskin refers to as “Jewish” such as Schmidt, Bayer, Weber, Ackerman and Snider, (which could have been a prominent “white shoe” law firm that refused to hire Jews back in the 1940s and ’50s, but isn’t ), are also common names in Germany, North America and in other English-speaking countries around the world. In other words, there’s no reason to believe that the names Muraskin refers to as Jewish were or are now used exclusively by Jews.

In his Slate article, Muraskin comments on the history of Jewish surnames and then provides the origin and meaning (etymology) of hundreds of common Jewish surnames. Here is a quick list of famous Americans (and a few fictional characters, just for fun) whose surnames are mentioned in Muraskin’s article (followed by the meaning of their surnames in parentheses): Senator Joe Lieberman (lion or from the tribe of Judah), songwriter Irving Berlin (from Berlin), Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (from Frankfurt, Germany), scientist Albert Einstein (mason), folk singer Art Garfunkel (diamond merchant), Brooklyn Dodgers’ slugging center-fielder Duke Snider (tailor), Jerry Seinfeld’s” manic friend, Cosmo Kramer (shopkeeper), “The Odd Couple’s” fastidious Felix Unger (from Hungary), comic actor Adam Sandler (shoemaker), prominent Canadian tycoon whose family owned a leading liquor company for generations, Edgar Bronfman (distiller), music/entertainment tycoon David Geffen (wine merchant) and rock ‘n roll producer Phil Spector (school inspector).

In this post I will provide a brief summary of Muraskin’s Slate article. Let’s start with a little history. Jews living in Eastern Europe didn’t have “last names” until they were compelled to do so by the countries in which they lived–a process that began in the 17th century and ran through the 19th century. Until that time, they were known as, e.g., “Isaac son of Abraham” or “Sarah daughter of Rachel.” When  compelled to take surnames, many Jews chose names that memorialized: their fathers’ or mothers’ names; the name of the town their family came from, their occupation, the name of a tribal or local animal or the name of a tree or flower prominent in their neighborhood. Here’s a quick summary of the different kinds of names they chose, complete with examples.

Patronymic Names: A common source of Jewish surnames was the father’s name. Names like Mendelson (Mendel’s son) or Abramowitz (Abraham’s son) reflected this tradition.

Matronymic Names: Many Jewish surnames memorialized the family’s mother. Names like Gold or Goldman referred to the mother’s name, Golda (in effect Golda’s children), Pearl, Pearlman or Perlman referred to the mother’s name, Pearl (in effect, Pearl’s children), ditto for Glick, Glickman or Gluck (in effect, Gickl’s children).

Place Names: Many Jewish surnames indicated where the family came from. Here are a few examples: Heller (from Halle, Germany), Frankfurter (from Frankfurt, Germany), Rappoport (from Porto, Italy), Pinsky (from Pinsk, Russia), Gordon (from Grodno, Lithuania), Bloch (foreigner), Unger (from Hungary), Weiner or Weinberg (from Vienna), Horowitz (from Horovice in Bohemia), Oppenheimer (from Austria)

a) Craftsmen: Stein or Steiner (jeweler), Fleishman (butcher), Sandler (shoemaker), Goldstein (goldsmith), Ackerman (plowman), Spielman (musician), Schmidt (blacksmith), Miller (miller), Wasserman (water dealer)

b) Merchants: Kaufman (merchant),  Wechsler (money changer), Zuckerman (sugar merchant), Garfinkel/Garfunkel (diamond merchant), Kramer, (shopkeeper),

c) Occupations Related to Clothing: Snider or Schneider (tailor), Weber (weaver), Kirshner or Kushner (furrier)

d) Medical/Health Occupations: Aptheker (druggist), Feldsher (surgeon)

e) Occupations Related to Alcoholic Beverages: Bronfman (distiller), Weiner (winemaker), Geffen (wine merchant)

f) Religious occupations: Cantor or Singer (cantor), London (scholar), Resnick or Reznik (ritual slaughterer), Spector (inspector of schools) Rabin or Rabinowitz (rabbi or son of the rabbi)

Personal Traits: Fried or Friedman (happy), Krauss (curly hair), Roth (red hair), Schwartz (black hair or dark complexion), Stark (strong), Springer (lively), Gross or Grossman (big), Klein or Kleinman (small), Scharf or Scharfman (smart)

Hebrew Names: The two most important groups of Hebrew Names derive from two leadership “families” you had to be born into: Cohen (the priestly class), whose contemporary surnames are: Cohen, Cohn, Kahn, and Kaplan,  and Levi (the class of religious functionaries) whose contemporary surnames are: Levy, Levine, Levitt, Levenson and Lewinsky

Animal Names: Adler (eagle); Lieb, Liebowitz, Lefkowitz or Loeb (lion); Hirsch, Hirschfield, Hart or Hertz (dear or stag); Taub or Taubman (dove); Wolf, Wolfson or Wolfenson (wolf); Baer, Berman, Berk, or Berkowitz (bear); Einhorn (unicorn)

Nature Names: Applebaum (apple tree), Mandelbaum (almond tree), Kirshbaum (cherry tree), Rose or Rosen (rose), Bloom (flower), Wald/Vald (woods)

Hebrew Acronyms or Contractions: Baron* (son of Aaron), Katz (righteous priest), Sachs/Saks (descended from martyrs), Segal (second-rank Levite)

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about the meaning and significance of some of names Muraskin identified as Jewish, but many which are also common in Germany, North American and in English-Speaking countries throughout the world. If you enjoyed this summary, please click on the link I have provided above to read the entire Slate article, which contains a lot more examples than I’ve been able to fit into this summary.

*for example ben (son of) Aaron contracts to Baron.