Origin of Jewish Last Names

August 19th, 2013

I am really enjoying “History of the Jews” by Paul Johnson. It’s remarkable how thorough the book is, stretching from Abraham to modern times. This history of  Ashkenazi Jewish surnames  is fascinating.

Indeed, the impact of these Jew-reforms, Judenreformen, and Edicts of Toleration, Toleranzpatent, was often spoilt by the spirit in which they were administered by bitterly hostile petty officials who feared that Jews would soon be after their jobs. For instance, an Austrian law of 1787 compelled Jews to adopt German-sounding first and family names. While Sephardi Jews had long since adopted the Spanish practice of family names, the Ashkenazis had been very conservative, still following the antique custom of using their personal, plus father’s personal, name, and in the Hebrew-Yiddish form—Yaakov ben Yitzhak, for example. Hebrew-sounding names were now usually forbidden and the bureaucrats produced lists of ‘acceptable’ names. Bribes were necessary to secure ‘nice’ family names, derived from flowers or precious stones: Lilienthal, Edelstein, Diamant, Saphir, Rosenthal. Two very expensive names were Kluger (wise) and Fröhlich (happy). Most Jews were brutally lumped by bored officials into four categories and named accordingly: Weiss (white), Schwartz (black), Gross (big) and Klein (little). Many poorer Jews had unpleasant names foisted on them by malignant clerks: Glagenstrick (gallow’s rope), Eselkopf (donkey’s head), Taschengregger (pick-pocket), Schmalz (grease), Borgenicht (don’t borrow), for example. Jews of priestly or levitical descent, who could claim names like Cohen, Kahn, Katz, Levi, were forced to Germanize them: Katzman, Cohnstein, Aronstein, Levinthal and so on. A large group were given places of origin: Brody, Epstein, Ginzberg, Landau, Shapiro (Speyer), Dreyfus (Trier), Horowitz and Posner.109 The pain of this humiliating procedure was not lessened by the knowledge that the government’s main object in imposing it was to make Jews easier to tax and conscript.

Purportedly, my ancestor’s last name was Blechman, but it was changed at Ellis Island in 1899 when my great grandfather came to the United States.