You can't tell if somebody is Jewish from their surname
Children are traditionally named for a deceased relative
Most Jews have a Hebrew name for ritual purposes
The Hebrew name is in the form Name son of or daughter of Father
Historically, Jews did not have permanent family surnames at all. Within the
Jewish community, we used patronymics, such as David ben (son of) Joseph or
Miriam bat (daughter of) Aaron. Names in that form are still used in
synagogue and in Jewish legal documents such
as the ketubah (marriage contract), but are rare
outside of the religious context. See the discussion of
Hebrew Names below.
Family names began to gain popularity among
Sephardic Jews in Spain, Portugal and Italy as
early as the 10th or 11th century, but did not catch on among the
Ashkenazic Jews of Germany or Eastern Europe
until much later.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot tell whether people are Jewish from
their surnames. According to the Jewish
Avotaynu, the third most common surname
among Jews in the United States is Miller, which is also one of the most common
names among gentiles. In college, I knew a McGuire who was Jewish and a Kline
who was not. The Jewish people can take pride in the accomplishments of artist
Camille Pissarro, boxer Daniel Mendoza, actor Hank Azaria and pop idol Paula
Abdul, all of whom are Jewish but whose names don't sound Jewish to most
Americans. We cannot, however, take credit for people with such Jewish-sounding
names such as rocker Bruce Springsteen, pop singer Avril Lavigne, songwriter
George M. Cohan, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger or basketball
player Julius Irving ("Dr. J").
A lot of the surnames that sound Jewish to Americans are simply German names
such as Klein, Gross or Grossman, Weiss or Weisman, Rosen, Schwartz or
Schwartzman, Segal, Siegal or Sagal, and anything that contains berg, stein,
man, thal or bluth. German surnames are very common among American Jews, and
many people seem to have inferred the converse: if most Jews have German
surnames, then most people with German surnames must be Jews. The reasoning is
appealing on a gut-level but logically flawed. Consider this absurd but
logically identical argument: most Jews have ten fingers, therefore most people
with ten fingers must be Jews.
One reason for the frequency of German names among Jews is a 1787
Austro-Hungarian law. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which controlled a
substantial part of Europe at the time, was the first country in Europe that
required Jews to register a permanent family surname, and they required that
this surname be German. A
copy of the
decree can be found on the Polish-Jewish genealogy website, Shoreshim. This
explains the frequency of German surnames in Western Europe, but it doesn't
explain the frequency of German surnames for Jews in the Russian Empire, where
German surnames for Jews are also common. The frequency of German family names
among Russia may be due to migration from Western Europe.
Russian and Polish surnames are also often assumed to be Jewish surnames, for
example names ending in -vitz, -witz, or -sky. It is commonly believed that
"-sky" is a Jewish surname while "-ski" is not. This spelling difference,
however, seems do have more to do with the source of the surname: Russia or
Poland. The correct spelling of this common surname suffix in Polish is "-ski",
and Poles usually kept that spelling after immigration to America. In Russia,
this suffix is spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet,
and may have been transliterated into English as either -ski or -sky. However,
a Jewish friend of mine who comes from Moscow tells me that in Russia, names
were usually Jewish.
There are really only three surnames that are specifically Jewish in nature:
variations on Cohen, Levy and Israel. These names are derived from tribal
ancestry that were recorded by the Jewish people and recognized in
synagogue with various distinctions.
The surname Cohen comes from kohein, the
Hebrew word for priest, and refers to patrilineal
descendants of Aaron. Variations on this surname
include Cohn, Cahn, Cone, Kohn, Kahn and possibly Katz. Why Katz? I have been
told that it is an acronym of Kohein Tzaddik, which means Righteous Priest, but
is close enough to the German word for "cat" that it could be slipped past
registrars who required German surnames!
The surname Levy comes from the biblical tribe of
Levi, whose descendants the Levites had distinctive
duties in the Temple period. Variations on this
surname include Levin, Levine, Levitt and many others.
Cohen and Levy are the two most common surnames among Jews in the United States
(Miller is third, as mentioned above). Another specifically Jewish surname is
Israel, which is much less common. Jewish thought often divides Jews into three
groups: Kohein, Levy and Israel. Israel basically means the rest of us.
Variations on this surname include Israeli, Yisrael, Yisroel and most notably
Disraeli (the surname of a Jewish-born British Prime Minister and Earl who was
baptized as a child but apparently retained some sense of Jewish identity).
Even these common specifically-Jewish surnames can be misleading, though. The
surname Cohan (as in songwriter George M.) is usually Irish rather than Jewish.
The surname Lavigne (as in singer Avril) is pronounced much like Levine, but it
is a common gentile name among French Canadians.
Jewish Given Names
Among Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Germany and
Eastern Europe), it is customary to name children after a recently deceased
relative. This is a way of honoring the dead and of keeping the dead person's
memory alive. The name given to the child is not always identical to that of
the deceased; it is often changed to reflect the popular names of the time, but
usually retains the sound or at least the first initial. For example, a
grandmother named Elsie might be remembered through a granddaughter named
Elizabeth or Kelsey. A grandfather named Leopold might be remembered through a
grandson named Leonard or Lawrence. Sometimes the change reflects the change in
language from the country where the ancestor was born to the country where the
child was born: a Hungarian-born grandfather named Antal might be remembered
through an American grandson named Anthony. These kinds of changes occur only
in secular names; Hebrew names are usually passed along intact. Many consider
it to be disrespectful to change the Hebrew name. See the discussion of
Hebrew Names below.
It is not unusual for multiple relatives to be named after the same
recently-deceased person. My grandfather Samuel had a first cousin named Samuel
who was born about three years before him. They were probably named for their
uncle, also named Samuel, who was close to the family. Similarly, my
great-uncle Donald had a first cousin named Donald born about two years before
him. Presumably, they were also named for a shared relative that I have not yet
identified. In fact, Jewish genealogists often infer a relationship when they
find two people with the same name (first and last) born within a few years of
When a child is formally named, either at a
bris (circumcision) for boys or in a
synagogue naming ceremony for girls (see Naming a
Child), it is common practice to explain who the child was named for, why
the child was named for that person, and what qualities of that person the
parents would like to see perpetuated in the child.
An old superstition maintains that naming a child after a living relative is
bad luck: the Angel of Death, an easily confused spirit, might take the baby by
mistake when coming for the older relative. It reminds me oddly of the Showtime
series "Dead Like Me" (featuring Jewish actor
Mandy Patinkin), where grim
reapers take souls based on a name written on a Post-It note. Although most of
us don't believe that superstition any more, many Jews still view it as strange
and somewhat arrogant for a father to name a child after himself. In fact, it
is so rare for Jews to name a child after a living relative that a colleague of
mine once declared it "impossible" for there to be a Jewish "Jr." Nevertheless,
this custom has broken down somewhat in recent years. My father is a Jewish
"Jr." and would have made my brother a Jewish "III" if my mother hadn't
objected. My childhood dentist was a Jewish "III" with a son who was a Jewish
There do not seem to be many given names in English that are distinctively
Jewish, other than Israel and variations on it. Certainly, biblical names like
David, Joseph and Michael are popular among Jews, but those names were also
among the top-10 first names overall in the 1990 United States census. For
obvious reasons, names like Christopher, Christine and Jesus are almost unheard
of among Jews and Mary is unusual, but names like Peter and Paul that you would
think of as very Christian are surprisingly common among Jews. Names that were
once thought of as stereotypically Jewish, such as Ira, Irving and Isadore,
were actually attempts to Americanize Hebrew names like Isaac and Israel, and
in any case are quite rare in America today.
Jews living in gentile lands have historically
taken local names to use when interacting with their gentile neighbors. Anyone
with a name that is hard to pronounce or to spell will immediately understand
the usefulness of this! The practice of taking local names became so common, in
fact, that by the 12th century, the rabbis found
it necessary to make a takkanah (rabbinical
ruling) requiring Jews to have a Hebrew name!
Hebrew names are used in prayer in and out of
synagogue and for other religious rituals.
When a person is called up in synagogue for an
aliyah (the honor of reciting a blessing over a
Torah reading), he is called up by his Hebrew
name. The names that appear on a ketubah
(marriage contract) or on a get (writ of divorce)
are Hebrew names. When a people are ill and mi shebeirakh prayers are recited
for their well-being, they are identified by Hebrew names. When a deceased
person is remembered through the Yizkor prayers
recited on certain holidays, the Hebrew name is used. Jewish
tombstones sometimes carry the Hebrew name
instead of or side-by-side with the secular name.
A Hebrew name begins with a given name, followed by ben (son of) or bat
(daughter of), followed by the person's father's Hebrew name. If the person is
a kohein (descendant of
Aaron), the name is followed by "ha-Kohein." If
the person is a Levite (descendant of the tribe of
Levi), the name is followed by "ha-Levi." If the person or his father is a
rabbi, some follow the name with "ha-Rav." This
format of naming is seen as early as the Torah
where, for example, Moses' successor Joshua is
repeatedly referred to as Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua, son of Nun). Note that the
surname is not the same from generation to generation:
Abraham's son Isaac
is Yitzchak ben Avraham; Isaac's son Jacob is
Ya'akov ben Yitzchak, and so forth. Moses' Hebrew name would be Moshe ben Amram
ha-Levi (because he is a member of the tribe of Levi but not a descendant of
Aaron), while his brother Aaron would be Aharon ben Amram ha-Kohein (because
Aaron was a priest).
The secular name usually corresponds in some way to the Hebrew name. Sometimes,
the name is exactly the same or an Anglicized version of the same name: David,
Michael or Sarah are as good in Hebrew as they are in English, though they are
pronounced differently. A person with the Hebrew name Yosef would probably have
the English name Joseph and Rivka might be in English Rebecca. Sometimes, the
English name retains only part of the Hebrew name, for example, Aharon might
become Aaron in English, but it might also become Harry or Ronald. Sometimes,
the English name retains only the first letter of the Hebrew name: Pinchas
becomes Philip or Nechama becomes Natalie.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to translate Hebrew names into
English, and indeed, there is no real reason why a person's secular name has to
correspond to the Hebrew name at all.
Some Popular Names in Hebrew and English
Below are ten Hebrew names for each gender that are among the 100 most popular
names in the United States according to the 1990 census (the most recent one
that has first names posted on the census website). Note that some of these
names are not used as names for people in the
Tanakh: Sharon is a place name; Shoshanah is a
flower. Some of these names were more significant in post-biblical literature
or Christian scriptures than in the Tanakh: Elizabeth, Judith and Susanna
Links for Further Study
Looking for a Hebrew name for your baby? Or would you just like to know what a
particular Hebrew name means? Then check out
Hebrew Names. You can
search for names or look them up by category or time period. Names are shown in
both Roman letters (the letters we use in English) and in Hebrew letters, along
with a translation. The site is affiliated with a Hebrew language learning site.
Genealogy: it's not just a hobby; it's an obsession. One of the reasons people
want to know about Jewish names is to help with their research into their
Jewish roots. If you're as obsessed with Jewish genealogy as I am, then you
need to run, don't walk, to JewishGen.
It is a sprawling site and not as well organized as I might like, but it has a
wealth of valuable information about how to research your Jewish roots and many
freely available databases.
And while we're on the subject of genealogy, check out
Avotaynu (the name means "our fathers"),
a journal of Jewish genealogy that has been in business for more than 20 years.
They publish a wealth of useful books to help you with your research. Their
site includes the
Consolidated Jewish Surname
Index, which lets you search for your family names in several dozen
different databases simultaneously.
For more information about genealogy, see the Jewish
Genealogy page on this site.
© Copyright 5765-5771 (2005-2011), Tracey R Rich
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