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Last Names

When my grandparents came to America in the early 20th century, they changed their last name from Yosselovitch to Kerry. Now that I’ve become more interested in my roots, it bothers me to have this “made-up” last name, and I’m thinking of changing it back to the original. What do you say?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Actually, all the last names we have are all "made up."

In days of old, and still in synagogues and Jewish communities today, last names were not used. Rather, a person was called by their father's first name. For example, a woman by the name of Sarah would be known as Sarah the daughter of Reuben. For thousands of years this was the tradition, until the last few hundred years.

The first stirrings of change occurred in 1787 in Austria, where a decree demanded that all Jews select a family name. In France in 1808, Napoleon decreed the same. Many of these Jews stuck with Jewish tradition and simply incorporated the father's name – e.g. “son of Moshe" became Moskowitz, or in your case, “son of Joseph” became Yosselovitch.

Others chose a last name based on their locality (e.g. "Ungarisher" – from Hungary), based on vocation (e.g. "Goldshmidt"), or a descriptive appellation (e.g. "Klein" – small).

Those Jews from the priestly tribe often chose a last name that reflected this status – e.g. Cohen or Levy. The name Katz as well is an acronym for “Kohen Tzedek,” righteous priest.

My advice: If you want to change your name to something more Jewish-sounding, pick something meaningful. But don’t do so if it will upset your parents or cause a rift in your extended family.

For more on this, see:

• "These are the Names: Studies in Jewish Onomastics" by Prof. Edwin Lawson

• "The Given Names and Surnames of the Jewish People" by Abraham Stahl

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