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The Meaning of Some Common Jewish Last Names

The Meaning of Some Common Jewish Last Names

Some of these will surprise you.

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Last names are a relatively new phenomenon.  In ancient times, many people were known by their first name only.  Jews often added the names of their fathers or their mothers to their names, and still do today in religious situations, being called by their name “ben” (son of) or “bat” (daughter of) their parent’s name.  Jews descended from the priestly groups of Cohens and Levis sometimes note this status in their name; indeed, variations of “Cohen” and “Levi” are the most common Jewish last names today.

Within the Jewish community, widespread adoption of last names was first seen after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, when many Jewish families adopted the names of their family’s hometowns as a surname.  The last name of the famous singer Joan Baez, who is Jewish, for instance refers to the Spanish town of Baza.   Baruch Spinoza evoked the name of Espinosa, a town in Spain from where his ancestors hailed.  Many other Jews gained place-based surnames two hundred years later, when the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II decreed that his subjects adopt last names; the custom was seen at the time as modern.  

Here is a list of some common Jewish last names and their meanings. Some of these might surprise you!

Abrams: from the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who moved from what is today Iraq to Israel

Abramson: a patronymic name (from one’s father) meaning son of Abraham

Becker: Germanic name for baker, refers to an ancestor who was a Jewish baker

Blau: meaning blue, this name reflects the popularity of colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Blum: from the Jewish woman’s name Bluma, meaning “flower” in Yiddish

Cantor: one who sings in a synagogue (Chazzan in Hebrew)

Cohen: from the priestly caste who served in the Jewish Temple in ancient times

Cooperman: Cooper is a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel, meaning Jacob

Diamond: this name reflects the popularity of using beautiful gems as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Ehrlich: a name bestowed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire meaning “honest”

Eisen: meaning “iron”, it was a popular choice for Austrian Jews

Elkayim: this Middle Eastern Jewish name refers to a family profession and means tentmaker

Fingerhut: from the Yiddish word for “thimble”, this name refers to an ancestor who was a tailor

Fishman: this name means fish-seller, and refers to a family’s profession

Gelb: Like Geller, this name means yellow in Yiddish, and was often given to people with light hair

Geller: Yiddish for yellow, this name was often given to people with lighter or reddish hair

Gold: many German-speaking Jews adopted the names of precious metals, like gold, as names

Goldberg: this name refers to the towns of Goldberg in Germany and/or in Poland, both once home to Jewish communities.  The name means “golden town”.

Goldman: a popular choice among Austrian Jews for its beautiful connotation “gold” and “man”

Goldschmidt: this Germanic name refers to an ancestor who worked as a goldsmith

Green: adopting colors as surnames was popular among Austro-Hungarian Jews

Greenberg: referring to the towns of Grunberg in Germany and Poland, both once home to Jewish communities

Hakimi: this Persian surname is derived from the Arabic “Hakim” meaning wise

Horowitz: referring to the town of Horovice in the Czech Republic, once home to a Jewish community

Kaplan: a Germanic form of Cohen, the priestly workers who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Katz: acronym of “Kohen Tzedek”, or “righteous Cohen”, one who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Kauffman: a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel (meaning Jacob) plus the German for man

Koppelman: derived from Koppel, a Yiddish nickname for Jacob, plus the German suffix “man”

Koval: this Slavic name refers to an ancestor who was a blacksmith

Kravitz: this name recalls an ancestor’s occupation, and is a Slavic version of the word tailor

Leib: meaning lion, this name refers to the Jewish name Yehuda, who was compared to a lion (Gen. 49:9)

Levi/Levy: of the Tribe of Levi, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron; members worked in the Temple

Levin: derived from Levi – members of the Tribe of Levi who served in the Temple in Jerusalem

Lieberman: a nickname adopted by some Jewish families, meaning “dear man”

Maggid: from the Hebrew for teaching, refers to an ancestor who was a scholar and teacher

Margolis: meaning “pearl” in Hebrew, it often reflects a mother’s first name

Maze: an acronym – “M’zera Aharon Hakohen” – from the seed of Aaron the High Priest

Melamed: from the Hebrew for teacher, referring to an ancestor who was a teacher

Mizrahi: meaning “Easterner” in Hebrew, this name refers to families from the Middle East

Nudel: meaning needle, this name reflects an ancestor’s occupation as tailor

Perlman: husband of Perl (a common Jewish woman’s name in Eastern Europe)

Portnoy: this name refers to an occupation – it means “tailor” in Russian

Rabin: from the Hebrew word Rabbi, this name could refer to a rabbinic ancestor

Rabinowitz: a Slavic name meaning “son of Rabbi”

Rivkin: a matronymic (deriving from one’s mother) name, from Rebecca

Rivlin: derived from the name Rebecca, the Jewish matriarch who married Isaac

Roth: meaning red, this name reflects the popularity of colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Rothschild: this prominent family’s name pre-dates the forced adoption of surnames, and refers to the “red sign” (the meaning of the name) that graced the family’s home

Sas: an acronym of “sofer stam,” a writer of religious texts

Sasson: a matronymic name (derived from one’s mother) meaning Shoshama, “rose” in Hebrew

Sebag: this name refers to the profession of a long-ago ancestor, it means dyer

Schechter: from the Hebrew for butcher, one who slaughters animals according to Jewish law

Schneider: a Germanic name meaning tailor, reflecting one’s ancestor’s profession as tailor

Schreiber - from the Hebrew “sofer”, a writer of religious texts

Schwartz: this means black – many German speaking Jews adopted colors as surnames

Segal: a common name for members of the tribe of Levi, Segal is an acronym – “Segan Lekehunah”, or “second to the Cohen”, referring to working in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem

Shapiro: referring to the town of Speyer, in Germany, once home to a Jewish community

Singer: referring to an ancestor who sang in a synagogue as a cantor

Shamash: reflecting an ancestor’s occupation, this means one who worked in a synagogue

Shulman: “shul” means synagogue in Yiddish – this name was adopted by some caretakers of synagogues as a surname

Soros: from the Hebrew name Sarah, meaning “princess”

Stern: meaning “star”, many Austrian Jews thought this a beautiful name to choose

Weiss: meaning white, this name reflects the practice of adopting colors as surnames among German-speaking Jews

Weinberg: referring to any of various places in Europe which once were home to thriving Jewish communities, including the region of Mt. Weinberg in Westphalia, Germany, or towns named Weinberg in Germany, the Czech Republic or Poland

Wexler: Germanic form of moneychanger, one of the occupations to which Jews were restricted.

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Visitor Comments: 18

(16) Anonymous, July 20, 2017 5:53 PM

Surname Bass?

I've never seen anyone speak of the surname Bass or Bas, which is a fairly common Jewish name. My grandfather came from Belya Tserkov, Ukraine and said the name was originally Bas with a Cyrillic 's' type marking under the s. Immigration thought it was Bass. He said that marking meant it was pronounced Bazh. How does Bass or Bas fit into the names? Thank you

(15) Tsvi Gold, July 20, 2017 4:40 PM

Names were imposed, not adopted!

Mark Twain, in 1899, documented the abusive source of surnames: "In Austria the renaming was merely done because the Jews in some newly acquired regions had no surnames, but were mostly named Abraham and Moses, and therefore the tax-gatherer could not tell t'other from which, and was likely to lose his reason over the matter. The renaming was put into the hands of the War Department, and a charming mess the graceless young lieutenants made of it. To them a Jew was of no sort of consequence, and they labelled the race in a way to make the angels weep. As an example, take these two: Abraham Bellyache and Schmul Godbedamned.—Culled from "Namens Studien," by Karl Emil Franzos." From "Concerning the Jews", published Harper's monthly, 1899. This essay was both a civilly critical and yet admiringly praise-containing piece as Sam Clemens [Twain] produced, especially given his frank and often dark observations on almost everything else. Many of us, especially ashkenazim, had surnames that were imposed, not adopted. The adoption of precious-metal and gemstone names happened to many of the poorest among us, similarly for irony or harassment, despite a small minority of such actually participating in trades involving such rich items. Your article touched on none of that, but that's a significant part of the story. See, https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Concerning_the_Jews for source text. (This essay was followed up with a supportive apology regarding "members of the tribe" participating in national armies, ["Jew as soldier"] for both north and south, despite (as he moved) internal hostility to their presence in units despite honorable service.) That story, of surnames imposed, needs telling, too.

(14) Susan Saltzman, July 20, 2017 4:16 PM

1) Joan Baez is not Jewish.

2) "kaufen" is "to buy" in German
"kaufmann" means "merchant" or "businessman"

(13) Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz, July 20, 2017 3:52 PM

Goldwater

Goldwater from Goldwater was imposed as an insult by an official for an insufficient bribe. Barry Goldwater was an example

Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz, July 20, 2017 5:53 PM

Fix typo

Sorry for the typo Goldwater is from the German Goldwasser.

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