By Harriet P. Gross
With yearly summer Shakespeare festivals starting up again, I start thinking, “What’s in a name?” Most particularly, in a Jewish surname?
For hundreds of years, when people lived in isolated small groups, nobody had a last name. Who needed one? Adam and Eve didn’t; neither did their children or grandchildren. When there were more people, they were often identified by some outstanding personal feature, like red hair (Roth means red, so today’s Rothman probably had a red-headed male ancestor way back when); by location of home (Kirk means church, so someone with that name came from a family that once lived near one); especially by whose sons or daughters they were. Every culture and ethnic group has a prefix or suffix to form this kind of name: Spanish, de; Italian, di; Hebrew, bar or bat; Arabic, ibn; Irish, O’; Scottish, Mc; Icelandic, dotter; and so on.
We Jews still have lots of these today: Jacobson, Levinson, Mendelsohn, etc.
Jews in Austria, Russia and Poland were ordered to take last names as far back as 200 years ago, mainly to make sure they’d pay their taxes; some of our families have had the same last names since then! Some who originated in France, Anglo-Saxon areas and Iberia — home of Sephardic Jewry — have names dating to the 16th century.
Names describing the physical characteristics of heads of households, or their occupations, have stayed with families for years, like these: Hoch = tall; Klein = small; Shein = good-looking; Schwartz and Weiss = black and white, maybe dark-haired or dark-complexioned, blond or fair-skinned, respectively; Kurtz = short; Gross = large. Since that’s my name, I’m extremely conscious that it and many others also belong to people who aren’t Jewish in the least. (Remember: Hitler had a prime Nazi with what we’re prone to consider a very Jewish name: Alfred Rosenberg — who, ironically, was a chief proponent of the “Master Race” myth!)
However, there’s no mistaking the true Jewishness in the names Cohen and Levi, or variations of both; the first indicates that someone, somewhere, was a priest or perhaps later, a rabbi, while the second denotes a Temple servant of some kind. And be sure to ask any Cantors you know if they can (still) sing!
Other occupational names abound. Schmidt is the same as Smith; both always indicate the making of something: Goldsmith or Goldschmidt might have a history in jewelry; Cooperschmidt or Coopersmith may have preceded the folks who fashioned Revere Ware’s copper-clad pots and pans (but — careful! Cooper can also be a barrel!). The English word is wright, as in Boatwright, Cartwright, Housewright and the like (this is, by the way, the reason that a person who writes plays is a playwright, not a playwrite!); macher is the German.
Holtzman is someone who has a woodworking background, while Eisenman works with iron. And a Fisher (or Fischer) is just that. Schuster and Schneider are German and/or Jewish equivalents of Shoemaker and Taylor; purely Jewish is Malamed or its many variable spellings, always indicating a teacher.
When I was a youngster and met for the first time my distant cousins the Hanovers, I thought that was the most unusual Jewish name I’d ever heard. I didn’t know then how many modern names identify the cities and countries where people’s ancestors once lived. Think of Berlin or Berliner, Danziger, Oppenheimer, Breslau or Breslauer, Mannheim, Krakow or Crakoff, Warsaw. I guess when I was a kid who knew nothing of German geography, I probably thought folks called Hamburger or Frankfurter were named for meaty things to eat!
Now, a bit more about those “taxing” names: At certain times, and in certain places, Jews were allowed to pick the names they wanted — if they could pay for them. Money talked, and sometimes bought Gluck (luck), Rosen (roses), Lieber (lover), Koenig (king) or maybe even better, Koenigsberg (the king’s mountain). Cheaper names might have some relationship to a geographic location, like just plain Berg, or Wasserman (someone living near water), or Kirsch (there’s Kirk — church again, in a more Jewish form).
But someone who couldn’t afford anything was in trouble: He got an assigned name, usually something not very pretty. How about Kocker (a chopper)? Or Esel (a donkey)? Don’t know anyone with those names? That’s because those families got rid of them as soon as they could!
But how about this one: Ochs (an ox)? At least one family that got it, kept it. And despite this, they hit the headlines in America — as owners of the New York Times!
By Harriet P. Gross