To begin, it is worthwile to repeat the paragraph found in the "Questions-Answers" section of the present Website :
Many readers are asking whether such or such surname is Jewish or not. From a general point of view, this question has no answer since the same name can be shared by Jews and by non-jews as well. Nevertheless, some surnames are often borne by Jews and other ones rarely. The only serious method consists in building one's family tree until indisputable documents are found. We can try to help you in this task if you join our Genealogical Society.
This paragraph calls for a few nuances and precisions. A few surnames can be considered as Jewish with a very high probability. They are essentially COHEN and LEVY and their variants.
It is well known that the Cohanim were the priests and that this function was transmitted through the males. Since the Hebrew language does not use vowels, each country, each region coined its own variant of this surname. In France, one can find COHEN, CAHEN, CAEN, CAIN, but also COHN, KOHN, KAHN, KANN, KAHANE. In Russia, since the H is pronounced G, one finds KAGAN (and of course the derivative KAGANOVITCH) hence KOGAN or COGAN. In some countries, such as Alsace, COHEN became KATZ, an acronym for Kohen tsedek, "priest of justice" .
LEVY or LEVI is known to be the servant of the priests, but this surname is not spread in all countries as much as for COHEN and there are countries (such as Tunisia) where this name is rare. In a recent paper in our Journal (Revue du CGJ, # 76, October 2003, p.8), the author shows that there exists a MICHEL-LEVY family, in a village of French Jura, which has been Roman catholic for many centuries. Its name probably originates from a nickname. This amusing exception should not hide the truth, LEVY is indeed a Jewish surname. In some German-speaking countries, it is sometimes written LOEWY or LÖWY, although one can wonder whether it is a variant of LOEWE (=Lion). Finally, one of the many hypotheses about the origin of the name WEIL is that it is an anagram of LEVI. Note that LEVI is sometimes replaced by SEGAL which is a shortened version of segan levijeh = prince of levites.
At the other end of the spectrum, one finds surnames which are very common among non-Jews but nevertheless exist among Jews.. Examples are numerous:
names such as RODRIGUEZ (Spain) or RODRIGUES (Portugal) or LOPEZ and LOPES are extremely common. When in the XVth century, the Jews of those countries had to choose between emigration and baptism, those who decided to convert took Spanish or Portuguese surnames, maybe even those of their godfather. Those who emigrated to countries where they could practice their religion, sometimes after decades of Crypto-judaism (Marranism), often kept their Spanish or Portuguese names.
many Jews have Arabic or Berber surnames. Concerning the Berber ones, it is not easy to decide whether we are dealing with Berber tribes which were converted to judaism at least 15 centuries ago or if Jews settling in a Berber region have taken local names, sometimes by translating their Hebrew name. Concerning Arabic names, it is clear that Jewish names have been arabicized. For instance, Jews as well as Moslems are called AMAR, CHEMLA or KALIFA.
we know people called DREYFUS who changed their names to DUMAS or DUPUIS, to avoid negative attitudes attached to the name Dreyfus. Nevertheless, a vast majority of all DUMAS or DUPUIS are non-Jews. Moreover, during WW2, several Jews have adopted war pseudonyms to escape from the Gestapo. After the war, some of them kept these names. Other common names such as LAMBERT, PICARD or BERNARD are also carried by Jews. LAMBERT appeared in Metz in the XVIIIth century. PICARD is a francization of BICKERT and, in the present case, has nothing to do with Picardy. As for BERNARD, it is a franchification of BERR or.BAER, but we come back to this later.
Let us also mention the MILLER in the USA, Polish surnames such as MALY (small), KRAKOWSKI (from Krakow), names carried by nazis such as ROSENBERG etc...All these names are found among Jews but are much more common among non-Jews.
Let us now consider names which are more specifically Jewish
For a very long time, the Jews, with the exception of Cohen and Levy, did not have any family name and were referred to by their father's given name and sometimes also by their grandfather's such as Moses son of Abraham son of Moses.
When they were forced to choose a family name, as was the case in the French Empire in 1808 according to décret de Bayonne, they often adopted their father's given name or sometimes their grandfather's. Hence the very numerous MOYSE, SALOMON, MAYER, LION, GOUDCHAUX, NATHAN....
Such given names becoming surnames are also found all over Europe, e.g. DAVID, MENDEL, JACOB,......
In some North African surnames such as BENSOUSSAN or BOUANICH, it is easy to recognize the old way of naming people since Ben or Bou mean "son of". Many other given names became surnames, such as SAADA or MALEK.
In Slavic countries, filiation is denoted by the suffix Vich or Vicz. Therefore one finds many ABRAMOVICH or ABRAMOVICZ with dozens of spelling variants. In the same way SCHMULEWITZ has a great number of variants. In Romania, these family names end in Vici as in ABRAMOVICI and in Lithuania they end in Vicius as in ABRAMOVICIUS.
In German-speaking countries, the same process gives MENDELSSOHN (=son of Mendel) or JACOBSOHN. But it should not be forgotten that in Protestant countries (Germany, Great-Britain, USA...), biblical given names have been very popular. Therefore JACOB or JACOBSON and similar surnames can quite well be born by Protestants.
In all countries, people of any religion have been referred to by the name of the country, the province, the city, the village or the hamlet they come from.
Jews were often led to emigrate, either because they were persecuted or for economic reasons. Consequently, they often bear geographic names But before stating that such a name is a Jewish name, one should be cautious. For instance, while the Czech politician Artur LONDON did come from a Jewish family, the American writer Jack LONDON did not, as far as we know. Similarly, many Germans, whose ancestors came from Hamburg, are called HAMBURGER, but sadly, few of them today are Jewish.
in Lorraine and Alsace, many names are found corresponding to Jewish communities of western Germany: COBLENCE, WORMS, SPIRE, FOULD and FULDA (from Fulda), OULMAN and ULLMO (from Ulm), .BING (from Bingen), BRISAC (from Breisach) and many more. But one also find names of villages close to Metz, such as ENNERY or DENNERY, SILNY ( from Sillegny), MORHANGE, CREHANGE. More exotic names include POLAC (=Polish) and REICHER (German name of Rzeszow). Even more interesting are the surnames BLOCH and WALLICH, both distortions of Welsch, a German adjective denoting people and countries using a romance language i.e. France and Italy. They are likely to descend from Jewish families expelled from France in the XIIIth or XIVth century and later returned.
More information about these names from Lorraine can be found in Pierre-André MEYER's , "La communauté juive de Metz au XVIIIe siècle", Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1993.
In the Papal States, one finds names such as CAVAILLON, BEAUCAIRE, CARCASSONNE, BEDARRIDES, DIGNE, DELPUGET (from Puget), LUNEL, MILLAU and many others. They are likely Jews expelled from France in the Middle Ages or from Provence when it was united with France.The Papal States became a tolerable shelter for them.
We are left with an enigma, the name CREMIEUX. No known document mention something like "Moïse from Crémieux" which would denote that he comes from the village of Crémieu (Isère). Therefore some people prefer to give an Hevraic origin ("the gardener, the man in charge of trees")
In Sephardic names coming from Spain or Portugal, it is possible to check that quite a number of them are the names of Spanish (FONSECA, ALMEIDA, MOLINA..) or Portuguese (PEREIRA, LAMEIRA...)cities.
In North Africa, one can also find a number of geographical surnames such as COHEN-TANNOUDJI (probably from Tangiers), DARMON (an Algerian place), LEVI-VALENSI (from Valencia in Spain), FASSINA (from Fez), BENSOUSSAN (from Sousse in Tunisia)...
Excepting CREMIEUX, which is still enigmatic, let us signal a few erroneous geographical origins of surnames.. PICARD has nothing to do with Picardy, but comes from BICKERT or BICKHARDT. LYON is not related to the French city of Lyons, but to the Lion of Juda (see below). Finally the family name CAEN does not come from Normandy, since it is one of the spelling variants of CAHEN. As for DREYFUS, its origin is still controversial. According to a recent paper by Denis Ingold (Revue du CGJ #88, 2006, pages 4-6), the name DREYFUS as well as the name TREVES would derive from the French city of Troyes.
We shall now say a few words about kinnuim (plural of kinnui), a very interesting Jewish peculiarity.
The names of Jacob's twelve sons are often used as Jewish given names. It is for instance the case of Juda (=Yehuda), Nephtali, Issachar, and Benjamin. Now, in the Bible (Genesis 49), Juda is compared to a lion. For this reason, the given name Lion is very often used as an équivalent of Juda, it is called a kinnui of Juda. In written documents, the same man can sign indiscriminately Juda or Lion. Eventually, as said previously, these given names become family names LION ou LYON in France, LOEWE in Germany and possibly GARION / GOURION in North Africa.
In the same way, Nephtali was compared to a doe in the Bible. Thereafter, Cerf in French, Hirsch in German, Zvi in Hebrew are kinnuim of Nephtali and later appear as family names CERF, HIRSCH, HERSCH, HERSCHEL. Let us nevertheless note that the famous astronomers and musicians HERSCHEL were not Jews, unless we are wrong. The name ZIBI in North Africa might also be a kinnui.
As Issachar was compared to a donkey, one would expect to find Donkey as a kinnui of Issachar. But the donkey, not being very highly thought of, has been replaced by a bear, Dov in Hebrew, Bär or Baer in German. The corresponding family names are BAER, BER, BERR, BEHR and also BERNHARDT, frenchified into BERNARD. It is well known that the famous actress Sarah BERNHARDT was from a Jewish family.
Finally Benjamin has the wolf as kinnui. In France, the corresponding word loup was sometimes modified in Louis, maybe as an homage to our kings and Jewish families bear the names LOUIS or LOUY. In Germany the given name Wolf and the surnames WOLF or WOLFF are quite common among Jews.
Once more, let us insist on the fact that many of the above-mentioned names, e.g. BERNARD or WOLFF are also found in non-Jewish families.
These four kinnuim are not the only ones. There are numerous instances of equivalencies between a biblical given name and a secular one, quite often by a more or less accurate translation. We can quote Eliakim (God strengthens) translated in German by Gottschalk hence the French surnames GOUDCHAUX, GODECHAUX and in Alsace GOETSCHEL. In the same way, Yekoutiel is transposed into Kosman and eventually in the surnames KAUFFMANN and in French MARCHAND. Menahem (comforter) gave the German MENDEL and the French MANUEL.
James B. Koenig has written an interesting paper on calques,
kinnuim, and couplets that he allowed us to reproduce (click here)
On a similar subject our member Peter Stein has provided us with a table of equivalence of Jewish given names accompanied by a page of comments.
There are relatively few specifically Jewish trade names which became surnames in Ashkenazi circles. At Metz, we find HALPHEN (from the Hebrew Chalfon, money-changer) and BASSE, name of cantors. As can be expected, there are many GOLDSCHMIDT (= goldsmith) and some SILBERSCHMIDT (=silversmith), as they are rather common Jewish crafts. There are a lot of SCHMITT (=smith) but they are a small minority among a great numer of christians bearing this name.
The problem is the same with BAUER (=peasant), a surprising surname for Jews since agriculture has very often forbidden to them. There were quite a number of Jewish tailors hence the name SCHNEIDER. There are also some FISCHER or FISHER, some KRAEMER and KREMER (=grocer) and many others. But these trades are not specifically Jewish, so these surnames are not either.
In North Africa, names of trades or crafts are also found, but most are not specifically Jewish, e.g. BRAMLI (cooper), ATTAL (porter), ASSAYAG (jeweller), HADDAD (smith), KEMOUN ( cumin, hence grocer)....
Surnames Arbitrarily Given
In some countries, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jews were forced to take surnames with a German appearance, and they usually could not choose them. These arbitrary family names have no relationship whatsoever with either the trade or craft, nor the physical description, nor the geographic origin of the person so named. We have already quoted SCHWARZ, WEISS, GROSS, KLEIN, and ROTH. But there are also a long series of names formed with two German roots such as MORGENSTERN, MORGENSTEIN, APFELBAUM, BIRNBAUM, ROSENBERG, ROSENBLUM, ROSENBAUM, WEINBAUM, WEINBERG..... Note that the spelling of these names varies considerably, especially when they transited through Poland or Russia.
For a more extensive study of the Jewish onomastics, here are a few suggestions.
For Ashkenazi names, one can consult several works of Alexandre BEIDER on Jewish names in Poland and Russia (check on the catalog of our library with the author Beider). Pierre-André MEYER's book mentioned earlier gives many details on the names at Metz.
For North African names, it is very beneficial to read Maurice EISENBETH's and Jacques TAÏEB's books published by the CGJ (see section Publications)as well as La saga des familles, les juifs du Maroc et leurs noms, by Joseph TOLEDANO.
On the Web, it is possible to search the origin of a name in the database of Beth Hatefutsoh, for a fee. It is easy to find all the variants of a Jewish name (mainly Ashkenazi) and the corresponding references on the CJSI of Avotaynu. As for the Sephardic names, in a larger sense of the term, i.e. for North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, the Website of Fondation Sepharade yields quite a choice of lists. On sephardim.com, you can find a number of Sephardic names and the corresponding references. In JewishGen, Jeff Malka has also produced his own list of Sephardic names. Let us also mention the detailed study that Lionel Lévy devoted to the Jewish names in Tunisia.