Everyone has a family name, aside for the Afghan official quoted every once in a while in the newspaper “who goes by a single name.” Surnames denote yichus, a connection, a brotherhood of sorts.
But it wasn’t always like that. Until relatively recently, only royal families had surnames. Even when government decrees amended a common name to extended clans, it took another couple hundred years before people embraced it as an integral part of their identity.
For Jews, estimates Alexander Beider, considered a world expert on the subject, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the family name became a preferred moniker, he told the Yated in an interview.
Beider, 58, was born in Moscow in1963, and grew up in Communist Russia where teaching of religion was frowned upon. He picked up bits and pieces about Yiddishkeit from his grandmother while he devoted his studies to his twin passions, math and surnames — Ashkenazi surnames, to be exact.
Beider moved to Paris shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse and received two PhDs from Sorbonne University, one in mathematics and another in Jewish Studies. His dissertation was on the topic of “Names of Ashkenazi Jews: history and migrations from the 11th to the 19th centuries.”
Since 1993, he has published a series of dictionaries on Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire, Prague, Poland, and Galicia, as well as two dictionaries of first names. His two-volume edition of the Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire, published in 2008, contains 74,000 names.
Beider’s work has greatly aided the work of genealogy, or the science of researching family history. He, along with engineer Stephen Morse, developed an algorithm used in many genealogical sites to match phonetic spellings between English and Slavic names with similar pronunciation but differences in spelling. For his work, he was awarded in 2004 the prize of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies “for outstanding contribution to Jewish genealogy.”
Beider has a second expertise, on the origins of the Yiddish language. The second part of the interview, on that topic, will be published next week be”H.
Mathematics is not my forte, so I’m not going to ask you about that. But regarding Jewish studies, what made you go into that? What is your background?
My interest in Judaica studies was 100% due to my grandmother, who was the only Litvak in the family. She was a librarian by profession and had some books at home, and she would teach me the basics of Jewish history. Her father was a klei kodesh and her brother was at some point the only person in Dnipropetrovsk, which is in Ukraine, who was able to read Hebrew prayers in the synagogue during the Soviet time. So ours was really the only family that was interested in Jewish history and Jewish rituals.
When I was already an adult, I learned from one of my relatives that my grandmother’s father, was a worker in the chevra kaddisha and was a very learned person. So my grandmother grew up with Jewish culture and she taught me many things, and I became interested in Jewish history when I was very small.
So you grew up surrounded by books, by intellectuals.
Yes. But only from my grandmother’s side. My other three grandparents — my grandfather from my mother’s side and my two grandparents from the Beider side — were from Ukraine and were not interested in scholarship at all. But it’s to them, I think, that I owe my interest in music. So it’s really two totally different cultures, and I very much like both of them. But from the point of scholarship, it’s from the Litvishe part.
Were your other grandparents chassidim?
They never told me about that.
You have two interests as part of your Judaic studies — you’ve written extensively about both family names and the origin of the Yiddish language. On the subject of family names, there are a lot of myths surrounding this, a lot of legends about how people got different names. I’m hoping you can give me the facts. If you look at the times of the Rishonim, who mostly lived in France, Spain, and North Africa, most of them had surnames.
Maimonides had no surname.
Right. But you have others such as Rashi who was Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki, and the Rashba who was Rav Shlomo ibn Aderes. The Ritva was Rav Yom Tov ibn Asevillia, the Raavad was Rav Avrohom ibn David.
Maimonides lived too early for this, but by the 13th and 14th centuries almost all Sephardim started to use a surname. Maimonides lived in the 12th century, and then it was still exceptional to have surnames. But still, we have an example of Rav Chasdai ibn Shaprut, who lived in Spain in the 10th century — his father’s name was not Shaprut, so for him it was a surname. This may have been based on the Arabic model of a patronym, when you add a prefix or suffix to a father or ancestor’s name and it becomes the family name.
Another example of this would be the Chovos Halevavos, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda, who lived in Moorish Spain in the 11th century. Was a surname in those days sort of like an honorific which only royalty or respected members of society had? You see some of these ancient kings — even kings today — and they have like 10 or 15 names.
Up to a certain time, yes. Certainly, people who started to use hereditary family names did so to honor their ancestors. It was a way to show off your yichus. Later on, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries, almost everybody started to use surnames. But initially, surnames were only used by nobility and aristocrats.
And this is not specifically a Jewish concept. In Christian Europe, for example, only aristocratic families used surnames during their 10th and 11th centuries. It was only many centuries later that ordinary people started to use this.
For Ashkenazi Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, this was clearly not a common practice. The only Jews who had surnames before the government forced Jews to adopt them were the rabbinic dynasties. That is how the Shapira family name came about, or Katzenellenbogen, Yaffe, Ginzburg, Halpern, Luria, Shor, Margulies — all these were famous rabbinic dynasties. Aside for them, until the end of the 18th century, Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe had no surnames. Surnames until then were really a kind of label of big yichus.
By the time surnames reached Eastern Europe via government fiat, I imagine it was for tax purposes, dollars and cents. The government wanted to better keep track of who was paying their taxes and who wasn’t. Am I right?
Yes. The first law requiring everyone to have a surname was proclaimed in 1787 by the Hapsburg emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It came very quickly after the first partition of Poland, when suddenly the largest number of Jews in the Hapsburg Empire were in Galicia, in Poland. Before that time, all Jewish life in Eastern Europe was managed internally — the kehillos were totally autonomous. Taxes were paid by the kehillah, which decided on its own how much each person paid; the government did not levy taxes on individual people.
Gradually, all countries in Eastern Europe decided that total Jewish autonomy was not good from a practical point of view. First of all, the government suspected that Jews were hiding the real number of residents in order to lower the amount of taxes. The data on every census of that time showed a very low population of Jews, in comparison to how many were estimated according to other data.
At the same time, countries were already considering the possibility of military service. So in regard to both taxes and military service, they are almost impossible to conduct without family names, because you cannot recognize a person just according to their Jewish name — the first name ben the first name of the father. So in Eastern Europe, it is clear that surnames came from the emperor, who passed laws to force Jews to be assigned family names very quickly.
I am a descendant of the Vilna Gaon. It’s interesting that his name was Eliyohu and his father’s name was Shlomo Zalman. He did not have a last name, but on official tax records they have his name is Eliasz Zelmanowiz, which in Russian means “son of Zalman.” Does this mean that the government assigned names based on the father’s name?
Yes. Actually, there are some official Polish documents from even before the forced surname law which call Jews by their first name followed by the patronymic. So someone who was named, for example, Mendel the son of Berke, would be Mendel Berkovich. Still, Mendel’s son would not be Berkovich, but Mendelovich, so it wasn’t a real family name.
At that time, Polish Catholics already had surnames. A way of calling people in official documents was with two names, the first name and second name. So with Catholics, the second name was the surname, but for Jews they used patronymics, the first name and the father’s name.
That was the official pattern of how to call Jews, until the partition of Poland occurred and surnames became the law.
One thing I noticed that is, I think, unique among all cultures, and that is that Jewish family names have many colors — Schwartz for black, Weiss for white, Green, Brown or Braun, Blau for blue, Roth for red, Geller for yellow. I recently interviewed someone who studied Spanish surnames and she says the same is with Spanish Jewish names, such as Blanco for white. In America, though, common names are either Smith or Johnson or Williams. A lot of Irish names are patronymic — McDonald means son of Donald, MacArthur is son of Arthur — but you don’t have that many colors. The difference is striking.
When discussing names derived from colors, we need to distinguish between names that were assigned in Galicia after 1787, which were really assigned by Christian clerks, and names which were assigned in the Russian Empire, which includes Poland and the Pale of Settlement.
In the Russian Empire, names were usually assigned internally by the Jewish community, not by Christian clerks. They were either chosen by people themselves or assigned by the Jewish administration, the kohol. Therefore, in the Pale of Settlement, there were no Greens or Blaus. Instead, typical names were Schwartzman, Weissman — or Schwartz and Weiss — Roitman, or Reytman for Litvaks. All these names are quite obvious — they chose the color of their hair. This is why you have Schwartz, Weiss, and Roit, but no Green or Blau, since people do not have green or blue hair.
Besides for hair color, names could also correspond to skin complexion. So if someone was blond or white or had a dark face, they would receive a name that resembled that.
But in Galicia, there were many Green family names — Gruen, actually, in German — and many Blaus, although Schwartz, Roth, and Weiss were also very common. This indicates that names were assigned by Austrian Christian clerks. They needed to assign hundreds of thousands of new names to the Jews of Galicia during a short amount of time, so they invented several patterns that would allow them to assign many names in the same place simultaneously. Colors was a very useful way. You just have to take the rolls and say, this one will be black, this one will be white, this one will be brown, and this one will be yellow.
This is similar to how they name different variants of Covid based on the Greek alphabet — Delta, Omicron, and so on.
They invented several patterns for assigning names. Besides for colors, some clerks used different gemstones, plants, birds, or fish. The most common pattern that they created was to combine two roots, like Goldenberg, Silberstein, Rosenthal, or Schwartzberg.
It is possible that these patterns were invented by the imperial administration in Vienna; we don’t know for sure. But when I see how the same exact names were assigned in a bunch of different places, it seems that they had instructions that would help them assign names fast. They had to name thousands of Jews very quickly, and they wanted all these names to be German. So they just picked words out of the dictionary. Colors is one of several categories, but it’s not the only one.
This is also why in the United States, you won’t find a surname like Black or White, because they were able to choose their names on their own. And in Germany, Schwartz, Roth, and Weiss are very common names for Christians, because they correspond to skin complexion or to hair color. And of course, there are not many Blaus and Gruens.
All these names you mentioned — were they immediately put to use? In other words, if someone was assigned the name Goldfish, did they start identifying themselves as Mr. Goldfish right away, or it took dozens or even hundreds of years until they finally adopted it?
Yes, it took time — at least in Galicia, which I studied in some detail, since this was the first area where Jews from Eastern Europe received surnames. The law was passed in 1787, when they began using the names in official documents. The clerks would write down their new surnames, but people in their everyday life — I’m not even speaking about religious life — would ignore the name. They just considered them to be kind of an administrative label.
If you look at Jewish cemeteries, there are no surnames on tombstones at that time. Surnames started to be commonly used on tombstone inscriptions only during the second decade of the 20th century, or 130 years after the names were assigned. I know of some examples of Jews who emigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century, and when they went to apply for a passport, they were not even sure what their family name was. They learned what their names were when they received their passports. But until the last 100 years or so, they totally ignored it.
This is why chassidic leaders are almost never called by their last names or have their last names on tombstones. In Karlin, for example, the name is Perlov, but they don’t have them on the tombstones. The last name of the rebbes of Gur is Alter, but nobody would call their rebbe by a last name that was assigned by a Christian clerk. So this was something totally marginal.
Even if we look at Yiddish literature — I took the autobiography of Sholom Aleichem, who was an author from Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century, and made a statistical calculation of how he refers to different people by name. And there, there was just one person, the richest merchant of the shtetl, who was called by his surname. With everyone else, including his own father or grandfather, he never used surnames, just first names, patronymics, and nicknames. We see that at the beginning of the 20th century, Jews was still ignoring surnames.
Very interesting. Mr. Beider, what is the origin of your name?
Beider is a Ukrainian Yiddish name which means “bathkeeper.” In Litvishe Yiddish, it is Bedder, not Beider. Bathkeeper was certainly the occupation of one of my ancestors.
What is the earliest reference for a surname among Ashkenazim?
For Ashkenazim, the oldest surname is Luria.
Rashi’s descendants took that name, I think about five or six generations later. I am descended from Rashi through the Luria family; in fact, Rashi’s great-great-grandson was someone named Rav Yochonon Luria. I’m not named after him, though.