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Yiddish Club Event Reveals Meanings Behind East European Jewish Family Names

What’s in a Yiddish name? At the Yeshiva University Yiddish Club’s opening event of the year on Tuesday, November 13, students and faculty members got the opportunity to explore this fascinating piece of Jewish history. Titled “A Rosen by Any Other Name: Secrets within East European Jewish Family Names,” the event featured a lively lecture by Dr. Robert Shapiro, a professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College.

Dr. Robert Shapiro explained the origins of Ashkenazic last names at the Yiddish Club’s first event of the academic year.

The origins of their surnames intrigue many Jews, and the names themselves may reveal a wealth of information. “Surnames are cultural, historical, religious and familial artifacts of Jewish life,” said Shapiro, who has published several scholarly works on the Holocaust and other topics in East European Jewish history. “Those family names carry a message about the values, experiences, hopes and ambitions (and even the sense of humor) of previous generations of Jews who probably did not dream about the opportunities that became available to their great, great, great grandchildren in the 21st century.”

According to Shapiro, East European Jews were compelled to adopt surnames between the years 1787 and 1821 by Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Prussian and Polish state authorities. Jews could usually choose their own surnames, but when they declined to do so—some opposed the new law which was part of a series of controversial Enlightenment reforms—officials simply assigned them a surname.

“One of the highlights of the evening for me was when Dr. Shapiro allowed students to ask about their own family names and provided explanations for the names’ origins,” said Yiddish Club president Eli Fenyes ’13YC, a psychology major who studied Yiddish at YU.

Most Jewish names, especially from Austria-Hungary and Prussia, are based on compounds of German words for metals (gold, silver), flora and fauna (e.g. blum means tree), food (birn = pear, apfel = apple), colors (roth = red, weiss = white), topography (berg = mountain), habitation (dorf = village) and other adjectives (klein = small, schon = beautiful). Some German names also have a Jewish subtext—for example, “Rosen” means “baron” or “prince” in Hebrew. However, there are also names with negative meanings (e.g. Affengesicht = monkey face).

Names can also reveal biographical details about families, such as occupation (e.g. Soifer = scribe, Farbiaz = dyer), whether they were priests (Katz is an acronym for “kohen tzedek”) or Levites (e.g. Levi, Levine, Segal), and where they lived. For instance, the actor Woody Allen’s given last name is Konigsberg, which was the Prussian capital.

Some names are derived from male and female first names, plus a suffix—for example, Mendelssohn (from Mendel) and Shifrin (from Shifra).

“The event was amazing,” said Sruly Heller ’14YC, who said it “cut to the heart of what we Ashkenazic Jews take for our names… He gave everyone in the room the ability to trace literally thousands of Jewish names back to their [linguistic] source.”

Fenyes said that future Yiddish Club events, intended for both Yiddish speakers and non-speakers, will hopefully focus on aspects of Yiddish culture, like theater and comedy, as well as on learning the Yiddish language itself.