What’s in a Name?

Jul 7, 2016
by Jonathan / BKLYN

Especially in the United States, we Jewish folk have a very awkward relationship with our names - our surnames that is. While we enjoy making jokes about “Jewish last names,” like Goldberg, Rothstein, Moskowitz, Singer, etc. (I’ll put money on every reader knowing multiple Goldbergs), and have a vague geographic sense of where they come from, most Jewish people have no idea why their names are what they are, let alone what they mean. This makes sense when you realize we’ve only had surnames for 200 years.


Yes, I too am disappointed there was never a high priest named Melvin Cohen-Weissberg at the Second Temple.


Like in many other cultures, Jewish people would be known as their father’s child simply for purposes of distinction in the community. If Yehudah had a son named Moshe, Moshe would be Moshe ben Yehudah - Moshe, son of Yehudah. Similarly if he had a daughter named Sarah, she’d be Sara bat Yehudah, or maybe even Sarah bat Rivkah, for her mother Rivkah, amongst other women.


Alas, the world can be very confusing if you just relate to people generationally. Moshe? Which Moshe? Moshe ben Daniel or Moshe ben Yehudah? Moshe ben Yehudah? Which Yehudah? Yehudah ben Moshe or Yehudah ben Yehudah? Yehudah ben Yehudah? Wait, which Yehudah?!


This naming tradition still exists in Jewish culture ceremonially. Think about any time you or someone has ever been called up to read Torah. At my Bar Mitzvah, for example, I was called up as Shai ben Nik ve Chanah. Uzelac, a name I wear proudly with its own history, becomes irrelevant on the bimah. Our surnames are not important when we read Torah, the Book of Life; it’s just us and those who gave us life.


A given name is something you keep close to you. For those of you who watch Game of Thrones, you know that to become no one, “a girl must have no name.” Arya Stark must renounce her identity in order to become faceless; invisible. Obviously, Jewish people do not worship “The Many Faced God” and quite oppositely, for us a name is precious because if all else is taken away, a name maintains your humanity and reminds you of your importance in the universe.


Also, they’re damned fascinating.


I’m obsessed with names. Origins, phonetics, history, statistics - the whole nine yards - if I can learn about a name I will investigate all its ins and outs. Discovering the etymology of a mysterious name ranks on my list of pleasurable experiences around the same mark as winning free tickets to Hamilton and surviving a shark attack. Like studying a section of Talmud or composing the perfect first Tinder message, when you invest time and enthusiastic scholasticism into something even as small as one or two words, the payoff is seismically satisfying.


Jewish surnames are my particular fixation, and the dichotomy of importance versus common knowledge in our community it’s a main fuel source. On the one hand we have rich customs about given names, for example that newborns are not to be named for any living relative. On the other hand though, family names (Goldberg, Cohen, Eskinazi) are shrouded in mystery for many Jewish people, especially the Ashkenazim of central and eastern Europe due in thanks to their artificialness. Fun fact: They, like many surnames the world over, are the product of European Imperialism.




As late as the 18th century, the majority of Jewish people did not even use surnames or family names, at least not officially. It was only in the Enlightenment era when the beginnings of modern welfare states and citizenship truly started forming (and when Europe’s rulers decided their Jewish subjects were unutilized tax and military drafting sources) that surnames became not just common, but compulsory, because to be counted in government records, one needed a name for counting.


The name adoption process began during the reign of the Joseph II of the Austrian Empire. After his 1782 Edict of Tolerance, the Hapsburg Emperor quite bluntly stated that his Jewish subjects were to become “more useful and serviceable to the State.” For the taxation and military service, this Edict finally allowed Jewish people to practice their religion freely (as well as own property and take up new trades),and another decree was made five years later requiring the Jewish population of the empire all assume family names to really get the system running efficiently.


Initially in Habsburg territories, names were decided upon with constraints, the big ones being that Hebrew and Yiddish were prohibited. Have you ever wondered why so many Ashkenazi names involve the words Roth (Red), Blau (Blue), Rosen (Pink), Weiss (White), Schwarz (Black), and Green? (Did I just summon the Jewish Power Rangers?) They’re all just colours, mixed and matched with regional suffixes like -berg (mountain), -stein (stone), and -man (to denote occupation or trait). And what about Perl (Pearl), Diamond, Gold, Silber (Silver), Eisen (Iron), and Kupfer (Copper)? They’re precious metals.


Basically, the German Jewish names are all made up from elements, chosen either because of the patriarch’s trade, or quite frankly because it sounds fancy. Protestants were likely taking these names as well, hence why it is a misnomer to completely label the German variants as “Jewish names.” The Austrian government sought assimilation and standardization - the very antithesis to the distinct allegiances that names represent. But how terrible was this for the majority of Jewish people who were harshly disenfranchised, even in their own ghettos?


Think if you were given the chance to start a new life, free of association with your father, your reputation, or your tribe (people named Cohen/Kohen/Kahn/Kahane consider themselves descended from the ancient priestly caste). Would you take it? If someone gave you the option to choose what your family name represented, freeing you from barriers, you might want to associate with Austrian gold, silver, and diamonds too or maybe the fantasy of a beautiful field, a Schönfeld in German, Sheinfeld in Yiddish. Who knew that that poor daydreamer’s descendant would become so wealthy telling jokes one day that he would actually own multiple beautiful fields.  


The limited options, many of which were then copied or reconfigured, are why so many Ashkenazi names are all similar. More principalities and provinces in central Europe as well as kingdoms and empires in the East with large Jewish populations would also adopt “tolerance” and this newfound way to up the tax revenue and military size, including Iran and the Ottoman Empire, where Sfardim lived, many retaining Ladino names that told the story of their exodus from Spain and the places they travelled along the way.


As attitudes towards Jewish people changed in cities and households began to own property and settle, the set list of words was not enforced and Jewish people began taking up names like their Christian neighbours, based on occupation (Butchers might become Fleischer in German Lands, Fleishman in Yiddish lands, and Reznik in Russian ones) or city (Moskow-itz, Berlin-er, Friedland-er). Once this legislation reached the Slavic region - the constantly fluctuating Russian Empire and Poland - the German names were fully Yiddish, with occupation-based names coming from local languages, mostly Russian.




What happened then? Well, almost as soon as Jewish people were forced to take up names, things also started getting worse. Two generations into my mother’s family taking up the name Kawalsky (Blacksmiths, from the Polish/Russian for anvil, koval), my great grandfather left his shtel for South Africa. Unless you were a Rothschild (Red Shield) that took up a name hundreds of years prior through wealth, Jewish people barely had time to settle into their names. Surnames were transliterated and mangled as families moved (by choice or not). I am related to Kawalskys and Kavalskys - the two sides of the same family grew up in the same city with two spellings. “Nu,” my great grandfather likely said to his brother upon their arrival in Cape Town, “what’s in a name? I’m not planning on being a blacksmith like Zeyde!”


That is how the pre-Shoah generation of Jewish people felt about surnames. They’re just a formality. Especially when most Jewish people were illiterate in the English alphabet, the spelling and sound changed when coming to America. The meanings were lost in the careless, linguistic chop-suey of poor Jewish people with little affinity for a foreign concept of identification and government officials with little affinity for Jews.




Recently, I decided to revisit two surnames that have been giving me some grief: Kagan (pronounced Kay-gan) and Kasanoff. They all sounded vaguely similar, but I couldn’t pin down their roots. Many of my sources hypothesized a connection to Turkic word for chief, khagan (related to the same word khan in Gengis Khan) which Jewish people would have come into contact with in Russia through Mongols, Huns, and the Khazar people, a Turkic khaganate that was rumoured to have mass converted to Judaism in the Byzantine period.


I realized something though. There is no Russian equivalent as soft as the English, Yiddish, and Hebrew letter ‘h’, nor is there as harsh an equivalent as the Yiddish and Hebrew ‘ch’ as in Chaim. The Russian authorities would likely have replaced these letters with something pronounceable - and it hit me. Kagan is Kahan. Kasanoff? No doubt it had previously been Kazanov, with the Yiddish ‘z’ and ‘v’ instead of an ‘s’ and double ‘f’ changed at Ellis Island. It’s not Kasanoff, it’s Chazanov - son of the Chazan. One Kohen and one Chazan. We’re dealing in some seriously pious ancestors here.


I wondered if the carriers of these names today even know that they come from religious leaders. The first Kagans and Kazanovs were fortunate and wily enough to cheat the system meant to strip them of distinction. They were  people who deemed their heritage and religion as too important to simply become lost as another name in a book. These names are distinctly Jewish.


What’s the point of writing this incredibly abridged breakdown? I didn’t even get to Sfardim and Mizrahim, whose communities and names have just as rich a history. The point is that our surnames, the parts of our identities that we carry with us and many of us have little insight into - these are constructed. They are not definitive of who were are, unless we take hold of them - wrestle the power back. Jewish people could have all been named Schmidt, in one foul swoop, but instead, we found a way to maintain our individuality. We adapted, only to let our guard down in modernity.


Your name is your connector to the past, a stabilizer for the present, and an informant for the future. I encourage every Jewish person to ask questions about how they got where they are; what sacrifices, challenges, and even complacencies occurred before this very moment. Your name is the best place to start.


Gregory Uzelac is a writer and satirist from New York City, currently based in Brooklyn. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, and is passionate about social politics, ethnic identity, and Star Wars (even the prequels). Gregory is on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram as @greguzelac.