Most of us of Ashkenazi descent doing Jewish genealogy have found it very difficult to trace our roots to much earlier than about 1800. That’s because that period was when most of our ancestors were forced by decree to take on the surnames that have continued to identify our families.
It was in 1782 that Austrian emperor Joseph II enacted the Edict of Tolerance. The edict was drafted in an attempt to integrate Jews into the economic life of the empire and was followed five years later with the requirement to adopt a surname. With everyone in the empire now using surnames, it became easier to impose taxation, and to draft men into the armies. Similar legislation was enacted in other jurisdictions over the next 50 years.
Previously, your ancestor may have been known by a descriptive name, such as “Mottel the Red” if he had a red beard or “Shmuel the Butcher” if that was his profession. Their sons may have been known by another descriptive title, usually quite different than the father’s.
When choosing a surname, the great majority of names were picked using one of the following methods.
Patronymics: the naming after one’s father. This produced names like Aronson (son of Aron), or Manishewitz (son of Menashe). There were some matronymics selected as well, but this was not as common.
Location: the naming after a place of origin, which produced surnames such as Lublin, Berliner and Amsterdam. It was an easy way of selecting a name, but produced a problem for modern day genealogists. Since unrelated people from the same town often chose the same surname, finding someone with the same location-type surname from the same town does not automatically mean they are related.
Occupation: using one’s type of work, so Shmuel the Butcher may have become Shmuel Flesher and the synagogue’s cantor, may have taken Cantor or Singer as his surname. My surname, Diener, is the German word for servant, so someone in my family may have worked as a personal assistant to the magnate landowner in his town. Another prominent name in my family tree is Goldsman, from the town of Zhvanets, now in Ukraine. When visiting an archive in Ukraine last year, I came upon a census of Zhvanets from 1764, listing the first names of the Jews alongside their occupations. Some were listed as jewellers, so presumably these were my Goldsman ancestors who several years later took on that occupational surname.
Others adopted names related to their physical attributes, so Mottel with the red beard may have become a Roth or a Rothbard. Someone with very dark hair or a dark complexion may have become a Schwartz.
Others assumed names associated with beautiful things, regardless of whether there was a direct connection to an actual place. This method produced names such as Applebaum (apple tree) and Blumenthal (valley of flowers). Selecting this type of name, which often cost more to register with the authorities, may have been seen as a way to elevate one’s status in the community.
Looking at our own Jewish community, I analyzed the surnames that appear in our community cemetery on Bank Street. The most common surname there is Cohen, and most carried the name through the link to their kohanic ancestors. The common surname Katz, and others, also represent kohanim. Similarly, we have many Levins, Levines and Levitans, as well as Segals, spelled several different ways, who are mostly descendants of the original Levites.
Some other prominent Ottawa family surnames by category include:
Patronymic – Abramson and variations;
Occupational – Baker, Cooper, Flesher, Feller and Sugarman;
Location – Saslove, Ginsberg, Shapiro and Steinberg;
Beauty – Goldberg and Greenberg.
If you are interested in what your surname means, or where it originated, much has been written about the origins of Jewish names. A simple Google search may give you a new insight into where your family came from, or how your ancestors lived 300 years ago. Alternatively, you may wish to look at the various dictionaries of Jewish surnames written by the foremost authority, Alexander Beider, in the library of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Ottawa. For information, contact the society at firstname.lastname@example.org.