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Hernames/Surnames

In Jewish family names there are some phenomena that do not exist—or exist to only a very limited degree—in the family names of other peoples. One of these phenomena is specific to East European Jewish family names— or, to be even more precise, to family names in those parts of Eastern Europe that were under the rule of the Russian Empire: Russia, Belorussia, the Ukraine, and parts of Poland. The phenomenon is family names that are based on women’s first names.

Many family names throughout the world are derived from first names. However, in most societies, they are patronymic—namely, expansions of fathers’ names. These are all men’s names: names of the heads of tribes, of families, and the like. Among Jewish family names, however, there are many names that are based on women’s first names.

The use of women’s names as the basis for family names is the outcome of a particular social situation that existed in Eastern Europe at the time when Jews, who were residents of the Russian Empire, were compelled to put family names in their formal papers. In 1804, an edict forced Jews to choose family names. In 1844, Jews also had to register in the city censuses. In addition, a law of 1850 forbade Jews to change their family names, even after converting to Christianity. Until that time, most Ashkenazi Jews had no family names (family names were much more common among Sephardi Jews, even as early as the Middle Ages). In their papers—both internal Jewish papers and papers destined for other purposes—they were called only by their private names and their fathers’ names, sometimes with an additional appellation.

Once it became compulsory to choose family names, every family chose a different name for itself Many of those names were chosen according to the family’s profession or place of residence. Many names, however, were a formal fixation of existing nicknames, be it after the father or after a woman: sometimes the matriarch of the family, sometimes the wife or the mother-in-law.

The first instances of this phenomenon date back to the 16th Century: two of the leading sages of the generation in Poland had appellations based on women’s names. The great Talmudic commentator, the Maharsha (1555-1631), whose full name was Rabbi Shmuel Eideles, was named after his mother-in-law, the rich woman Eidel, who generously supported him and his yeshiva for many years. The Talmudic commentator and Halakhic decisor, author of the book called Bakh, Rabbi Yool Sirkis (or Surkis), was called after a woman named Sarah. In a later generation, we find the mysterious Hassidic figure. Rabbi Leib Sara’s, who was called so after his mother, Sara.

The reason for having family names based on the names of the women in the family has to do with a particular social structure that existed in many places in Eastern Europe. Many husbands—and not necessarily professionals, such as rabbis or ritual slaughterers—used to sit in houses of study and learn Torah, while the burden of providing the livelihood fell on the shoulders of their wives. Women would run shops or deal in commerce or trade, in addition to being homemakers and mothers. As a result, they were much more famous than their husbands, who were known only to a limited circle of friends. No wonder, then, that many men were called after their wives, for they were much more widely known. Therefore, when family names had to be chosen, they often were only slight variations (sometimes by adding a Slavic suffix) to nicknames by which they had been known previously. In the Austrian Empire, Jews had to choose from among a limited number of possible family names which, because of anti-Semitism, often were ugly and odious. The Jews of the Russian Empire, however, were given the freedom to select family names at will; thus, many old nicknames were preserved as formal family names.

Following is a partial list of family names based on women’s names, along with the origin for that name.

Basevitz related to the woman Bat Sheva
(according to the Lithuanian pronunciation)
Bashevis related to the woman Bat Sheva
(according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation)
Bashkin related to the woman Batya
(according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation
in the Lithuanian dialect, whereby it is
pronounced Bashi)
Baskin related to the woman Batya
(according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation,
in which this name is pronounced Basi)
Beilin related to the woman Bella
Beilis related to the woman Bella (Yiddish)
Belkin related to the woman Bela, Bella
Blumkin related to the woman Bluma
Breines related to the woman Bryna
Breinin related to the woman Bryna
Chaikin related to the woman Chaya
Chanes related to the woman Chana (Yiddish)
Chankin related to the woman Chana
Chavki related to the woman Chava
Chayke related to the woman Chaya (Yiddish)
Chinkin related to the woman Chinka
Dorkin related to the woman Dvora (Yiddish)
Dvorkin related to the woman Dvora
Eidels related to the woman Eidel
Eidelson the son of Eidel (German)
Eidlin related to the woman Eidel
Elkin related to the woman Ella, Elka
Elkind the son of Ella (Yiddish)
Esterin related to the woman Ester
Esterman the husband of Esther (Yiddish-German)
Esterson the son of Esther (Yiddish-German)
Etkes related to the woman Etta (Yiddish)
Etkin related to the woman Etta
Etkins related to the woman Etta
Feigels related to the woinan Feige
Feigelson related to the woman Feige
Feigin related to the woman Feige
Fredkin related to the woman Freide, Freda
Freidin related to the woman Freida
Freidlin related to the woman Freida
(in the diminutive Freidl)
Genessin related to the woman Genesia (a common
first name, prevailing mainly in Lithuania)
Genkin see Henkin
Gittelman the husband of Gittel (Yiddish)
Gittels related to the woman Gittel (Yiddish)
Gittelson the son of Gittel (Yiddish)
Gittlin related to the woman Gittel
Goldin related to the woman Golda
Goldis related to the woman Golda (Yiddish)
Henkin related to the woman Henya
(in the Russian spelling: Genkin)
Itkin related to the woman Ita
Leahles related to the woman Leah
Lenkin related to the woman Lena
Malkes related to the woman Malka
Malkin related to the woman Malka
Margoles related to the woman Margalit
(according to the Yiddish pronunciation)
Margolin related to the woman Margalit
Mechlin related to the woman Mechl, Michal
Mechlis related to the woman Mechl
Menuhin related to the woman Menuha
Merlin related to the woman Miriam
(according to the diminutive Merl)
Mindlin related to the woman Mindl
Mirkin related to the woman Miriam
(according to the diminutive Miri)
Mirlin related to the woman Miriam
(according to the diminutive Mirl)
Mirls related to the woman Miriam
(according to the diminutive Mirl)
Mushkin related to the woman Mushka
(Mussia, in the Lithuanian pronunciation)
Nehamkes related to the woman Nehama
Nehamkin related to the woman Nehama
Perls related to the woman Perl
Rachelevsky related to the woman Rachel
Rachelson son of the woman Rachel
Reisin related to the woman Rosa
Riveles related to the woman Rivka
Rivkes related to the woman Rivka (Yiddish)
Rivkin related to the woman Rivka
Rivkind son ofthe woman Rivka
Rivlin related to the woman Rivka
(in the diminutive Riva, Rivale)
Rochlin related to the woman Rachel
(in the Polish pronunciation)
Roises related to the woman Roisa
(in the Polish pronunciation)
Resales related to the woman Rosa
(according to the diminutive Rosale)
Rosin related to the woman Rosa
Ruchamkin related to the woman Ruchama
Sheinin related to the woman Sheine
Sheinis related to the woman Sheine
Sheinkin related to the woman Sheine
Shifrin related to the woman Shifra
Shoshkes related to the woman Shoshana
(in the diminutive Shoshke)
Shprinzeles related to the woman Shprinza
(in the diminutive Shprinzl)
Simkin related to the woman Sima
Sirkin related to the woman Sara
Sirkis related to the woman Sara
Shprinzak related to the woman Shprinza
Surkin related to the woman Sara
(according to the Ashkenazi pronunciation)
Tamarin related to the woman Tamar
Tamarkin related to the woman Tamar
Tamarlin related to the woman Tamar
(in the diminutive Tamarl)
Tamars related to the woman Tamar (Yiddish)
Temkin related to the woman Tcma
Treinin related to the woman Trcina
Tumarkin related to the woman Tamar
(in the Polish pronunciation)
Zeitlin related to the woman Zeitl
Zeitis related to the woman Zeitl
Zeldes related to the woman Zelda
Zeldin related to the woman Zelda
Zipkin related to the woman Zipporah
(in the diminutive Zipke)
Zippels related to the woman Zippel
(diminutive of Zipporah)
Zirels related to the woman Zirel
Zirelson son ofthe woman Zirel (Yiddish)
Zirlin related to the woman Zirel
Zisslin related to the woman Zissel
Zlatkes related to the woman Zlate.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is an author, historian and social critic whose translation of the Talmud into five modem languages has been called the most important Jewish publication of the 20th Century.