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    Surnames – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. How did Jews get surnames?

    A. The Austria/Hungarian emperor made Jews have surnames. The names often chose themselves by being distinctively Jewish, e.g. Cohen, Levi, Levin, Israel, Rabbinovitch, Kantor, Shechter, Shammash and Katz (from “Kohen Tzedek”, righteous priest) or linked with lineage, e.g. Jacobs, Isaacs, Abrahams, Solomon, Hyamson, Mirkin (from Miriam). There were abbreviations such as Bard (“Ben Rabbi David”) or Brasch (“Ben Rabbi Shimon”).

    Some names came from places (Moskovitch, Wiener, Berlin, Brody, Katzenelenbogen), occupations (Schneider, Schuster, Becker, Lehrer, Drucker), animals (Adler, Baer, Wolf, Fox), appearance (Gross, Klein, Hochstein, Unterman), or wealth (Reich, Gold, Silber, Diamant). Some names reflected colours (Schwarz, Weiss, Green, Gelb).

    Before houses had numbers they often bore signs which became the residents’ surnames (Rothschild, red shield; Kahn, a boat; Vogel, a bird; Baum, a tree).

    Gentile authorities gave nice names for a large bribe (Roseman, Lilienthal) or offensive names for a poor bribe (Eiselkopf, donkey-head; Spielvogel, gambler; Gans, goose; Froschwaig, frog’s spawn).

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