Russian Jewish Names #general

Jules Levin

Dear Genners,

Several weeks ago the opinion was offered that certain Biblical names were
forbidden to Jews in Russia because they were used by Orthodox Russians.
This seemed extremely dubious to me at the time, but as I have remarked, it
is difficult to prove a negative—that no such prohibition ever existed. I
have been making some inquiries about this matter—a message posted with the
SEELANGS [Slavic] list, etc.—and have reached the following conclusion:
Such an edict, decree, law, or prohibition never existed. If anyone can
demonstrate in a scholarly way that I am wrong, I will donate $100 to
JewishGen in that person’s honor, and send an apologetic message to the
list. Here are some reasons for my conclusion:

The Old Testament names that are found with Russians—Abram,
Moisey, Isey, David, Osip, etc.—were used by Old Believers, not by
mainstream Russian Orthodox. The Russian Orthodox church, like the French,
required that Baptismal names be taken >from a rather short list of names,
mostly of Byzantine Greek (Aleksey, Georgy, Aleksandr, Nikolay, Tatiana,
Natalia, Sofiya, etc.) or Scandinavian (Varangian—the original rulers of Rus’)
origin (Oleg, Olga, Vladimir, etc.). The only common Biblical name that
readily comes to mind is Mariya—Manya, Masha, etc. were its nicknames-- and
curiously, this name was also used by the Jews in Russia. In fact, a
historian responding to my query shot back with Lev Davidovich Bronshtein
[Trotsky] and Roman Osipovich Jakobson [linguists will know…]. Needless to
say, the Russian government was not interested in protecting Old Believer
names >from the Jews—in many periods the Old Believers and other Christian
sects were persecuted worse than the Jews.

Which leads me to my next point. The Russian Empire, stretching
from Poland in the West to the Pacific, contained large numbers of Roman
Catholics, Lutherans, Pentacostal sects, Muslims, Buddhists, and pagan
animists. There was no logical consistent legislation covering all groups,
but separate policies for each one. But not even the Imperial bureaucracy
could concern itself with naming policy for all these groups, other than to
include the father’s name as a patronymic.

Another reason: during most or all of Tsarist Russia's time, the
assimilation of the Jews was desired. The Russian government encouraged,
even added, the establishment of choral synagogues where the Russian
language was to be used. A Jewish community that used Russian names was
welcomed, not discouraged by the government.

And finally, as everyone familiar with Russian society and culture will
readily admit, if such a decree existed somewhere, it no doubt could have
been overlooked for the price of a bottle of vodka.

In a message dealing with this topic, it was suggested that
names like Duwid showed that such a law existed. Duwid, like Dowid, Dovid,
was simply the local Yiddish pronunciation of David. My wife’s father was
Chaim Nussyn D., named after his grandfather, the author of an early Hebrew
genealogy book, Chaim Nathan D. Nussyn was simply the Galicianer
pronunciation of Nathan. These regional vowel changes actually sort of go
along with similar changes taking place in the local language. Litvak Dovid
is used in the area where Lithuanian changes long ‘a’ to long ‘o’; in
Polish long ‘o’ changed to ‘u’ (cf. grod with an accent mark—pronounced
grood), Polish Yid. Duvid. By the way, pupik reflects the original Slavic
vowel, cf. Russian pupovina—umbilical cord, while pipik is a Yiddish dialect
change. I suspect that one reason Moishe pipik is funny is because to the
ears of a Litvak it sounds funny. In my Litvish family a pupik was a pupik,
but Moishe pipik was good for a chuckle.

Jules Levin
Los Angeles

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