Re: Questioning the theory of surnames in the Pale #belarus

Roger Lustig

You raise lots of issues, so I'll respond in-line.

kos@... wrote:

The generally accepted theory concerning Jews in the "Pale" (generally
western Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia) is that they
generally did not have surnames until around 1800. Around that time,
geo-political changes necessitated keeping lists of tax payers. In
order to achieve this, authorities impelled the Jews to get surnames.
And so they did.
I think you mean "eastern Poland" here.

I believe (in one of his books) Alexander Beider lists four criteria
upon which Jews adopted surnames: place of living or origin,
profession, priestly status (if the person was a Kohen or Levi), and
...I forget the fourth.
There are at least three more:

1) names based on beauty:, e.g., gold/silver/flower + thing/place type
of names. SILBERFELD, ROSENBAUM, etc. (Of course, there are a few town
names like Rosenberg, Goldberg, etc. out there, just to keep us on our

2) surnames based on given names, e.g., one's own name or one's
patronym, but perhaps an entirely different one. HIRSCH, ABRAMOWICZ,
KOPPEL, etc.

3) Those derived >from a physical attribute: DICKMANN, KRAUSHAAR, KURZ,

The problem I have with this theory is that it seems to be
contradicted by evidence.

If this theory were true, logic would indicate that a majority of
people >from a particular town would have that town's name, and smaller
amounts would be called by their priestly status or profession.
Careful: Beider states that those types are the *sources* of surnames,
not the surnames themselves. Note that these sources are very broad.
"Origin" doesn't mean "where one lives now" or even "where one lived as
a child"--it can mean where the family was (believed to be) from. In
general, there would have been little point in naming oneself after
one's current residence--although people did do that. (In Pless, Upper
Silesia, now Pszczyna, Poland, a good percentage chose PLESSNER as their
surname. How useful for us later on...)

Look at the vast number of Eastern-European toponyms (surnames based on
a place) that refer to places in Germany. Jews emigrated >from those
places to Poland 300 to 600 years before surnames were adopted. In
*some* sense, SHAPIROs came >from Speyer, HALPERNs >from Heilbronn, etc.
But that sense could be distant ancestry or legend. (There were also
rabbinical surnames, which often lasted for many, many generations.
They functioned as brand names as well as for family identification--the
young scholar who married his teacher's daughter might adopt the
trademark that showed where he was coming >from conceptually if not
geographically or genetically.)

Having now observed a number of these taxation lists >from 1795-1818,
what I find striking is the variety of surnames for any town seems to
be hardly less than it would be 100 years later. JewishGen has a
number of these early documents on its site, and anyone can see the
variety of surnames, even to the earliest years of the 19th century.

Having done a lot of research on my surname and its variants, I do
generally notice a concentration in a relatively small swatch of area
from Poland, Belarus and Russia (but with exceptions in Ukraine and
Lativa). I've also done DNA testing and notice a similar pattern -
most matches basically centered around Belarus, but with an exception
or two in Latvia or Ukraine. And (with one exception in my case) all
matches have very different surnames.
Well, now: are you sure these people had just those surnames before they
crossed the ocean?

So I'm wondering how (my understanding of) this theory should be
revised. Could it be that Jews possibly accepted some kind of
unwritten surnames - like a nickname - prior to the 1800 date? Could
it be that these surnames are much more casual than we think - that
people just chose them because they sounded nice, cool, or exotic,
regardless of where they lived or what they did? (e.g., I have met a
number of people named COHN or COHEN who are not kohanim.)

I'll be interested to hear of people's ideas.
I think that a) your guess is a good one, and b) the theory doesn't need
any revision, because you seem to be remembering it as stricter than it
is. My own TROPLOWITZ ancestors took that surname 75 years after one of
them had resided in Troplowitz (now Opavica/Opavice on the Czech-Polish
border). Since then, they'd lived in Gleiwitz. The fact of their
having lived in that particular wide place in the road was not likely a
matter of great familial pride--it just happened to be the nickname the
family had acquired, I bet.

One of them moved to Pillitz (Slovakia, I think) before fixed surnames
were adopted and took the name David GLEIWITZ. Later his son moved to
Veszprem in Hungary and became the noted rabbi Chananel PILLITZ.

Yes, of course Jews had nicknames or epithets. One of the features of
Jewish life was mobility: unlike the aristocracy, Jews generally didn't
own much land; unlike serfs, they weren't owned by it either. They
served as merchants, brokers, peddlers, livestock traders, etc.--jobs
involving travel. Some kind of identification beyond patronymics would
have been necessary, because even if one had the three Shlomo ben
Yitzhaks in one's own community sorted out, one might encounter one or
two more on one's next journey--or when some others came through one's
shtetl. Place of origin, occupation, a physical attribute--all would
have been obvious choices, just as they are on streets and in
schoolyards today.

The "sounded cool" theory is also well-recognized, especially with the
names based on beautiful or valuable objects. But there had to have
been some inspiration for the choice of surnames, and the "sources" are
simply a categorization of those inspirations. The priestly and
occupational names were more likely to be based directly on
characteristics of the person adopting them, and we still often refer to
people by their professions when clarification is needed. (Remember the
joke that ends: Oh, you want HOROWITZ the spy! Second floor, in the back!)

Roger Lustig
Princeton, NJ

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