Questioning the theory of surnames in the Pale #belarus
You raise lots of issues, so I'll respond in-line.
The generally accepted theory concerning Jews in the "Pale" (generallyI think you mean "eastern Poland" here.
I believe (in one of his books) Alexander Beider lists four criteriaThere 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,
3) Those derived >from a physical attribute: DICKMANN, KRAUSHAAR, KURZ,
The problem I have with this theory is that it seems to beCareful: 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,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 beI 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
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!)
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 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.
The problem I have with this theory is that it seems to be contradicted by
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.
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
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.
Bob Kosovsky, New York City, seeking any and all permutations/locations of:
KASOFSKI/Y, KASOVSKI/Y, KASOWSKI/Y, KOSOFSKI/Y, KOSOVSKI/Y, KOSOWSKI/Y,
KASSOFSKI/Y, KASSOVSKI/Y, KASSOWSKI/Y, KOSSOFSKI/Y, KOSSOVSKI/Y, KOSSOWSKI/Y,
KOSOW, KOSSOVE, etc. and other derivatives
Gladys Friedman Paulin <paulin@...>
Bob et al,
Your theory is interesting and I, too, have researched many families
Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.
Before the ukase of 1804 which was enforced later by a second edict ca
our ancestors had already migrated, sometimes in several stages, from
central Europe to their further east residences in the above stated
When they took a toponymic name, it was frequently that of a town where
previously resided or where a parent or grandparent had dwelled. If many
people took the name of the town of current residence, everyone would
that name and the purpose of taking surnames for identification would
Many names denoting religious rank are not necessarily Cohen/Kagan or
Levy/Levik but if you peruse Beider's works you may notice that many
names such as Katz are acronyms which denote such rank. (A recent post
the Jewishgen list pointed out how Segal denoted a Levite.)
Many names are variants of occupations including 'son of the' such as
Rabinovich, son of Rabbi.
However, an overwhelming number are >from patronymics--and some
perhaps not their father's name but perhaps that of a grandfather or
grandfather, especially if their father was still living. And here you
have the use of a Hebrew or Yiddish name (including diminutives) or a
kinnui--in which case, your "theory" of nicknames follows the common
practice. And in this case you might want to consult Beider's work on
names and Boris Feldblyum' _Russian-Jewish Given Names_ (Avotaynu) to
the vast variety of given names that may have been the base of =
Gladys Friedman Paulin, CG
Winter Springs, FL
Editor _OnBoard, the Newsletter of the Board for Certification of
Member, Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)
CG, Certified Genealogist, is a service mark of the Board for
Certification of Genealogists and is used under license by Board-certified persons who
meet program standards and periodic rigorous evaluations.
Bob Kosovsky wrote, in part, on Monday, July 30, 2007 11:06 AM
I believe (in one of his books) Alexander Beider lists four criteria =
which Jews adopted surnames: place of living or origin, profession,
If this theory were true, logic would indicate that a majority of =
from a particular town would have that town's name, and smaller amountswould be called by their priestly status or profession.
Dr. Lawrence Gaum <lgaum@...>
toggle quoted messageShow quoted text
----- Original Message -----
From: "Gladys Friedman Paulin" <paulin@...>
To: "Belarus SIG" <belarus@...>
Cc: "'Belarus SIG'" <belarus@...>
Sent: Tuesday, July 31, 2007 1:36 PM
Subject: RE: [belarus] Questioning the theory of surnames in the Pale
I think we must also include the possibility of conversions to Judiasm and
the non-Jewish surnames. This is something that Beider didn't include. Let
me give you an example:
My original family name was Latucha, which is not found in any list of
Jewish surnames. Research that I have done seems to indicate that the
original patriach, whose name was Yishiah (adopted name I am sure) converted
to Judiasm around the late 1700(1780-1790). Some members of my family who
came to Canada circa 1910, now call themselves Latowski. Members who went to
Israel call themselves Ben Yishai (son of Yishiah). My paternal grandfather
had his name changed by the pursor on the steamship >from Latucha to GAM,
which was his wife's maiden name. Gimmel, Aleph, Mem, an acronym for Govah
Medina, a tax collector.
Now, isn't that a real mish-mush? And it certainly doesn't follow any
distinct pattern or path described by Beider.
Just my 2 cents worth.
Larry Gaum (Latucha)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
From: kos@...The rest snipped.
When it comes to the origin of names (given and surnames) we are
talking about tradition and custom not something that was mandatory.
I suspect that if we could go back in time we would find that non
traditional names occurred because families moved/relocated, or
perhaps deliberately chose to obscure their past.
When people left the old country it was often under duress (fear of
conscription, the secret police or whatever). In many cases applying
for legal documents in Europe was not feasible. I remain firmly
convinced that the ancestors of those who sell green cards, drivers
licenses etc in Los Angeles today plied that trade in Europe a
century ago. Many of the immigrants were not proud of having broken
the law or were afraid that the Czar could somehow repossess and
chose to carry that fact to their grave.
When I found the ships manifests for my various ancestors I am
surprised at the variations that was used in spelling their surnames
(phonetically the spellings are close given that the person writing
the manifest may have been German, Dutch or whatever
Avrum Lapin, of Upland, CA
LAPUNSKI Grodno,Indura and Sokolka
KATZ,Abraham Bialystok and Sokolka
RODIN Winnipeg and Gomel
--- kos@... wrote:
The generally accepted theory concerning Jews in theI wasn't aware this was generally accepted.
It has been well known that many Jews had last names
based on trades since the middle ages. My family name
Evenchick(Evenchik) was originally Eventov which
literally means good stone or jewel and could be the
name of aomeone who made jewelry. And in fact one of
my relatives was a first class jeweler.
Beider is also not as reliable as most people think.
In my families case he list Evenchik as most commonly
found in Zitomer where in fact the name is most common
in Koidanov in Minsk Oblast and in Minsk itself. his
confusion is because Koidanov(still the railway
station name) became Dzerzhinsk and another Dzerzhinsk
exists in Zitomer Oblast(district). I pointed this out
to a friend of Beider some years ago and was met with
the attitude that "Beider can't be wrong".
On my mothers side, the Pasternaks were originally
Abravanels, a family name that goes back almost a
Sally Bruckheimer <sallybru@...>
The fourth source of surnames must be the most important - patronymics.
However, there are other sources. There are 'made up' names for sure.
Rosen..., Gold..., etc. are 'nice names' >from flowers and gold. And
stones: Crystal, Garfunkel, Diamond, etc. for non-jewelers. My
favorite name is Lieberfarb, for somebody who (I imagine) wouldn't
pay the bribe for a 'nice name'.
But most of the surnames that were used as family names were just that
- surnames or additional names used in the family descriptively, but
not inherited by the kids - before the formal adoption of family
I don't think that Beider would have ever said that only these four
sources of names existed - but they are the only meaningful names to
the people taking them.
Working with many thousands of Jewish names >from all shtetls of Minsk=20
Gubernia I came to well expected conclusion that there is no uniformity=20
in way of the names origin.
Some names are old and were in use before 1805-1811. Usually the same=20
names you can find in the records of that time in locations far apart=20
from each other.Other names were certainly local and =E2=80=9Cnew=E2=80=9D. Many of them cou=
ld be found=20
only in one or few close to each other shtetls. Many of them have=20
Slavic roots, suffixes, and endings but commonly could be Yiddish or=20
Comparing Jewish records in Minsk Gubernia in 19th century for
different shtetls and uyezds (districts) I see that naming wasn't the
result of Russian Imperial policies but indeed way of how local
authorities proceed with the reform. There is entire spectrum of
situations one can find in Minsk Gubernia and possibly in other areas
of Russian Empire.
In some shtetls you can find in the census of 1811 two families with the
same surnames and in other shtetls 1-3 names cover most of Jewish
Possibly it means that in some places local authorities decided that
each family suppose to have distinctive family name and in other places
they let people use their traditional names.
In the last scenario the records usually shows that small shtetls
comprised >from people belonged to a few extended families. The same is
true for my experience with non-Jewish people in Belarusian villages as
In some place you can find that all names in local Jewish community
were of Russian types - and it was in line with standardization of the
name in Ruissian Empire, similar was done for Muslim population and
others. It was very different >from official 19 century policy that not
allowed Jews to have given name used by Russian Christians. But in many
communities Jewish people adapted mostly Yiddish last names - possibly
local authorities didn't care about.
Another general rule I found for names that are derived >from location:
as smaller was shtetl (Jewish community of the shtetl) as closer to it
could be found people with related surname and otherwise.
It means for example that VILENSKY lived usually farther >from Vilna
than KLETSKY >from Kletsk. It is natural: around Vilna there were many
people >from this big community and to call somebody VILENSKY wasn't
very personal; but - far >from Kletsk not many people knew about Kletsk
and the name KLETSKY wouldn't be descriptive enough. Then VILENSKY was
good name for people >from Vilna who during name assignment lived far
>from Vilna where not many vilners lived and KLETSKY was good name for
people >from Kletsk who lived that time not far >from Kletsk (where
people know about Kletsk).
Of course as any such rules this one will have exceptions as well.