How Jews got their surnames

This is a piece sent to me without giving credit to the author, but I thought it was interesting so I am re-printing here verbatim. It’s about how Jews got their surnames. I am still not sure how my family got the surname “Greene”. If any of you know, please write me.

Thanks, Sammy.


Other than aristocrats and wealthy people, Jews did not get surnames
 in Eastern Europe until the Napoleon years of the early 19th century.
 Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon, Russia, Poland,
 and Germany were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.

 After Napoleon’s defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned
 to “son of” names such as: MENDELSOHN, JACOBSON, LEVINSON, etc.

During the so called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to
 take surnames. In Austria, the Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in
 the late 1700s; Poland in 1821; and Russia in 1844. It’s probable that
 some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.

 In France and the Anglo Saxon countries, surnames went back to the
 16th century. Also Sephardic Jews had surnames stretching back centuries. Spain prior to Ferdinand and Isabella was a golden spot for Jews.
 They were expelled by Isabella in the same year that Columbus left
 For America.

 The earliest American Jews were Sephardic.

In general there were five types of names (people had to pay for their
 choice of names; the poor had assigned names):

1– Names that were descriptive of the head of household:

 HOCH (tall) ,
 KLEIN (small),
 COHEN (descendant of Aaron on the male line),
 BURGER (village dweller),
 SHEIN (good looking),
 LEVI (Levite),
 GROSS (large),
 SCHWARTZ (dark or black),
 WEISS (white),
 KURTZ (short)
 GROSSBARD (big beard)
 GELBART (yellow beard)

— Names describing occupations: 

HOLTZ (wood)
 HOLTZHOCKER (wood chopper),
 GELTSCHMIDT (goldsmith),
 SCHNEIDER (tailor),
 KREIGSMAN (warrior),
 MALAMED (teacher)
 EISEN (iron),
 FISCHER (fisherman)
 SCHMUCKLER (jeweler)

3– Names from place of origin:

 DEUTSCH (German)

4 — Bought names: 

GLUCK (luck),
 ROSEN (roses),
 ROSENBLATT (rose paper or leaf),
 ROSENBERG (rose mountain),
 ROTHMAN (red   man),
 KOENIG (king),
 SPIELMAN (spiel is to play),
 LIEBER (lover),
 BERG (mountain),
 WASSERMAN (water dweller),
 KIRSHENBLATT (cherry [colored] paper),
 STEIN (stone, stoneware, beer mug).

5– Assigned names (usually undesirable): 

PLOTZ (to die),
 KLUTZ (clumsy),
 BILLIG (cheap)
 DREK (shit)
 BARDAKI (bordello operator)
 SCHEINSKOPF (shiny head)
 BECKMESSER (knife beak)
 MONCHARSH (monk’s arse)

Original Birth Names of Jewish Performers:

Woody Allen — Alan Stewart Koenigsberg

June Allyson — Ella Geisman

Lauren Bacall — Betty Joan Perske

Jack Benny — Benjamin Kubelsky

Irving Berlin — Israel Baline

Milton Berle — Milton Berlinger

Joey Bishop —Joseph Gottlieb

Karen Black — Karen Blanche Ziegler

Victor Borge — Borge Rosenbaum

Fanny Brice — Fanny Borach

Mel Brooks — Melvin Kaminsky

George Burns — Nathan Birnbaum

Eddie Cantor — Edward Israel Iskowitz

Jeff Chandler — Ira Grossel

Lee J. Cobb — Amos Jacob

Tony Curtis — Bernard Schwartz

Rodney Dangerfield — Jacob Cohen

Kirk Douglas — Issue Danielovich Demsky

Melvyn Douglas — Melvyn Hesselberg

Bob Dylan — Bobby Zimmerman

Paulette Goddard — Marion Levy

Lee Grant — Lyova Geisman

Elliot Gould — Elliot Goldstein

Judy Holliday — Judith Tuvim

Al Jolson — Asa Yoelson

Danny Kaye — David Daniel Kaminsky

Michael Landon — Michael Orowitz

Steve Lawrence — Sidney Leibowitz

Jerry Lewis — Joseph Levitch

Peter Lorre — Lazlo Lowenstein

Elaine May — Elaine Berlin

Yves Montand — Ivo Levy

Mike Nichols — Michael Peschkowsky

Joan Rivers — Joan Molinsky

Edward G. Robinson — Emanuel Goldenberg

Jane Seymour — Joyce Penelope Frankenburg

Simone Signoret — Simone-Henriette Kaminker

Beverly Sills — Belle Silverman

Sophie Tucker — Sophia Kalish

Gene Wilder — Gerald Silberman


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