Author’s Note: This series focuses on Jewish genealogy in Eastern Europe and North America, and is intended to offer advice for researching families of Ashkenazi heritage. The information provided will not necessarily apply to Sephardi or Mizrahi genealogy.
If you’ve read my AncestorCloud blog post about the finer points of wildcard searching, then you’re probably already aware of my deep and abiding interest in family names, and how historical migrations have an enormous impact on the genealogical research techniques we use these days.
As a specialist in the area of Jewish family history in Eastern Europe and North America, my personal fascination with names is no mere coincidence. Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrants who arrived in English-speaking countries within the last couple centuries are notorious among their descendants for adopting surnames in the New World that barely recall the surnames of the Old Country. Thus, researchers embark on epic searches for their ancestors’ surnames at birth.
The reasons behind these dramatic surname changes vary from family to family, but any Americans with Jewish roots lay claim to the “They changed our name at Ellis Island” story (which was thoroughly debunked in 2013 by none other than Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division of US History, Local History and Genealogy). Other family stories reflect a much more likely scenario: Jewish immigrants in America came from places where they had always been considered as other in the eyes of the government and, consequently, by the non-Jews they encountered on a day-to-day basis. Within the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement and the Kingdom of Poland, they lived under discriminatory laws meant only for Jews, which placed limits on everything from the property they could own to the occupations they could practice and to where and when they could travel; rights which their American counterparts considered some of the most basic of freedoms. Eastern European Jews saw America as a goldene medine–golden land–where they would have every right accorded to other Americans, and be afforded the same financial and social opportunities as their non-Jewish neighbors. New arrivals in Canada and the United States were only happy to shed the label which branded them “other” and assume new, national identities.
This social process, known as assimilation, was certainly not limited to surnames. Unfortunately, very few family researchers can give a positive answer to this sneaky little question:
So what were their given names?
In Jewish genealogy, a given name–that which Americans call a “first name”–is worth so much more than its face-value. The amount of information a given name may reveal about an individual and their close relatives is second only to their “original” surname.
Ashkenazi tradition (and superstition) dictates that no child is to be given the same name as a living relative, lest the Angel of Death come to collect and mistake the younger for the older. This idea didn’t materialize out of nowhere; it is deeply rooted in the collective experience of high infant/child mortality in a time before antibiotics and vaccinations for infectious diseases. We can be certain there were no Moyshe Rabinovitz, Jr.’s running around!
A rational fear of losing young children to the “Angel of Death,” combined with the nonexistence of [modern] contraceptives, resulted in childbirth-related deaths for many women, multiple marriages for their widowers, and families lots of children. For those who lived to adulthood, marriage before the age of 20 was the norm, so it should come as no surprise that parents–particularly fathers–often lived to see their children wed and many grandchildren born.
This specific set of circumstances opens up a glittering window of opportunity for Jewish family researchers. Following the death of a grandparent, it was quite common for the next-born grandchildren of each adult child would be named for that parent. In families where a many of the children lived to adulthood, we can often see the name and death year of a grandparent indicated by the given names and birth years of grandchildren who were named for them.
So, to recap: Not only does this funny superstition give us clues as to the actual given name of a deceased parent, it also tells us when they died. In my own family, this pattern is repeated again and again, especially by the immigrant generation and their children.
The same value exists for the given names that immigrants used once off the boat. More often than not, Jewish immigrants chose “American names” that sounded like their Yiddish names (as opposed to their meaning or direct translations to English. At the turn of the 20th Century, names like Charlie, Bessie, Herman, and Rose were extremely popular as “American” alternatives to the guttural sounds and religious/ethnic origins of Khatskel, Bascha, Khayim, and Reyza.
Consider these examples (direct English translations provided for reference):
Yehoshua (Joshua) → Heshel, Hersch → Harry, Herman
Ya’akov (Jacob) → Yankel → Jake
Rakheil (Rachel) → Rokhl, Rokha → Rosie
Bas-sheva (Bathsheba) → Basha → Bessie, Betty
Choices in “American names” varied depending on local and popular fashion, and no concrete set of rules was ever established when it came to Yiddish given name changes. Some men formally changed their names through the naturalization process, but for the most part, immigrants would informally adopt a given name as a sort-of “permanent, American alias.”
Despite the deep desire to be identified by the rest of the world as American, in homes where Yiddish remained the primary language, immigrants were comfortable calling each other (and their American-born children) by their “Jewish names.” As for me, I never knew my 3x great uncle Simon Cohn’s Yiddish given name until a newly-discovered cousin told me that Simon was called Schlamey by his brother, my 2x great grandfather, Nathan Cohen. (Yes, they spelled it their surnames differently.) Incidentally, Schlamey called my 2x great grandfather Nokhim.
To see many, many more name variations, check out JewishGen’s incredibly thorough Given Names Database. Ancestry.com also has a reference tool for Jewish Given Name Variations, which I’ve found helpful in a pinch.