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    Is Gordon a Jewish surname? – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Why are some Jews called Gordon? Isn’t this a Scottish surname?

    Lord George Gordon after his conversion to Judaism

    A. Levy and Cohen are Jewish surnames. Everybody knows that. Even the fact that some Levys and Cohens have left Judaism does not take away from the inherently Jewish character of both names. But what about Gordon? The Scots probably think it is a Scottish name, and it undoubtedly is. Nonetheless there are many Jewish Gordons who have no Scottish connections whatsoever.

    As a Jewish surname, Gordon has no occupational associations like Schuster, Schneider or Schreiber. Is it geographical, like Berliner, Frankfurther or Wiener? If it were, it would suggest a background in Grodno, and indeed there are Jewish surnames like Grodner, Grodence, etc.

    Another possibility is that it is a tribute to Lord George Gordon, son of the 3rd Duke of Gordon, who was a controversial figure in British politics in the late 18th century: it was said that Parliament had three parties – the government, the opposition, and Lord George Gordon. Gordon applied to Chief Rabbi David Tevele Schiff for conversion to Judaism. Schiff refused, but Gordon was converted by the rabbi of Birmingham, grew a long beard and even when imprisoned in Newgate for five years he ate only kosher food and was scrupulous with his Hebrew prayers. He died in prison in 1793. His story penetrated Eastern Europe and some families might have adopted his surname in his honour. This is borne out by the fact that Gordon only became a Jewish surname in the early 19th century.

    You might ask why Lord George Gordon would appeal to the minds of Polish and Russian Jews. An answer is suggested by the late Rabbi Dr. J. Litvin who, in an obituary of the first Viscount Samuel, said that “in Russia a Jew could not be even a nightwatchman” but in England a Jew could be a member of the government – and even a lord: thus “England enjoyed special esteem in the eyes of Russian Jewry. It was like a mythical island of justice and glory”. No wonder a Jewish lord became a legendary figure.

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