The old joke is famous. A Jewish immigrant to the United States 100 years ago has the name Shane Ferguson. When asked whether this is a usual kind of name for someone Jewish, he explains:
“Before I landed in America I was told that my old name was not American enough. I had to have a really American name. So I worked one out and was proud of the name I had chosen.
“But when the ship docked and the official barked at me, ‘Name?’, my mind went blank. I blurted out, Shain fergessen! – ‘I’ve forgotten it already!’
“So what did the official do? He wrote down what he thought he had heard, and that’s why I’m Shane Ferguson!”
Jews had problems with their names in many countries of immigration. Sometimes, for example, an official decided that Cohen was the universal Jewish surname, so a Jewish immigrant who could not spell his complicated Eastern European name in English became Cohen. Bizarre things resulted.
A non-Jewish arrival in the United States decided he had to have a real American name; he looked up the New York phone directory, found that there were more Cohens than anyone else, so he decided that being an American required him to be called Cohen too.
For centuries, Jews identified themselves in distinctively Jewish ways, without surnames as such. A member of the priestly tribe might write Katz after his name, short for Kohen Tzedek, “priest of righteousness”.
A descendant of martyrs might write Sacks, which stands for Zera Kodesh, “holy seed”. Bard might indicate Ben (the son of) Rabbi David; Brasch might be Ben Rabbi Shimon.
In the late 18th centuriy the emperor of Austria-Hungary required Jews to have official surnames. Now the son of David became Davidson; the rabbi became Rabbinowitz; the tailor became Schneider; a Jew from Germany became Deutscher; well-known cities produced names like Berliner, Prager or Warshawsky. Someone became Grossman because he was tall, or Klein because he was short.
Animal names derived from Jacob’s delineation of his sons (Gen. 49), e.g. Loewe, a lion, because Judah was called “a lion’s whelp”, or Wolf, because Benjamin was “a ravening wolf”.
This was not enough in some cases, and a bribe had to be paid to get a pleasant surname such as Gold, Silver or Diamant. If the bribe was not regarded as sufficient, it might only produce Frosch (a frog) or Gans (a goose).
Jewish surnames are a fascinating subject. We all ought to research our own names and family history. When a name has been changed to facilitate integration into a host society, this adds a further dimension to the story.
Today such changes are rarely necessary, and “Jewish” surnames are no longer such a social handicap. But whatever one’s surname, every member of our people ought to strive to bring honour to the name of Jew.