What makes me ask this question is this answer by @ezra to http://genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/12159/spelling-of-surname-kowesnki-kowenski.

The answer claims the name "Kowenski" is Jewish, even though it is obviously Slavic; this is not surprising considering many Jews lived in eastern Germany, Poland and Russia for thousands of years, but still, the concept of "Jewish surname" surprised me. Is there such a thing? I was under the assumption that Ashkenazi Jews had Germans (mostly) or Slavic (more rarely) names.

My understanding is that Jewish religion is traditionally passed from mother to her children, while family names are traditionally passed from the father to his children. As such, there should not be things such as Jewish surnames, as since the early 1800s it is common for Jews and non-Jews to intermarry.

But the main reason why they would have German/Slavic surnames instead would be simply because the surnames were invented after the Jews arrived in those countries (Germany, Russia, Poland), and were somehow "surnamed" with the same system as non-Jews, even though they lived somehow separated from other people.

I heard that names ending in "-berg" and in "-stein" sounds "typical Jewish", although those are actually German words.

I was surprising that on Wikipedia at least 3 "famous" people of Jewish origin have the same (German) surname as I. (By "famous" I mean famous enough to have a Wikipedia article). I don't think it's uncommon for a German surname to be equally common between Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jews, but I'd just ask in order to be sure or have more detailed information on the matter.

  • Edited to clean up spelling problems. Downvoted for lack of research effort.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 9, 2017 at 21:07
  • I think such thing happens because Jews are more notable. There is a bunch of reasons for it. Beginning from that Jews were separated from other people (by religion, by attitude, by territory - you surely know what is ghetto) and because they never hide their achievements. Also I am totally sure that Jews like their children and rarely had small number of them.
    Jul 10, 2017 at 12:40
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    Cohen is a definitely Jewish designation of a person, and it was frequently used as a last name where required (and where appropriate --- not every Jew is a Cohen). The name was then transmuted into a number of alternate forms that are not quite as recognizable, such as Cohn, Kahn, etc, and I would believe --- not knowing for sure, however --- that Kowenski may be similarly derived. This would indeed make it a typical Ashkenazi name. Jul 14, 2017 at 17:35
  • Totally agree with remark about Cohen surname!
    Jul 31, 2017 at 9:50
  • I had wondered about this. One set of forbears from Germany in the 1700 s had the surname Blass ( pale in German.) I believe they were German. They subsequently bought land in Frankfurt and were obliged to change their name from Blass to Sander, after the farm they bought- I believe the whole process was more a classification system.
    – Stephanie
    Oct 14, 2017 at 20:41

3 Answers 3


I am not an expert, but am adding my humble bits to the answer:

There is no such thing as a jewish surname, indeed. First of all a surname itself is not a jewish thing. Jews are not indetified by their surname in anything religious. Jews were always identified as "Isaac son of Abraham" and the likes.

Being summoned to read a portion of the Torah in the Synagogue, performing a mitzvah in honor of a beloved one who passed away, among many other examples - will identify the individual as [name] son of [father's name] (using the father or mother's name depends on the context of the act being performed, if it is something being done to add merits for the healing of a sick person, the mother's name is used).

As far as I know, jews bear surnames only because the law where they live require them to. Not being autonomous and living under non jewish law have been being the case for the past 2000 years or so, after being expelled from Israel after the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

Secondly, you are right, in saying that almost all ashkenazic surnames are simply words deriving from the languages spoken in the places they were living all these centuries.

As an example of ashkenazi surnames that have nothing to do with neither german nor slavic, are names that derive from hebrew or aramaic (my case). So assuming all ashkenazi jews should have german/slavic surnames is wrong.

At last, if I am not wrong, jews started adopting (compulsorily) surnames after Napoleon's expansion.

Last bit: the surnames themselves are more often a combination of words in german nor slavic, rather than a word (although there are those as well, such as schnaider, as one example).


A small amendment: having made the point that not all ashkenazi surnames derive from german/slavic (I am an example of that) - deriving, instead, from Hebrew or Aramaic (not considering ashkenazi jews who hebrecized their names, talking about those who had hebrew-derived names when still living in ashkenazic territory) - there are, therefore, "jewish surnames", in the sense that, since these words derive from Hebrew or Aramaic, it is very very unlikely the person bearing that surname is not jewish (when this is the case - usually his/her ancestors were jews and somewhere in time assimilation broke the chain). An example of such would be Melamed/Malamud. Melamed is a hebrew word, meaning tutor,teacher.

It makes no sense that a non jew would ever adopt such a name, in normal circumstances (you never know - perhaps someone wanted to disguise as jewish ?)

Bottom line: there is no such a thing as a jewish surname - apart from surnames that derive from Hebrew or Aramaic, who must surely have been coined and used by jews themselves - but may be found in use by non jews - because these very likely descend from jews, but are not jewish anymore, follong jewish law.

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    You are wrong about the 2000 years thing, the concept of "surname" is barely 900 years old, but other than that thank you for the detailed answer.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 13, 2017 at 6:57
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    You are wrong in the understanding what the 2000 years relate to - not to when surnames started being adopted/be in use, rather, to the time jews have been subjugated to non-jewish constitution (as we know it) - beginning from the time they were expelled from their home.
    – Veverke
    Jul 13, 2017 at 7:00
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    Ah ok, yes, the 2nd destruction of the temple is close to 2000 years old, but surnames being "obligatory" in Germany, Poland and Russia is certainly much more recent than that.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 13, 2017 at 8:21
  • It surely is, I hope I did not state otherwise (if I did please point out and will correct).
    – Veverke
    Jul 13, 2017 at 8:40
  • Well for me you clearly state that jews were forced to adopt family names 2000 years ago when saying As far as I know, jews bear surnames only because the law where they live (and this have been applying for the past 2000 years or so) require them. English is not my language, but it really sounds like that's what you mean.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 13, 2017 at 9:56

Ashkenazi Surnames really only came about in the early 1800s actually. The Jews of Western Europe (Germany, France, and England etc) took surnames sooner than their coreligionists in Eastern Europe. In fact, the Jews of Eastern Europe were only required to choose family names because of an edict from the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II after he had allowed Jews to attend public school via his Edict of Tolerance 5 years before. The Jewish families were free to choose their own surnames and if they did not choose one then one was assigned to them. This created a lot of synthetic sounding surnames that were based on physical traits ("Gross" means "big" in German; "Klein" is "small") or compound words that they just chose based on a geographical feature or maybe just cause it sounded pretty (Roth = Red; Weiss = White; Berg = Mountain; Feld = Field) Weissberg = White Mountain. etc. Sometimes wealthier Jews could pay for a nicer surname and poor Jews were stuck with bad ones.

Many Jews also chose their patronymics but translated it into the local language. For instance: Hirsch is the son of Mendel, in hebrew he is Hirsh bar Mendel. But in a Germanic speaking place he would have chosen the name Mendelsohn or Mendelson and in a slavic speaking place the suffix would be the familiar -witz. This accounts for Jewish surnames such as Isaacson; Mendelson; Abramson; Hirshson:etc

They also did this for matronymics. So the husband of Pearl would be Pearlman; The husband of Golda is Goldman; etc.

-- Place Names -- Many Jews simply chose to be named after their town or region. Berliner = from berlin; Posner = from Poland; and so on.

== Profession names -- Other Jews chose to be named after their line of work. The infamous Feinstein; Silverstein; are all Jewelers in one form or another. Garfunkel is a diamond dealer; Holzman is timber dealer; Wechsler is a money changer; Kaufman is a merchant; and so on. Bronfman is a liquor distiller (infamous seagrams family is named Bronfman)

-- Characteristics == Some Jews chose or were assigned a name relating to a personal attribute: Friedman is happy man; Hochman is tall man; Dreyfus means three-legged (referring to someone who walks with a cane)

---Animal Names--- Many Jews associated themselves with an animal and chose to be named after that: Baer/Beerman/Berkowitz = bear; Loeb = Lion; Wachtel = Quail;

--Traditional/Hebrew names-- Some Jews simply turned their hebrew name into a germanic one. Solomon = Zalman; Menachem = Mendel; and obviously for the Cohens and Levites (Rabbinical Families) they kept their name and it morphed depending on where or when they took it Cohen = Kahn/Kagan/Cohn/Kohn/Kaplan and Levi = Levin; Levinsky; Levitt; Levenson. In hebrew there is a tradition of naming things for acronyms as well; so there were some that were like that. Metz — from MOreh TSedek (holy teacher) Segal from SE Gan Levia (second rank Levite)

There were also many other types of names that wealthier Jews could buy - usually pretty nature-related things (baum = tree; Rosen = rose) etc.

Then account for lots of language changes, transliterations, name changes, and simple misspellings and you end up with the bevy of Jewish sounding names today. All of these were Germanic btw - There are also slavic transliterations of all of this.

(PS sephardic/mizrahi jews do not follow this pattern and they had surnames for a long long time before)

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    So basically they were named almsot exactly like the (catholic christian) Germans in the 1200s. Many of the examples you gave away are very common names for non-jews people.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 30, 2017 at 19:12
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    @Bregalad you are right. But we need to take into account a lot of things. But I am definitely sure that surnames created from Jewish name + sohn (son) suffix belongs only to Jews. Also in Russian Empire a lot of Jews came from Poland-Belarus-Lithuania region. So example of common surnames are Abramov (son of Abram) or Abramovich (the same meaning, please note -ich ending). I believe that Abram is not common name in Orthodox church. Also if we see Abramowski, I can't state surely anything about nationality, but -wski ending is typical for Poland :-)
    Jul 31, 2017 at 7:54
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    @Bregalad I suppose one could say that about any surname - they obviously all came from some word at some time. But the point of it is the historical context: -sons and -sohns are all germanic names, jewish and non-jewish, but hirshson is going to be a jewish name because Hirsh is a traditionally Jewish name - where as Tollefson would not be. Same with the professions - Feinsteins and Garfunkels are typically Jewish because those were jewish professions. Of course, there will be overlapping but in my life as a Jewish person I can almost always tell a Jewish name when I see one!
    – Miles H
    Aug 5, 2017 at 8:16
  • What about pejorative names, such as "long nose" ? I do not think a family would pick that on her its own. Some names were imposed/picked by the authorities at their own will.
    – Veverke
    Aug 6, 2017 at 7:15
  • (PS sephardic/mizrahi jews do not follow this pattern and they had surnames for a long long time before) - can you share an example or two, and precise what is "long before" ?
    – Veverke
    Aug 13, 2017 at 8:48

The expert on the subject of the etymology of Jewish surnames is Dr. Alexander Beider who between 1993 and 2017 has written 10 books:

  • Beider, A. 1993, 2008. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 1995. Jewish Surnames from Prague (15th-18th centuries). Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 1996. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu.["Best Judaica Reference Book" award for 1996]
  • Beider, A. 2001. A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation, and Migrations. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 2004. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu
  • Beider, A. 2005. Scientific Approach to Etymology of Surnames. Names: A Journal of Onomastics 53: 79-126.
  • Beider, A. & Morse, S. P. 2008. Beider–Morse Phonetic Matching: An Alternative to Soundex with Fewer False Hits. Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy 24/2: 12-18.
  • Beider, A. 2009. Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu.
  • Beider, A. 2015. Origins of Yiddish Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Beider, A. 2017. A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Maghreb, Gibraltar, and Malta. New Haven, CN: Avotaynu.

I had the pleasure of hearing and talking to Dr. Beider at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference in Orlando in July 2017. I am sure he would respond to your question "Is there such a thing as a Jewish surname" with a resounding "Yes!".

Dr. Beider wrote a short article in 2014 in Avotaynu Online on Jewish Surnames Adopted in Various Regions of the Russian Empire. Included in the article is a description of Slavic-sounding surnames that "constitute the largest category among Jewish surnames" and also surnames "derived from German words and/or with German suffixes".

So there were definite systems used to assign surnames that make Jewish surnames, and in particular Ashkenazi Jewish surnames quite identifiable.

This does not preclude that the Jewish surnames created did not overlap with some of the non-Jewish surnames that were already in existence. There may be many surnames that have both Jewish and non-Jewish origins.

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    Not related to the question, but how did Jews in Western Europe knew about their ancestry some generations before, say great-grandfather? How would he be referred to? By (first) name or "your great-grandfather did this or that"?
    – Til Hund
    Mar 12, 2021 at 10:29

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