During the 1920s, many things occurred in the worldwide Jewish community that affected surnames. Anti-Semitic attacks escalated. Sometimes the mere mention of a Jewish-sounding name triggered an investigation or arrest. Many European Jews who fled to the United States were processed at Ellis Island by immigration personnel who didn’t speak their language and frequently misspelled or even changed the names radically. As Jewish immigrants melded into American culture, some shortened their own names to make them sound more American.
How Jewish Surnames Originated
Beginning at the end of the 18th century, many European countries required Jews to take a permanent last name for the purposes of collecting taxes and the draft. Prior to that, the first name and name of their father was the full name, or "patronymic." If two people in a village had the same name , the occupation was added. For example, Matilda bat Yosef (Matilda, daughter of Joseph). If there were two boys named Yakov ben Shmul (Jacob, son of Samuel), the names might become Jacob ben Shmul Beker (baker) and Jacob ben Shmul Shnayder (tailor).
Popular Jewish Surnames in the 1920s
Influenced by many factors during the 1920s, some names stayed the same, some totally changed and some were shortened. Derived from tribal ancestry recorded by the Jewish people, the names "Cohen" and "Levy" were, and still are, the two most common surnames among Jews in the United States. "Miller" was very popular during that era, as were names ending in -berg, -stein, -man, -thal, -bluth, -ski, -sky, -vitz or -witz. People who had these names were sometimes thought to be Jewish even if they weren’t. With the push to Americanize names, dropped endings resulted in names like "Goldstein" becoming "Gold," "Aaronowitz" changing to "Aaron" or "Rosenthal" to "Rosen."
Origin of Some Jewish Given Names
Changes to Yiddish first names often occurred either at the port of embarkation or Ellis Island because processing agents spelled them the way they sounded. Also, many Jews left their names behind in the old country and adopted new ones, wanting to blend into their new life. Some created names from a sound or meaning in their old name. Jewish babies are often named to honor deceased family members and carry forward Hebrew or Yiddish names. In their new homes, many of these transplanted Jews applied the same formula when naming after an ancestor. Thus, someone named for Sh'mu'el might be called "Sam," or "Rose" instead of "Raizel." Often cousins born within a few years of each other had the same names because they were named after the same ancestor.
Popular Given Names in the 1920s
Several of the popular names in the Jewish culture were also found in the general population’s 1,000 most popular names during the 1920s. For men, the names included: Joseph, David, Samuel or Sam, Jonathan or John, Benjamin, Joshua and Daniel. For women: Mary, Elizabeth, Ruth, Sarah, Judith, Rachel and Deborah. It is interesting to note that just as surnames were evolving, several Hebrew first names gained popularity among the general populace, while at the same time other Hebrew first names were Americanized, such as "Y'hudit" to "Judith" and "Y'hoshua" to "Joshua."
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