The Story of Germanic Ashkenazi Names

I occasionally encounter Germans who seem a bit shocked when I, or some other American, confidently assume that an American named 'Goldstein' or 'Feldman' or 'Rosenthal' is Jewish. (Generally, these are Germans who haven't spent much time in the USA). To them, these just seem like unusual German names, meaning the people who carry them could just as easily be Protestant or Catholic. I then explain that  -- all stereotyping aside, not that it matters, etc. etc. -- the chance that an American with one of these names isn't Jewish is vanishingly small.

That's because these are names were imposed on Ashkenazi Jewish communities by German-speaking bureaucrats in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over at Slate, Bennett Muraskin has an article on the eubject:

Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance).

These Jews then emigrated to the United States, carrying their names with them. For obvious reasons, very few Jews with these names are left in Germany. Muraskin provides a fairly exhaustive list of the names, many of which are instantly recognizable to any German-speaker. One of them many life-changing benefits of learning German is the ability to impress your Jewish -- and even Gentile! -- friends by telling them what their names mean. Muraskin provides a list, allowing you non-speakers to play yourself:

Ackerman — plowman; Baker/Boker — baker; Blecher — tinsmith; Fleisher/Fleishman/Katzoff/Metger — butcher; Cooperman — coppersmith; Drucker — printer; Einstein — mason; Farber — painter/dyer; Feinstein — jeweler; Fisher — fisherman; Forman — driver/teamster; Garber/Gerber — tanner; Glazer/Glass/Sklar — glazier; Goldstein — goldsmith; Graber — engraver; Kastner — cabinetmaker; Kunstler — artist; Kramer — storekeeper; Miller — miller; Nagler — nailmaker; Plotnick — carpenter; Sandler/Shuster — shoemaker; Schmidt/Kovalsky — blacksmith; Shnitzer — carver; Silverstein — jeweler; Spielman — player (musician?); Stein/Steiner/Stone — jeweler; Wasserman — water carrier.


Garfinkel/Garfunkel — diamond dealer; Holzman/Holtz/Waldman — timber dealer; Kaufman — merchant; Rokeach — spice merchant; Salzman — salt merchant; Seid/Seidman—silk merchant; Tabachnik — snuff seller; Tuchman — cloth merchant; Wachsman — wax dealer; Wechsler/Halphan — money changer; Wollman — wool merchant; Zucker/Zuckerman — sugar merchant.

Related to tailoring

Kravitz/Portnoy/Schneider/Snyder — tailor; Nadelman/Nudelman — also tailor, but from "needle"; Sher/Sherman — also tailor, but from "scissors" or "shears"; Presser/Pressman — clothing presser; Futterman/Kirshner/Kushner/Peltz — furrier; Weber — weaver.


Alter/Alterman — old; Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane; Erlich — honest; Frum — devout ; Gottleib — God lover, perhaps referring to someone very devout; Geller/Gelber — yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair; Gross/Grossman — big; Gruber — coarse or vulgar; Feifer/Pfeifer — whistler; Fried/Friedman—happy; Hoch/Hochman/Langer/Langerman — tall; Klein/Kleinman — small; Koenig — king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch; Krauss — curly, as in curly hair; Kurtz/Kurtzman — short; Reich/Reichman — rich; Reisser — giant; Roth/Rothman — red head; Roth/Rothbard — red beard; Shein/Schoen/Schoenman — pretty, handsome; Schwartz/Shwartzman/Charney — black hair or dark complexion; Scharf/Scharfman — sharp, i.e  intelligent; Stark — strong, from the Yiddish shtark ; Springer — lively person, from the Yiddish springen for jump.

When Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, "The resulting names often are associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time." These names include: Applebaum — apple tree; Birnbaum — pear tree; Buchsbaum — box tree; Kestenbaum — chestnut tree; Kirschenbaum — cherry tree; Mandelbaum — almond tree; Nussbaum — nut tree; Tannenbaum — fir tree; Teitelbaum — palm tree.


Other names, chosen or purchased, were combinations with these roots:Blumen (flower), Fein (fine), Gold, Green, Lowen (lion), Rosen (rose), Schoen/Schein (pretty) — combined with berg (hill or mountain), thal (valley), bloom (flower), zweig (wreath), blatt (leaf), vald or wald (woods), feld (field).

Miscellaneous other names included Diamond; Glick/Gluck — luck; Hoffman — hopeful; Fried/Friedman — happiness; Lieber/Lieberman — lover.

Gerhart Hauptmann Haus, the Other Ostalgie, and the Origins of Becherovka

I recently gave a seminar in the Gerhart Hauptmann House in Düsseldorf (on a subject totally unrelated to him). The whole place seemed to be a kind of shrine to the former German populations in Eastern Europe, who were unceremoniously yet understandably kicked out of Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations in the wake of World War II. This was the fate the befell Hauptmann (g), a German writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1912, himself. In fact the Hauptmann Haus in Düsseldorf is also the headquarters of the Bund der Vertriebenen for Northern Rhine - Westphalia (g). For those of you who don't know, this 'League of the Expelled' represents the interests of those millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled from historical areas of German settlement (as well as areas conquered and brutally occupied by the Nazis) east of the Oder/Neisse river, which was roughly the Eastern border of East Germany.

Somewhere between 12 and 16 million Germans were expelled from the East immediately after the war:


The expulsion was often brutal, accompanied by abuse and massacres, and most of the expellees were forced to leave their land and possessions behind. The human suffering was enormous, but, to put it bluntly, nobody cared much about German suffering in the immediate aftermath of World War II. After the collapse of Communism, the idea of compensation for the expropriated property was bruited in some German circles, but was met with incredulousness verging on hostility by Eastern European governments.

The survivors of the expellees are still well-organized today, and are a moderately powerful lobby in Germany. They're considered pretty right-wing, and their actions are often a thorn in the side of the German government. To say the issue of compensation for expelled ethnic Germans is a sensitive issue in Eastern capitals is quite the understatement.

Here are a few photographs from the dusty displays in the Haus, featuring typical toys, pastries, and even bitters from the German Sudetenland:


I had no idea that Becherovka was originally created by Germans. 


Finally, a charming nativity scene. Well, except for the giant, flaccid penises pointing directly at the Christ Child. Oh wait, those are candles. Yet another embarrassing situation that could have been prevented by air-conditioning.


Germans Are the Biggest, And Quietest, Ethnic Group in the U.S.

German Heritage in US

Bloomberg reports that people of German ancestry are still the dominant ethnic group in the United States:

The U.S., first populated by Native Americans, rediscovered by Europeans and colonized under the flags of the Spanish, English and French, is now filled with Germans.

More than half of the nation’s 3,143 counties contain a plurality of people who describe themselves as German-American, according to a Bloomberg compilation of data from the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. The number of German- Americans rose by 6 million during the last decade to 49.8 million, almost as much as the nation’s 50.5 million Hispanics. (Click here to explore an interactive county-by-county map of U.S. ethnic groups.)


Germans have been immigrating in significant numbers to the U.S. since the 1680s, when they settled in New York and Pennsylvania. The bulk of German immigrants arrived in the mid- 19th century; they’ve been the nation’s predominant ethnic group since at least the 1980 census.

The increased identification with German culture contrasts with earlier eras in U.S. history -- during both world wars -- when many kept those ties quiet. The passage of time has replaced that impulse with a search for enduring traditions, said J. Gregory Redding, a professor of modern languages and literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

The 49.8 million German-Americans are more than triple the 14.7 million Asians counted in the 2010 census. Bloomberg’s county-by-county analysis broke down the Hispanic and Asian populations into subgroups by national origin, with Mexican- Americans and Chinese-Americans making up the largest share of their respective groups.

Americans of German descent top the list of U.S. ethnic groups, followed by Irish, 35.8 million; Mexican, 31.8 million; English, 27.4 million; and Italian, 17.6 million, the census shows.

Yes, there are millions of us. But you've never heard of us. Why? Because we stay in the background. We learned that from two world wars. We German-Americans are doing those well-paid but kind of boring jobs that form the backbone of American industry. We're managing your hardware stores, mixing your new industrial sealants, and overseeing your supply and distribution chains. Unlike more flamboyant ethnicities -- you know, the ones with lots of vowels in their names and/or dark, curly hair -- we don't call attention to our cute customs. That would be totally un-Lutheran.

Perhaps that should change. We German-Americans should begin flexing our cultural muscles. You want to invite me to drink green beer for St. Patrick's Day or eat matzohs at your seder or roast suckling pig at your Vietnamese wedding? Fine, I'll go! But then you have to come eat Käsespätzle and drink Weizenbier at my house. And then we're going to schunkeln. And you're going to like it!

When Your German Surname Mocks You

One of the many advantages of learning German is that I can return to the United States and inform the 50 million Americans of German ancestry what their last names mean. All these Totenbergs, Fickens, Himmelfarbs, Rosenthals, Koenigs, Knapps, Wagenknechts, Sensenbrenners, Schwarzkopfs, and Schoenemanns are usually blissfully unaware that their last names mean something (or at least imply something) in German.

Sometimes, the results are shock and dismay, other times bemusement. Heck, I could probably turn a profit from offfering this service.What made me think of this was an article in the American online magazine Salon about celebrities who are atheists, a group which apparently includes Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Keira Knightley, and Julianne Moore. (Almost all the celebrities mentioned in the article are American, by the way).

The author, apparently an atheist herself, says 'As I watch the Academy Awards each year, I’m always left wondering: Aren’t there any atheist celebrities? ... Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s awards ... the presence of many of these performers on the red carpet is certainly something to celebrate.'

The author's name: Laura ... Gottesdiener.*

Continue reading "When Your German Surname Mocks You" »

Where German-Jewish Surnames Came From

One thing I've noticed about Germans is that they are often surprised when I assume that an American named Goldberg, Rosenthal, Friedman or Rosenbaum is Jewish. I don't know any precise statistics, but I'd be willing to bet that 95% of Americans named Goldberg are probably Jewish.* Yet many Germans, even fairly worldly ones, don't associate these names with Judaism.

I've had to explain the 'Jewish names phenomenon' over and over to Germans. My explanation, which I've given a couple dozen times, was based on a hazy recollection of something I once read in one of those things that consists of a bunch of pieces of paper glued together inside a cardboard cover. I decided recently to try to see whether I was right, and came across this informative website:

Before the 1800s most German Jews who lived in cities had already either a fixed surname, or a double name (examples for such double names: Amsel Abraham, Löw Baruch, Ascher Simon). On the country side, Jews were often recorded in German documents solely by their given name (examples: Abraham, David, Jakob, Seligmann). In older documents one may find references to “Jacob Jude”, “Isaac Jude”, “Abraham Jude”, Jude simply meaning “Jacob Jew”, “Isaac Jew”, “Abraham Jew”.

During the Emancipation, some government officials misunderstood the legislation, and demanded that even previously appropriate surnames should be changed. A number of such examples can be found in the Duchy of Baden: In the District Administration of Lörrach (Rötteln), even the “acceptable” surnames Bloch and Braunschweig were changed. There had been 14 families with the Bloch surname, and 7 by the surname of Braunschweig. None of them kept their old surname. The Braunschweigs changed their names to: Beck, Braun, Dornacher, Graf, and Keller. The Blochs adopted the following family names: Dietersheimer, Dornacher, Dreher, Geißmann/Geißmar, Kaufmann, Kirchheimer, Mock, and Weil.

A number of the official name change lists still exist in Germany, as well as other documents that can help clarify what a family’s surname was before the official name change, and reveal if they actually changed their surname or were able to hold on to the family’s original name. Birth registrations in Naugard, Prussia, for example, list a Nathan Friedländer with the added remark: “by the name Silberstein”. Some records show him as Nathan Friedländer Silberstein, while he only appears as Silberstein after 1821. Between 1800 and the 1820s many “double names” can be found in documents – usually they reveal the family's surname before the name change, however in a few cases the families had adopted a new surname they didn’t care for after a while, so they changed again...

Please note: Jewish families were required change their names everywhere in Germany. Subsequently many families who were not related at all chose the exact same surnames: if your family came from the same town as another family with the exact surname as yours, it does therefore not necessarily mean that you are related to that family! ...

While some of the newly chosen surnames are the same as the surnames of their Christian neighbors, others reflect the sensitivities of Romanticism, leading many to think of such names as “typical Jewish names”. Plant names such as Mandelbaum, Rosenbusch, Rosenbaum, Rosenstihl, Rosenstock, Rosenberg, Weinstock, or professional names such as Goldschmidt, Krämer, Mahler, Eisenhändler, may come to mind.

There were however numerous German Christian families, especially so in East and West Prussia, who had carried the surnames of Rosenberg, Rosenbaum, Rosenkranz, Goldschmidt, Goldberg, etc. already for many centuries. It is therefore extremely important to research one’s family history carefully, and once again, not to jump to any conclusions simply based on a surname.

In other words: a “Jewish sounding German surname” does not necessarily mean that ones ancestors were Jewish if one’s parents and grandparents were Christians! The same applies to German surnames mentioned in Jewish surname databases. When entering those same names into a regular database, one will very likely come across the same names among Christian families.

To prove this point, here is another example of Jewish name changes in the early 1800s from the District Administration of Durlach, in the Duchy of Baden: 17 Jewish families lived in the village of Weingarten (plus 6 individuals who were not married). Before the name change there were 3 families with the surname Esaias, obviously relatives or brothers, however each of them changed to a different surname! Among the 17 families the following names were chosen: Bachmann, Bär, Baum, Blum, Fuchs, Hirsch, Holz, Klein, Krieger, Löwenstein (previously Löw), Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, Schmidt, Schwarz, Sommer, Stahl, Stein, Stengel, Weidenreich, Winter. While Löwenstein, Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, indeed sound like “typical Jewish surnames”, all of the other surnames are in most cases not “Jewish names”, with a large number of German families who already had carried those surnames for centuries.

Continue reading "Where German-Jewish Surnames Came From" »

How Right-Wing is Christian Kracht?

The Kid in Berlin, whose blog I am happy to have just stumbled across, has a piece on the Diez-Kracht affair. George Diez, one of the Spiegel's critics, has recently written a long take-down of Swiss writer Christian Kracht. Diez accuses Kracht of harboring right-wing sympathies based on his latest novel Imperium (g) (which involves an oddball German exile founding a colony in the South Seas in the 19th century) and, perhaps more interestingly, on Kracht's correspondence with American artists David Woodard (g). Of course, this being Germany, the Diez article is not online.

More background from the Kid.

Of course, the setting of the novel means Kracht has to depict racist mindsets - and yet Diez for one is troubled by the intransparency of the narrator's standpoint. This writer, he says, has a fascination with dictatorships and evil but never quite reveals where he stands on the issue, while it occupies a growing place in his writing.

But it's on the last of the article's four pages that Diez cuts to the quick. Because here he turns to Kracht's friend David Woodard. The two of them last year published a compendium of their email correspondence, which was generally reviewed with bored shrugs. Perhaps the weight of all that communication dulled the reviewers' senses, because some of the quotes Diez obviously underlined at the time are hair-raising. The two of them admiringly bandy about names of right-wing populists and out-and-out Nazis and - this is the important bit - discuss the Paraguayan Aryan settlement Nueva Germania. You can read about Woodard's involvement in this community in a 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can also see on this website that Woodard was working on a novel - I can only assume on the same subject - that was supposed to be published by Blumenbar Verlag in 2009. It was not. I'd be interested to find out why not.

Is it a coincidence that Kracht chose a very similar subject for Imperium? Certainly it reflects the two men's common fascination with German oddballs who set up colonies in far-flung places, only to fail. Of course Diez can't do much more than ask similar questions himself, the writing being extremely slippery. And that's one reason why I've never read Kracht's work. Incidentally, his non-fiction book The Ministry of Truth, depicting Kim Jong Il's North Korea, is available in English, published by Feral House, a US publisher with an apparent and perhaps fitting part-focus on occultism, serial killers, Nazism, "exposing Muslim fundamentalism" and dictatorships. Other authors they publish include Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. The disclaimer reads: "Feral House does not support or justify Kaczynski's crimes, nor does the author receive royalties or compensation for this book. It is this publisher’s mission, as well as a foundation of the First Amendment, to allow the reader the ability to discern the value of any document." Many of the images on the publisher's website would be banned under German law.

You should definitely click on the link to the San Francisco Chronicle in the excerpt above. To make sure you do, here it is again.

A German Escapes the Valley of Whining

E.J. Graff of the American prospect relates the story of a German expat who's settled into the U.S. and why:

"Why do you stay in the U.S., then?" I asked the German-born historian whose last professional job in Germany [actually, I think this is supposed to say the U.S.] ended two years ago. Since then, she has been doing piecemeal work and relying on a much thinner social safety net in the U.S. than she would have in her country of origin. There, she'd have her family, health care, lower housing costs, and other social and economic guarantees. She had just told me how much Germany had come to life since her youth: instead of "don't walk on the grass" signs, there's a lively public culture; instead of beige houses, there's an explosion of color; instead of the grim and clenched authoritarian culture for which Germany was once famous, there's playfulness. So why stay in the U.S.?

I wasn't challenging her; I was genuinely curious. It takes a certain kind of person to leave your culture behind and be unfamiliar with everything forever after. No matter how long she's been here, she can never be part of certain shared cultural conversations, which we refer to by particular markers: the Brady Bunch, or Seinfeld, or what Ellen's "puppy episode" meant to lesbians at the time....

She had two answers, both which interested me. The first was that, having been an expat for more than a decade, she would never again be fully at home in Germany; she was Americanized now, to some degree, and would be out of place there. I've heard that before from Americans who've lived abroad for some extended period. ... So I wasn't surprised by the historian's answer. But why would that keep her here? Because, she explained, here her accent marks her as foreign; it reveals her reason for being a little different, a little unfamiliar with ordinary cultural habits. But in Germany, where she is unmarked as a foreigner, her different-ness irritates people. Aha! That made sense. 

But there's a second reason she likes the U.S., and it surprised me: Because of our famous "can do" attitude. She used the phrase with the air quotes, of course—but she meant it. She can't stand it, she said, that Germans whine all the time. They complain about what the government isn't doing. Americans, she said, just fix it. Even the whiners do something about whatever it is they dislike.

The German word for this phenomenon is Jammertal, roughly, the Valley of Whining. I can sympathize with the expat here: the whining is probably the unloveliest of German personality traits, which is why I'm going to simply point it out but not whine about it.

Gumbrecht Dissects Deutschland

In an interview with Die Welt, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a German professor of Romance languages who relocated to sunny California and became an American citizen, notes the things that annoy him about Germany when he returns (excerpts, in my translation):

Welt:...What is lame about German debates?

Gumbrecht: I would say: The fact that there actually aren't that many different ones. There is a certain spectrum, but the individual positions on the spectrum are always there and recognizable. Here's how it works: On the one side you have people who say we should just love all the wonderful foreigners, on the other side, people who think German culture is unique and must absolutely be preserved, a view that's almost fascistic. When people like Sarrazin come along with their viewpoints, which are somewhat right-wing, then a certain predictable sequence of reactions begins. It reminds me of a xylophone: You keep hammering your little plate, and the others hammer theirs a bit -- but always in the same way.


Gumbrecht: In Germany, there's still this idea that Europe, and not America, should be the center of the world, and that Europeans actually already know how the world should be ideally. But you actually see things going wrong there constantly.... This creates a lot of dissatisfaction.

Die Welt: How does that present itself in the society?

Gumbrecht: In the nine months when I was in Germany, it struck me as extreme how social democratic the country is. You barely ever meet anyone who isn't somehow calculating how they can obtain the maximum amount of leisure time with the least effort.


Gumbrecht: My thesis is there's a specific kind of German know-it-all self-righteousness (Rechthaberei).

Die Welt: A German kind?

Gumbrecht: You very seldom talk to people in Germany who are capable of viewing their own opinions in a sort of second-order way; that is, to be able to say 'this is my opinion, and it might be correct or false.' Or people who enter a conversation without thinking it would be a terrible defeat if they were to change their opinion. If it begins to seem during a conversation -- either in academic ones or in normal middle-class ones -- that not everybody is going to sonorously state their agreement, then the subject will be avoided. Take, as an example, that there are no 'debate clubs' in Germany.... [In the U.S.], it's like a sport. But it's completely unthinkable that there would be debate clubs in Germany. Either you know what's right and wrong, or you don't. By the way: Two out of three Germans who visit me in Stanford explain to me after ten minutes what America is and how it works. When they notice that I don't think the same way they do, they then explain to me why I'm wrong and what the right opinion is. Even people whom I consider intelligent do this.


Die Welt: And this doesn't happen in America?

Gumbrecht: Oh sure, there's a culture of political correctness here. But the basic differences begin with the legal system, the common law and it's basic principle that 'each case is to be argued.' Or with nationality. The judge who swore me in stressed that from that moment on, I was 100% American, just as American as someone whose ancestors came here in the 17th century. That is an interesting premise. Or look at these absurd churches. You have to have them all. Whether they'll last is another question. But this inability to tolerate all sorts of things existing side-by-side -- this need to force them all to be compatible -- this you find specifically in Germany. Take the university debates. In Germany, people think there's an ideal model of a university that can be made uniform. But here in the USA, it's considered perfectly fine that Stanford is so different from Berkeley, or Harvard from Yale. The more diverse, the better.

Die Welt: can you think of anything positive?

Gumbrecht: I really tried! I have to say one thing. All these things I've just mercilessly dissected -- a very academic thing to do, by the way -- also exist in American, as trace elements. But the worst know-it-alls here are slightly less annoying, because it's clear to them that there are lots of people around who don't think as they do. In a society in which you can either be Protestant, Catholic, or nothing, you can be convinced you're right. In the crazy plurality over here, though, even when you're a total fundamentalist, you have to recognize there are others. And thus, one thing doesn't exist here: the desperate search for correctness and this German oxymoron: the 'desired opinion.'

I'll refrain from comment, except to note that this blog noted the lameness of German debates years ago...