I base most of this column on an article by Aaron Demsky, “The Hebraization of Names in Modern Israel,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 25 (2018). Demsky was a professor at Bar-Ilan University for several decades.
1. When did Jews begin to have last names (=surnames)? Demsky explains: “The modern history of Jewish surnames begins with the tolerant policies of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II, who in 1787 ordered the Jewish masses to take family names. Other Eastern European sovereignties followed: the Kingdom of Poland in 1797, the Russian Empire in 1804 and 1835, and, finally, the German principalities. By the early 19th century, Jews throughout Europe had adopted family names. This was necessary for imperial states to have an official means of registering their Jewish minority…This development was a positive step toward their recognition as citizens.”
There were a variety of categories of European Jewish surnames. They might be based on one’s father’s name, mother’s name, name of a place, physical trait, personality trait, occupation, heritage and lineage. There were also artificial names, based on some 30 basic words like “gold.” Several names are acrostical, e.g., Katz (kohen tzedek) and Segal (segan le-kehunah, second to the priest, a name for a Levi). A great priestly acrostical name is אזולי: ishah zonah va-chalelah lo yikachu (Lev. 21:7).
2. An early figure who Hebraized his European surname was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He arrived in Eretz Yisrael at age 24 in 1882, and was a major force in the renewal of the Hebrew language. He and his wife vowed that they would speak only Hebrew once they arrived. (This agreement initially bound his wife to silence, as she knew no Hebrew! The family would not hire a servant, despite the wife’s ailments, and their newborn son was not allowed to have playmates for several years, so his Hebrew would be “pure.” It took a long time before the child began to say any words. The story is also told that, years later, when Eliezer’s mother finally came to visit from Lithuania, having not seen him in many years, he refused to speak to her in a language she could understand!)
When he arrived from Lithuania in 1882, he abandoned his European name “Perelman,” and registered himself as Ben-Yehuda. (He had used this name before in his literary activities.) His original name meant “Perel’s husband.” His father’s name was Yehuda Lieb. Perhaps his new name was just a reflection of his father’s name. But on a deeper level, the name “Yehuda” symbolized the Jewish people and was an appropriate choice for one with a vision of leading a national movement. (Demsky thinks that Ben-Yehuda was probably aware of a passage at Eruvin 53b, which states that Bnei Yehuda were meticulous in their language, as opposed to Galileans.)
One of the first modern words that Ben-Yehuda created was מלון =dictionary, from the Biblical word: מילה. He is said to have broken his vow only one time, as he spoke French with Baron Edmond de Rothschild on one of the latter’s visits to the country.
3. David Gruen arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1906. He chose the name “Ben-Gurion.” “Gur” is a young animal in Tanach, usually a lion. Also, Josephus tells us that Joseph son of Gorion was a Jewish general in the war against the Romans (Jewish War, II, 563). Also, the 10th-century work Josippon (based on Josephus) erroneously referred to Josephus as “Joseph ben Gorion.”
Among Ben-Gurion’s associates, Shkolnik became “Eshkol,” and Shertok became “Sharet.” Shimon Persky took the name פרס. This is the name of a Biblically forbidden bird. It only appears twice in Tanach. Perhaps it comes from the “break” meaning of this root. It is often identified with the “ossifrage,” Latin for “bone breaker.” In his youth in Israel, Peres had seen a huge bird called by this name and had been impressed by it.
4. The second president of Israel was Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi. His prior name was “Shimshelevitch.” His wife, Golda Lishinsky, chose the new name “Rachel Yannait.” She based her last name on the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai (c. 100 B.C.E., great-grandson of Matityahu). With that added “-it” ending, she expressed her independence and gave the name a feminine touch.
In 1933, Ben-Zvi wrote an article: “Remove the Foreign Names From Among You.” He argued that the foreign surnames testified that the Jews were still strangers in their own land, and called upon the leaders of the Zionist movement to abandon these names. He renewed his call after the Jewish state was created. He believed that Hebrew names would help bind the various communities. To promote the policy, guidebooks on how to Hebraize one’s name were published.
5. In 1944, an official of the Jewish Agency proposed a detailed plan for the Agency to Hebraize the names of large sections of the Jewish population. For example, he proposed that all with the name “Goldberg” would become “Harpaz.” His plan never went into effect. (This official had changed his own name to “Nimtsa-Bi.” It had originally been “Netsabitski”!)
On an individual basis, changing one’s surname is not as easy as it sounds. Siblings might disagree with your new choice or feel strongly about keeping the family name.
6. In June 1948, the provisional government declared: “The citizens of a Hebrew state cannot continue to appear in personal and public life with foreign names…A radical change is required.” Accordingly, officials, health workers, teachers and youth leaders set about Hebraizing the names of young arrivals, often without their approval and without even attempting a connection. (E.g., Fairuz, Jean, and Sa’id all might become “Yitzchak.”)
7. In the mid 1950s when Ben-Gurion became prime minister and minister of defense, he instituted a requirement to Hebraize one’s surname for those representing the young state overseas in the diplomatic corps (and beauty pageants!) and for officers serving in the military. (I believe these requirements no longer exist.) Golda Meyerson became “Meir” but refused to change her given name.
One notable Israeli leader who did not change his surname was Menachem Begin. Ezer Weizman and Chaim Herzog resisted official pressure to change their names because of the importance of their relatives in the early history of Israel.
8. Many Holocaust survivors wanted to preserve their last names as they were the last remaining members of the family.
9. The most popular first name in Israel for years has been “Muhammad.” This is because 20% of the population in Israel is Muslim and in Muslim tradition everyone is obliged to have at least one person in the household with this name. (The name Muhammad is related to the Hebrew root חמד. It means “praiseworthy” in Arabic.)
10. For regular Israelis, the 10 most popular first names among newborn boys in a recent year were: Ariel, David, Lavie, Ori, Yosef, Eytan, Noam, Daniel, Itai and Judah. For girls: Tamar, Avigail, Yael, Adele, Noa, Sara, Shira, Noyah, Esther and Taliah. (Demsky finds it helpful to divide these names into traditional biblical names, renewed biblical names, and new names.)
Finally, for those who are torn between past and future, an interesting solution is to create a hyphenated surname! (Examples are the Hebrew linguist Moshe Goshen-Gottstein and the general Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.)
Mitchell First will of course change his last name to “Rishon” if he makes aliyah (but perhaps he will choose “Rishon-First”). He can be reached at [email protected].