The Hebraization of surnames exploded in popularity with the beginning of Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language (1). But it has a much older genesis, dating back to at least the Middle Ages. For instance, in Jewish Provence, toponyms were used, so a man from Lunel (literally, “moon”) would call himself Yarchi while a Rabbi from Montpellier (literally, “from the mountain”) went by the moniker Min-Hahar.
With the flowering of haskalah in Central and Eastern Europe beginning in the late 18th century, quite a few scholars of note began shedding their Germanic surnames in favor of Hebrew ones; Moses Mendelsohn’s disciples often referred to him as Ben Menachem, for instance.
It is interesting to note this perhaps unexpected phenomenon in religious Zionist and Lithuanian haredi circles. Aside from many prominent personages in the Religious Zionist community (e.g., Rabbi Goren [from Goronchik]; Rabbi Maimon [from Fischman]; Rabbi Yisraeli [from Israelit]; Rabbi Ilan [from Ilander]) who followed suit, many Lithuanian “haredi” Rabbinic personages Hebraized their surnames, some already back in their countries of origin. For instance, the current rosh yeshiva of the prestigious Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem is surnamed “Ezrahi”; his father had Hebraized his surname from “Birg” (literally, “citizen”) already back in Latvia). Another current rosh yeshiva of Mir, Rabbi Arieli, is a descendant of Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli who had originally been affiliated with the Religious Zionist community and had Hebraized his surname (curiously, Rabbi Arieli gives a Tuesday night and Friday morning shiur [on a talmudic tractate] in “Tiferet Tzvi,” a yeshiva for Religious Zionist students who “want to learn Torah like haredim”). Other examples of Hebraizations from the Israeli haredi community include Hevroni; Elyashiv (either from the Slavic patronym “son of Elias” or from the Slavicazation of the original Hebrew name); Efrati; Shachor (from Schwartz); Peli and many others.
To be continued...
(1). Ben Gurion (formerly Green) famously required all the members of his cabinet to Hebraize their surnames. However, on the extent of this phenomenon in the period preceding the establishment of the state I quote the Israel Genealogical Society:
“During the period of the British Mandate in Palestine (1921-1948), people who legally changed their name had this information posted in the British/Palestinian publication called the “Palestine Gazette.” There were 28,256 names published, showing the old name, new name and sometimes country of origin. Not everyone legally changed their name, perhaps fewer than 50% did so. Most of them were Jews.”
By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger
Joel S. David Weisberger runs Channeling Jewish History. You can find it on various social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]