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Hebraization of surnames

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Hebraization of surnames

A letter written by Yechezkel Danin (Sochovolsky) to the Ottoman Authorities in the Land of Israel concerning the Hebraization of his surname, from "Sochovolsky" to "Danin"

The Hebraization of surnames (also spelled Hebraicization)[1][2] (Hebrew: עברות‎, Ivrut, "Hebraization") is the process of adopting Hebrew family names (also called surnames or last names).

Many immigrants to modern Israel changed their names to Hebrew names, to erase remnants of galuti (exiled, diaspora-like) life still surviving in family names from other languages. This phenomenon was especially common among Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Israel, because most of their names were taken later and some were imposed by the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Very few Hebrew surnames exist, such as Cohen ('priest'), Moss ('Moses') and Levi (Levite). Names ending with -berg, -stein or -man are often thought of as Jewish, but are of German origin, while suffixes such as -sky and -vitz are Slavic. Similarly, a few Hebrew surnames, such as Katz, Bogoraz, Uhl and Pak are in fact Hebrew acronyms, even though they sound and are often perceived as being of foreign origin (in these cases, from German, Russian, Polish and Korean, respectively).

The Hebraization of surnames is a unique phenomenon to the Hebrew language.[3] This process began as early as the days of the First and Second Aliyot and continued after the establishment of the State of Israel.[3] The widespread trend towards hebraization of surnames in the days of the Yishuv and immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel was based on the claim that a Hebrew name provided a feeling of belonging to the new state.[3] There was also the wish to distance from the lost and dead past, and from the forced imposition of foreign (e.g. German) names in the previous centuries.[3]

This process has not ended: among the thousands of Israelis who currently apply for legal name changes each year, many do it to adopt Hebrew names.[4]


In the Yishuv

Among the Yishuv (the first to return to Eretz Yisrael — the Land of Israel), there was a strong feeling of sh'lilat ha'gola (Hebrew: שלילת הגולה "negation of the diaspora/Exile"), which often included the exchange of Diaspora surnames (which some regarded as "slave names") for purely Hebrew ones.[5] Part of the Zionist movement, was not only Aliyah (immigration to Israel) it was also wanting to create an image of an Eretz-Yisraeli Jew that would be different than the Yiddish speaking, shtetl living, and perceived weak Diaspora Jew, and these things were a significant part of the people of the First and Second Aliyot (from the 1880s onwards) and they Hebraized their surnames.[3] By Hebraizing the name, the foreign last name could be cast aside.

Jewish Agency booklet

This process started with individuals like Eliezer ben Yehuda (Perelman) and was adopted by the New Yishuv. Before the foundation of the State of Israel, in 1944, the Zionist leadership and the Jewish National Council proclaimed it the "Year of naturalization and the Hebrew name".[3] Because of that, a special committee under the chairmanship of Mordechai Nemzabi, the Jewish Agency adviser on matters of civilian defense, published a booklet which contained guidelines on the creation on new Hebrew surnames.[3]

Changing a foreign surname to Hebrew
  1. Change of vocalization: Leib becomes Lev
  2. Change of consonants: Borg becomes Barak
  3. Shortening by omitting the ending: Rosenberg becomes Rosen
  4. Shortening a name with a Hebrew meaning, by omitting the foreign suffix: Yakobovitch (Jacobowitz, Jacobowicz) becomes Ya'akovi
  5. Translating the foreign name into Hebrew according to the meaning: Abramovich (Abramowicz, Abramowitz) becomes Ben Avraham
First names as surnames
  1. Name of a father or mother who were murdered during the Shoah, thus: Bat Miriam, Ben Moshe, Devorin
  2. Son or daughter who fell in battle: Avinoam
  3. Brother or sister who were killed or fell: Achimeir
  4. Beloved or admired biblical figure: Shaul, Davidi
Change of names by names of places, plants or sites in Eretz Yisrael
  1. Places or sites: Hermoni, Eilat, Gilad
  2. Plants, especially plants of the Land of Israel: Eshel ("orchard", "garden"), Rotem ("desert broom")

After the Establishment of the State

After the Establishment of the State of Israel, there was still the attitude that the hebraization of family names should continue, in order to get rid of names with a Diaspora sound.[3]

David ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel was very committed to the use of the Hebrew language (he changed his surname from Gryn to Ben Gurion) tried to convince as many people to change their surnames into 'real' Hebrew ones. On the signing of Declaration of Independence, Ben-Gurion got Herzl Rosenblum to sign it Herzl Vardi, his pen name (and later he changed it to his legal name), as Ben-Gurion wanted more Hebrew names on the document. Nine more of the signatories of the document would then go on to Hebraize their name, as well.

Ben-Gurion, in an order to the IDF soldiers he wrote, "It is desirable that every commanding officer (from Squadron Commander to Chief of Staff) should change his surname, whether German, English, Slavic, French or foreign in general, to a Hebrew surname, in order to be a role model for his soldiers. The Israel Defense Forces must be Hebrew in spirit, vision, and in all internal and external expressions."[3]

A binding order of the same issue was issued to the officials of the state in 1950, and particularly to those who represented the State abroad. A "Committee for Hebrew Names" was established to supervise the implementation of the order, whose task was to assist and advise the choice of a Hebrew name.

Supporters and Opponents

The Hebraization of surnames provoked sharp controversy in the days of the Yishuv and also after the establishment of the State of Israel.


Among the most significant supporters was Yitzhak Ben Zvi (Shimshelevich), leader of the Labor movement, historian and second President of the State of Israel. He was born in Ukraine on 24 November 1884. He studied law in Istanbul together with David Ben Gurion. In 1906 he attended the founding conference of the Poalei Zion and in 1907 he settled in the Land of Israel.[3] He belonged to the founders of the Ahdut ha-Avodah Party, was active in the Haganah, a member of the Jewish National Council, and signed the Declaration of Independence.[3] Ben Zvi died in 1963. Ben Zvi wrote:

All rabbinic authorities encourage hebraizing first names (VaYikra Rabba 32, and Kor'ei Sh'mo, pp. 173–181), and some actively encourage last names, as well (Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Resp. She'elat Shlomo VIII, 67-68), and even did so themselves: among them: Rabbis Menashe HaKatan (Klein), Maharam Schick, Shlomo Goren (Goronchick), Shaul Yisraeli (Israelite), Moshe Zvi Neria (Menkin), Shlomo Aviner (Langenauer).


Alongside the enthusiastic supporters and those who encouraged the Jews who lived in the Land of Israel to change their family name into a Hebrew one were also opponents of this process who saw it as an act of erasing part of Jewish history.

One of the opponents of the Hebraization of surnames was Moses Calvary, a writer and teacher. Born in Germany 1883, he received a traditional, general, and rabbinical education.[3] He was a member of Ahdut Ha'avodah, an educator in the Meir Shafia youth village, principal of the Hebrew Gymnasium (High School) in Jerusalem, and educator in the "Ahava" youth village in Kiryat Bialik.[3] He wrote articles in Hebrew and German. Moses Calvary died in 1944.

Some people were emotically attached to their Diaspora last name, for reasons such as it having noble origins (Hebrew: יִחוּס Yichus), or for a desire to continue to identify with their ethnic group.[5] There is story of an Israeli diplomat who told David Ben-Gurion, "I will change my name if you can find me one non-Jew named Lifshitz."[5] Others had names that were entirely Hebrew to begin with.[5]

The disagreement about the Hebraization of surnames continued. Many people changed their family names, such as Yigael Sukennik who changed his name to Yigael Yadin, and Levi Shkolnik who changed it to Levi Eshkol. Others preserved their foreign surname, such as Chaim Weizmann, and Shimon Agranat.


This trend has moderated with time,[3] after the establishment of the State and then with Hebrew becoming an everyday language. However, even today, people continue to Hebraize their surname, especially those serving in the IDF and Israel's diplomatic missions, representing the State of Israel.[3]

In addition, as tensions between different Jewish ethnic groups arose, some wanted to dissidentify with a "stigmatized" ethnic group or to merge into a "collective Israeli identity" and therefore created a desire to Hebraize.[5]

There is also a trend to return to one's roots and preserve traditions unique to each ethnic group.[3] As part of the desire of those who want to return to their roots, there are people who re-adopt the name their family previously abandoned for the sake of "Israeliness", such as Israeli writer Yitzhak Orpaz who restored his family's original family name of "Averbuch".[3]

The large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union since the 1990s clearly had the effect of weakening the practice of Hebraizing names – as part of the marked general tendency of these immigrants to cling to their specific Russian linguistic and cultural identity. A conspicuous example is the former (2009–2013) Israeli Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov. Though an outspoken Israeli nationalist on other issues, Misezhnikov did not feel impelled to change his clearly Slavic surname (nor his equally Slavic first name), and there was no public pressure on him to do so – as there would have been on an Israeli minister during the country's first decades.


There were several ways people Hebraized their names.


Some names were directly translated from the corresponding Diaspora name.[5]

Direct translations:
Old New
Goldberg Har-Paz
Schlossberg Har-Segor
Steinberg Har-Even
Rosenstein Even-Shoshan
Herbst Stavi
Silver(man) Caspi
Mostovski Gashri

Jewish patronyms:

Others were direct translations of patronymic names.[5]
Old New
Meyerson Ben-Meir (means: son of Meir)
Mendelssohn Ben-Menachem (means: son of Menachem) (Yiddish diminutive: Mendel)
Davidson Ben-David


Other names were translated from toponyms.[5]
Old New Meaning
Wilner Vilna'i both mean "from Wilna"
Deutsch(er) (means: German in German) Ashkenazi (means: German in Medieval Hebrew)


Other names were the negation of so-called "Ekelnamen" (literally "Disgusting names" in German, deliberately insulting or demeaning last names forced upon ancestors by non-Jewish officials).[5]
Old New
Luegner (means: liar) Amiti (means: truthful)
Ausubel (means: from bad) Ben-Tov (means: son of good)

Phonetic similarity

Other names were Hebraized on their similar sounding to a Biblical place

name, Jewish historical figure, or Hebrew word with a positive meaning, though sometimes their phonetic similarity was far-fetched.[5]
Old New
Meyerson Meir (means: brilliant; or named for Rabbi Meir)
Gruen Ben-Gurion (historical figure)
Epstein Eilat (place name)
Neumann Ne'eman (means: faithful)
Kalb Gilboa (place name)
Berkovitz Barak (means: lightning)
Brotzlewsky Bar Lev (means: son of Lev)
Boris Baruch

Choice between translation and phonetic similarity

Sometimes, there were prevalent options between either translating it, or choosing a name based on similar sound (homophone).[5]
Old Direct translation choice Phonetic similarity choice
Rosen Shoshani, Vardi (means: rose) Rozen (means: count)
Shkolnik Lamdan (means: yeshiva student) Eshkol (means: cluster of grapes)
Feld Sadeh (means: field) Peled (means: steel)
In some cases, a false cognate could satisfy both options at once.
Old New
Loewe Lavi (means: lion)
Lempel (means: little lamp) Lapid (means: torch)


Others chose completely newly chosen names, many times symbolic in nature.[5]
Name Meaning
Ben-Artzi means "son of my land"
Nir means "ploughed field" as dug by a farmer

Kept their name

Others kept their name for several reasons. Sometimes, the reason it was kept was because of its religious nature. For examples, names connected with the Kohen (priesthood) such as (ex. Cohen, Kohn, Kaplan, Sacerdoti, Katz, Azoulai, etc...).[5] Other times it indicated Levite decent such as Levi, Levy, Weil (anagram), and Segal (Hebrew acronym). Other times it was synagogue or Jewish community functions such as Gabbai, Chazan, or Rabin.[5] Sometimes (more common amongst Sephardim) the surname was already Hebrew (Sarfati).

Others kept their name for its yichus,(meaning that the person descends from something akin to "good stock") which gave the bearer more reason not to Hebraize it.[5] For example, Horowitz (famous rabbinical dynasty), Rothschild (famous Jewish banking dynasty), Einstein (famous bearer), or Shaltiel (ancient Sephardic family tracing its origins to King David – and it's already Hebrew).[5]

Others kept their name but the name underwent some mutation because they contained sounds that do not exist in Hebrew.[5] Examples include Lando (from "Landau"), and Glober (from "Glauber").[5]

Other "Diaspora" Jewish names are Hebrew to begin with such as Ashkenazi, Yerushalmi, corruptions of Hebrew words, such as Heifetz (from Chafetz), Hebrew acronyms, such as Shalit (from "Sheyihye le'orekh yamim tovim"), or of Aramaic origin, such as Kahane, or Raban.[5]


  1. ^ Random House Unabridged Dictionary: Hebraize
  2. ^ Random House Unabridged Dictionary: Hebraize
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s The Hebraization of Surnames, Jewish Agency for Israel
  4. ^ "What's in a (monarch's) name? - Israel News, Ynetnews". 1995-06-20. Retrieved 2014-08-12. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Some preliminary notes on Israeli family names, Professor Gershom Martin, Weizmann Institute of Science

See also

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