Stability is not a common trait in Jewish names and those researching their family tree should not expect too much consistency from generation to generation or even over the course of a single individual’s life. Leaving to one side the traditional naming patterns before the era of (supposedly) fixed surnames, Jewish names change, or different names are used, for a host of reasons. 

A Jewish person or family resident in a country using the Cyrillic alphabet will spell his or her name, or have it spelt for them in official papers, in one way but transliterate it differently into the Latin alphabet. There is not a simple 1:1 correspondence between the characters of the two alphabets and there are different transliteration systems which, in turn, have changed over time and differ by place (for example, French and German transliterations from Russian often differ from the English and American). 

Of course, many Jews and virtually all educated Jews in Eastern Europe were fluent in at least two languages, depending on their place of residence: in the former Russian empire, including the Congress Kingdom of Poland, they might well have spoken Russian, and/or German, and/or Polish. The Jewish lingua franca of the empire was Yiddish, although an increasing number were at least conversant with Hebrew. Yiddish also had its dialects, such as Litvish spoken by the Litvaks, which affected the pronunciation and therefore also the spelling or rendering of proper names. 

When Jews emigrated westwards, to Germany, for instance, or France or the Netherlands, and especially when they came into contact with the English-speaking world, their eastern names caused difficulties of orthography and pronunciation, and were subject to change in spelling and usage. Here is Joseph Roth writing in The Wandering Jews (translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, 2001) about the experience of Galician Jews arriving in Vienna: 

“Christian papers are in order. All Christians have sensible, European names. Jewish names are mad and Jewish. Nor is that all: they have two or three surnames, qualified by false or recte. You never know what to call them. Their parents were married by a rabbi. The marriage has no legal standing. If the father’s name is Weinstock, and the mother’s Abramovsky, then the children of their union will be called Weinstock recte Abramovsky, or perhaps Abramovsky false Weinstock. The boy, for example, is given the Jewish first name of Leib Nachman. Because the name is difficult and might sound provocative to others’ ears, the son styles himself Leo. So his name is Leib Nachman styled Leo Abramovsky false Weinstock. As far as the police are concerned, names like that are nothing but trouble.” 

So the Jew will simplify or change his name to satisfy the civil servant who wants sensible order to prevail. Not that that will invariably give satisfaction, as the Jew will have papers, if he has papers at all, which do not support the claimed new identity, and which will cast further suspicion upon him. 

Roth’s remarks in a later chapter of his book should also be borne in mind when undertaking research: 

“Don’t be surprised at the Jews’ lack of attachment to their names. They will change their names with alacrity, and the names of their fathers, even though those particular sounds, to the European sensibility, are charged with emotional weight. For Jews their names have no value because they are not their names. Jews, Eastern Jews, have no names. They have compulsory aliases. Their true name is the one by which they are summoned to the Torah on the Sabbath and on holy days: their Jewish first name and the Jewish first name of their father. Their family names, however, from Goldenberg to Hescheles, are pseudonyms foisted upon them.” 

Roth is writing primarily about Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews of the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire but his cautionary words are salutary for anyone undertaking Jewish family history research.

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