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Arts & Culture Russian-french Scholar Traces Jewish Names Through the Ages

November 22, 2001
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Ask Alexander Beider about the derivation of his first name, and he’ll explain that, according to a talmudic source, Jewish parents began to use the name after Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 333 BCE.

Like his ancient namesake, Beider — a Moscow-born Jewish emigre living in Paris — is proving a skilled and savvy conqueror who has marched from one province of Jewish names to the next in a bold scholarly campaign to illuminate their various etymologies.

A computer consultant and project analyst by day, Beider moonlights in libraries and archives, in Paris and elsewhere, to research his favorite topic — Jewish names.

He’s the author of two groundbreaking studies of Jewish surnames, A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire and A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland. Beider recently marched into the equally intriguing territory of Jewish first names.

Published by Avotaynu, Inc. of New Jersey, his 728-page Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names, Including Their Origins, Structures, Pronunciations and Migrations, is a compendium of Jewish first names from biblical to modern times.

The dictionary opens with a hefty scholarly introduction that runs more than 250 pages.

It then lists more than 15,000 Ashkenazic given names and variations, linking their derivations to a pool of about 735 root names. In most cases, it traces the name’s evolution back into history, sometimes as far back as the talmudic period — the second to sixth centuries C.E. The book’s six indexes list male and female names in Latin, Cyrillic and Hebrew characters.

For the root name Aleksander, the dictionary begins with 1-1/2 pages of history and analysis. It outlines dozens of occurrences of the name in diverse places, times and languages, extending from a Hebrew list of victims of the First Crusade in the Rhineland in 1096 to a Russian voters’ list in 1912.

A derivation scheme traces the many detours that the name Aleksander took — including Sanderman, Zenderlin, Zandrik and Shanke — through the ages. The dictionary also shows that Sander is an informal and colloquial version of the name, and that Ziskind and Zusman are some of its vernacular, everyday equivalents. A glossary adequately explains these technical terms.

To compile the dictionary, Beider mined names from hundreds of historic sources, including ancient tombstones in Israel, lists of medieval European epitaphs, and records of anti-Jewish persecutions in medieval Germany. He studied and assessed the work of previous scholars, ranging from the early-19th-century German authority Leopold Zunz to the late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr, who published a slim study some years ago.

Having studied math and statistics in Russia, Beider traces name derivations with the meticulousness of a scientist.

He seems particularly skilled at untangling historic inaccuracies and overlapping levels of meaning that seem to confound the origins of certain names.

The name Shneyer, for example, is apparently derived from a Judeo-Romance noun meaning senior, elder or master; it is linked to the French “seigneur” and the Spanish “senor.” Although the name evidently arose in southwestern Europe before spreading to northern France, it later migrated to Germany, which explains its inclusion in an Ashkenazic dictionary.

“Due to a folk etymology misinterpretation, the Hebrew spelling of this name coincided with the combinations of the two Hebrew words ‘two’ and ‘light,’ pronounced ‘shney’ and ‘or,’ respectively,” the dictionary notes. “This folk etymology influenced not only the spelling, but also the phonetics as well.”

While his research solved many mysteries, Beider says it also led to surprises. He says he was astonished by the high level to which Jews assimilated into Christian society in Germany in the medieval era.

“Jews borrowed a very significant number of names from their Christian neighbors during the 11th to the 13th centuries,” he observes.

His research into Jewish first names also led him to question what many Jewish historians have long held as fact — that the Jews of Eastern Europe were descended from the earlier Jewish settlements in the Rhineland.

“This idea is very simplistic” and accounts for only part of the picture, he says. “It should be nuanced.”

Essentially, Beider found that Jews from Bohemia and Moravia — the modern Czech Republic — “played an exceptional role” in the establishment of the vast Jewish civilization that spread out across what is now Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Historians have yet to appreciate the large influence played by the Czech Jews on these later settlements, he says.

As the dictionary details, many biblical names once sat on the shelf like fine china, apparently too good for everyday use. Perhaps because they were considered too holy, various biblical monikers like Abraham, Adam, Isaiah and Israel, which are now common, were not used in talmudic times, and only became popular in the Rhineland in the Middle Ages.

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