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New Book on Jewish Surnames Details Those with Polish Roots

July 29, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

What’s in a name — or, more precisely, a Jewish surname?

No one, it seems, has ever been able to answer that question with as much scientific, linguistic and historical precision as Alexander Beider, a 32-year- old Moscow-born statistician who immigrated to Paris about 1990.

Upon its publication in 1993, Beider’s massive “Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From the Russian Empire,” which supplies derivations for some 50,000 Jewish surnames, was hailed in genealogical circles as one of the most important books ever printed about Jewish names.

“The first and most important principle I developed for my etymological research is that names must be studied near the places where they originated,” Beider said. “In other words, one should document in what region a name appears for the first time. Geographic distribution is crucial for etymology; it’s the basis for all other investigations.”

This month marks the release of Beider’s long-awaited companion volume, “A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From The Kingdom of Poland,” which adheres rigorously to this geographic principle.

The 540-page book contains a listing of some 33,000 Polish Jewish surnames culled from original archival sources, indicating, if known, where each name appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.

The book’s scholarly introduction illuminates many aspects of the hitherto dark process of how Jews acquired their family names.

For example, Jews in many Polish provinces were compelled to register their surnames about 1821 and those who did not comply by 1824 were assigned names that were often less desirable, if not ridiculous or rude.

Jews clearly were not thinking of their genealogically minded descendants in this period, because married sons living in their own homes in Galicia and elsewhere often took names unlike those assumed by their fathers.

In addition, Beider has some knowledge of eight languages, which allows him, for instance, to identify a German spelling change in a surname derived from a Polish noun with a Yiddish suffix.

The name Szmek, he said, comes from the Yiddish for a “pinch” of snuff, the name Portnoj or Portnoy arises from the Russian word for “tailor,” and Pasternak is Polish for “parsnip.”

Further, Kotler is Yiddish for “kettle maker”; Kirszenblat comes from the German “leaf of the cherry tree”; Perlmutter, from the German for “mother of pearl”; Walfisz or Wallfish, from the German for “whale.”

A name with a Russian or Ukrainian ending elicits the suggestion that the bearer might have migrated west from the Russian Empire.

As if compiling two mammoth surname dictionaries in his spare time was not taxing enough, Beider issued between their publication a smaller volume on Czech Jewish surnames from Prague.

When asked whether he would next focus his attention on surnames from Romania, Hungary, the Sephardi world or elsewhere, Beider looks momentarily perplexed.

“I haven’t yet decided,” he says with a sigh. “Right now, I’m taking a break.”

But those in genealogical circles say it is only a matter of time before Beider returns to his etymological pursuits, helping Jews around the world understand the derivations of their own names.

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