One of our genealogists provides tips on researching Ashkenazic Jewish names. Ashkenazic refers to a group of Jewish Europeans who migrated to Eastern Europe around the 12th century. Discover valuable resources and techniques to help you better understand your family’s heritage.
Jewish genealogy can present some unique challenges, particularly when figuring out our ancestors’ names. The following tips and resources can help you navigate the search process more confidently and help you break through some brick walls.
Ashkenazic surnames may not conform to your expectations
For most Ashkenazic Jews, surnames were taken relatively recently, most likely during the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Some exceptions exist, usually tied to religious or social status. Until the Russian or Austro-Hungarian Empires required surnames in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, Ashkenazic Jews generally used patronymic forms like Yitzhak ben Abraham (Sephardic Jews adopted surnames earlier).
As best explained by Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Brisker in their post at Avotaynu online, surnames were assigned or adopted in various ways. Still, one overarching tendency complicates Jewish genealogical research: “the tendency for the heads of households to adopt unique surnames.”  Paull and Brisker explain this situation in great detail and note that this practice makes it more challenging to rely on surnames in traditional and genetic genealogical research.
At the same time, surnames were adopted or assigned in several different ways, sometimes by associations with locations where they lived or with vocation, and sometimes randomly. Thus, while Jewish surnames may provide information about a family’s origins or occupations, given the recency of most Jewish surnames and how they came to be assigned/adopted, a shared surname may not necessarily indicate a familial relationship among bearers of that name.
For most Ashkenazic Jews, surnames were taken relatively recently, most likely during the eighteenth or nineteenth century.
In some cases, to avoid taxes or restrictions limiting the number of sons in a family who could marry, Eastern European Jewish couples would have religious marriage ceremonies but not civil marriages. Their children would be registered under their mother’s surname and most likely have a notation about their father’s identity. In some cases, the father’s surname was adopted after immigration to another country. Suppose you’ve hit a brick wall searching for a passenger list. If your research involves the United States it’s a good idea to request your immigrant ancestors’ immigration and naturalization files from the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) Genealogy Program. Those forms—even the simple AR-2 (alien registration) form completed in 1940—can reveal the original surname an immigrant arrived under and other valuable information, including the town of origin.
Finally, because of excessive conscription and limitations on the number of sons who could marry, registration of births was avoided. In some cases, the surnames of sons were changed to hide their identities. This practice is captured in a passage titled “The Wegodner Manuscript” from Sokolievka/Justingrad: A Century of Struggle and Suffering in a Ukrainian Shtetl. In this passage, the author explains how his father – afraid for the safety of his sons – paid many rubles to have them “erased from the register” to keep them from the military draft.
The result of these contingencies is that surnames won’t necessarily reveal the lineages or relationships you might expect them to, and you may find that an ancestor immigrated to their new country under an entirely different name than you expected.
Ashkenazic given names follow traditional patterns to provide helpful clues about relationships across generations.
Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews name their children after recently deceased relatives, usually grandparents. Generally, they do not name their children after close living relatives (although these naming patterns result in multiple cousins in a generation with the same or similar names). Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, traditionally name their children after their grandparents, living or deceased.
In this context, naming after an ancestor doesn’t necessarily mean that the same name is shared, only that the initial letter might be the same. These naming patterns indicate that sometimes the likelihood of relationships can be discerned based on birth dates, immigration dates, death dates, and similar names, not only between grandparents and grandchildren, etc. but among cousins who are all named after the same person. In one family, several cousins born around the same time might have names starting with the same letter, and in some cases, this does transcend gender.
Ashkenazic Jewish men often have more than one given name in more than one language.
As mentioned above, Ashkenazic Jewish men traditionally have two given names, a religious name (traditionally Hebrew but sometimes Yiddish) and a secular name from the country they lived, subject to change upon immigration to a new country. The two names in the pair include a religious name, or shem hakodesh, and a secular name, or kinnui, that would appear on civil documents and reflect assimilation in the country in which the person resided. In some cases, these names may have been related to each other—that is, there may have been an underlying logic linking the two names.
Two excellent resources for learning about these double names and possible associations or relationships between them can be found on JewishGen.org. Warren Blatt’s presentation for the IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) conference, available in slide-form at JewishGen, is an excellent primer on Jewish given names and provides a detailed outline of the different ways in which the two names might be associated. JewishGen also offers a helpful resource for research involving such names. The Jewish Given Names Database, for example, helps researchers discover alternative Jewish and vernacular names that could have been used before and after immigration.
Ashkenazic Jewish names often change over time
You may find that the spelling of surnames changes over time. Standardized spellings are a relatively recent phenomenon, and the spelling of immigrants’ names was subject to change in part because some of them were transliterated from one alphabet to another. Sometimes a change in spelling occurred to adapt to the spelling conventions most common in a new home country.
You may also notice that given names of children who immigrated or were direct descendants of immigrants vary across censuses. In this situation, age, familial relationships, and other information can establish likely identities within the family group. If the names present contradictory information, try to find another way to confirm identities.
And of course, you may find that names are transcribed incorrectly in database indexes.
Essential Resources for Jewish Genealogy:
Many of these resources mentioned or referred to above are essential for researching Ashkenazic Jewish names.
- As mentioned above, if your research involves the United States, the USCIS Genealogy Program provides access to immigration and naturalization files that may contain valuable information not yet available online and that you may not find anywhere else. Immigration and naturalization records held by USCIS can help solve otherwise insoluble brick walls, mainly when someone’s passenger list can otherwise not be found.
- Alexander Beider has published reference books on Jewish names, including Handbook of Ashkenazic Given Names and Their Variants (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2009), Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2001), Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004), Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2008), among others. These can be found on the website of the publisher Avotaynu.
- Avotaynu also publishes an eponymous journal on Jewish genealogy. An index is available online, and access to back issues is available for a fee. Many helpful books besides Beider’s are available on the Books page, including The Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy by Sallyann Amdur Sack and Gary Mokotoff (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004), a comprehensive if a slightly older guide to the subject; it is helpful for an overview, but some information, particularly about online resources, is out of date. Also available on their site are several books specializing in Sephardic genealogy. You may be able to find these books in genealogical reference sections at your local library or a local Jewish genealogical society.
- JewishGen.org is a must for Jewish researchers. While Ancestry includes some records originating on JewishGen, it does not reflect the most up-to-date records and collections on that site. Thorough research should always utilize JewishGen.
- Stevemorse.org provides some helpful tools and workarounds to enhance search capabilities. The site is excellent for finding census and immigration records, some of which reside on other record sites. The site also utilizes search tools that can be more versatile than the search engine on the sites that house the records.
- One final and important tip when searching for records is to search for variant spellings. It’s always helpful to use wildcards when searching, at the beginning of the name and the end. And be sure to change the search settings in whatever database you are using as needed to find variants using different algorithms. JewishGen, MyHeritage, and other websites offer different options for how a name search is performed.
Hopefully, these valuable tips and resources can further your family research and help identify those hard-to-find ancestral names.
Researching your ancestors can be fun, but it can also be difficult and time-consuming. If what you learned here isn’t enough to get you beyond the brick walls in your research, consider hiring one of our experienced and knowledgeable researchers. Contact us today for a free quote!
 Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Brisker, “The Jewish Surname Process in the Russian Empire and Its Effect on Jewish Genealogy,” Avotaynu Online, 15 August 2015, https://avotaynuonline.com/2015/08/the-jewish-surname-process-in-the-russian-empire-and-its-effect-on-jewish-genealogy/. See also their article “History, Adoption, and Regulation of Jewish Surnames in the Russian Empire,” Surname DNA Journal, 21 September 2014, http://www.surnamedna.com/?articles=history-adoption-and-regulation-of-jewish-surnames-in-the-russian-empire.
 Levi Wegodner, “The Wegodner Manuscript,” from Sokolievka/Justingrad: A Century of Struggle and Suffering in a Ukrainian Shtetl, edited by Leo Miller and Diana F. Miller (New York: Lowenthal Press, 1983), p. 3, viewed online at https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Sokolivka/soke001.html.
 Warren Blatt, “Jewish Given Names,” JewishGen.com, https://www.jewishgen.org/infofiles/givennames/. Text originally published in the article “Jewish Given Names in Eastern Europe and the U.S.,” Avotaynu, vol. 14, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 9–15 and later in “Jewish Given Names,” in Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, edited SallyAnn Amdur Sack and Gary Motokoff (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004).
 Warren Blatt, “Jewish Given Names.”