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. This process began as early as the days of the First and Second Aliyot and continued after the establishment of the State of Israel. The widespread trend towards hebraicization 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. By Hebraizing the name, the foreign last name could be cast aside.
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". Because of that, a special committee under the chairmanship of Mordechai Nemzabi, the Jewish Agency adviser matters of civilian defense, published a booklet which contained guidelines on the creation on new Hebrew surnames.
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."
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.
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. 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. Ben Zvi died in 1963. Ben Zvi wrote:
|“||Our surnames are mostly of foreign origin, which cling to exile […] even names based on Hebrew first names were damaged and distorted from the original […] by German and English suffixes, like "son" or "sohn" and the Slavic "in", "ovich", "ovsky" and "shvili". These surnames fill the air and the pages of our newspaper, the posters and announcements in our streets and public squares […] it is indeed not really clear if the hardship of this inheritance which remained with us as a result of the Middle Ages and subsequent ghettoization should be tolerated…||”|
— Yitzhak Ben Zvi in Collected Writings, vol. 4, pp. 11–14
All rabbinic authorities encourage hebraicizing 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. 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. He wrote articles in Hebrew and German. Moses Calvary died in 1944.
|“||Yitzhak Ben Zvi demands we disqualify all the foreign names which are close to us. His assumption is that our immigration to Eretz Yisrael is a revolutionary act, a return to one's origins. Let the memory of the Diaspora therefore be erased so that the crown be returned to ancient times, by wrapping our names in the envelope of our language. I have my doubts if this zealousness is appropriate. Our names are part — a significant part — of our history. Bearers of historical names are still alive and among us; the names of figures who mark our history — names like Sasportas or Benbenisti, Abrabanel or Don Yehia, Rappaport or Eibeschitz – there is no reason to delete the chronicle of our national life. Let us preserve the faith of our fathers also in our revival. Do not betray our memories by radical action; and the text does not only relate to the famous: the variety in our names is a sign of our colorful history, a two-thousand year-old history, whose traces cannot be wiped out light-handedly.||”|
— Moses Calvary in Between Sowing and Harvest, p. 339
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. 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." Others had names that were entirely Hebrew to begin with.
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, 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.
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.
There is also a trend to return to one's roots and preserve traditions unique to each ethnic group. 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".
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 current (as of late 2010) 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 its Diaspora name.
|Meyerson||Ben-Meir (means: son of Meir)|
|Mendelssohn||Ben-Menachem (means: son of Menachem) (Yiddish diminutive: Mendel)|
|Wilner||Vilna'i||both mean "from Wilna"|
|Deutsch(er) (means: German in German)||Ashkenazi (means: German in Medieval Hebrew)|
|Luegner (means: liar)||Amiti (means: truthful)|
|Ausubel (means: from bad)||Ben-Tov (means: son of good)|
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.
|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)|
|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.
|Loewe||Lavi (means: lion)|
|Lempel (means: little lamp)||Lapid (means: torch)|
Others chose completely newly chosen names, many times symbolic in nature.
|Ben-Artzi||means "son of my land"|
|Nir||means "ploughed field" as dug by a farmer|
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...). 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.
Others kept their name for its yichus, which gave the bearer more reason not to Hebraize it. 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).
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.
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