21 January 2014

Jewish Surnames Re-explained*

From Wikipedia
Mozaic Magazine has published a wonderful article by Dara Horn, "Jewish Surnames [Supposedly] Explained," responding to the poorly researched Jewish surnames article, "Jewish Surnames Explained," that took the Internet (by storm) on Slate on 8 January 2014 (the article originally appeared in Jewish Currents on 12 November 2012).

Perhaps not as entertaining, but definitely enlightening, is the JewishGen InfoFile on the origin of Jewish surnames, "The Names of Jews."

The Ellis Island they-changed-my-name story (a small, but telling, part of the Slate article) seems to have the staying power of a louse - persisting despite numerous attempts to eradicate it. There is obviously something endearing about people have little or no control of their lives - this, in spite of the fact that those who emigrated from Eastern Europe were, in no uncertain terms, taking control of their lives.

I've written about this media phenomenon before, but I'm still amazed by the staying power of these sort of myths.

* [update, 31 January 2014] I am very pleased to note that the original article
has been corrected by author Bennett Muraskin and posted on Slate. In my experience, journalists rarely pen such corrections and Bennett is to be congratulated for owning up to misstatements and correcting them.


  1. My mother-in-law spent most of her life believing that her father's name was changed at Ellis Island (from something else to Goldstein) until I found his passenger record that listed his surname as ... Goldstein and explained that if there was a name change, it had to have happened in Romania.

  2. Good job debunking a myth, Elizabeth!

    I have an interesting one where my great grandfather came to the USA with the surname Mazewitsky. When his family arrived 4-1/2 yrs later, they came from the Russian Empire as Morris. So, he must have used his newly adopted surname when he bought the tickets for the journey of his family. They, apparently, has no trouble traveling with that new (undocumented) name.


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