Friday, September 10, 2010

English Jewish surnames

[Revised July 2011. See also 'English Jewish surnames revisited', March 2012.]

My late father had a special interest in Jewish history and a very positive attitude towards Jews - unlike his brother who was in this regard something of an 'evil twin' whose belief in an international Jewish conspiracy was unshakable.

My paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were either Roman Catholics or members of the Church of England and there was no suggestion of any awareness of Jewish ancestry. But, oddly, virtually all my father's friends were either Jewish (surnames: Pittman, Babel, Mossenson ...) or had surnames which are often indicative of Jewish ancestry (Miller, Bloomfield, Rees ...).

Even his barber was Jewish (of German origin) and, when Dad retired due to ill health, the hairdresser (whose shop was near his office) gave him a card with a touching note in which he referred to himself as my father's "devoted Freund."

I never talked to my father about these matters as I only began to take an interest in them after his death. Was he aware of the possibility of Jewish ancestry? I doubt it. Did his Jewish friends suspect that his family was Jewish or part Jewish? This is possible. In an early photograph my rather anti-Semitic uncle bears an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka!

In fact there are some surnames in my family tree - mainly on my father's side - which could indicate Jewish origins. Beck, Fisher and Langman seem the most likely.

English names have been adopted by Jewish immigrants over the centuries. The migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries are well known. Earlier waves of Jewish immigration are less well documented. Many descendants of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian peninsula settled in the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries and gradually assimilated into the Christian mainstream.

Some names are more likely than others to be associated with the possibility of Sephardi or other Jewish origins. Amongst the names of my forebears I am looking at in this regard - apart from the names mentioned above - are Davis, Lester, Harris, Michell, and also English, Pember, Russell, Sturgeon and Ward.

17 comments:

  1. In his recent book, "Hitch-22", Christopher Hitchens describes his own late discovery of Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. His mother knew of this but his father didn't. It led him to track down his roots in Poland.

    He describes his possible demise rather humorously here:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/09/hitchens-201009

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  2. Maybe you're related to Harold Lester:

    http://www.naxos.com/person/Harold_Lester/12024.htm

    I also thought of Richard Lester, but I'm surprised to learn that he was American:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Lester

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  3. It's funny how old I was before I realized that certain names implied Jewish ancestry. I still don't know them all, obviously, as Lester was new to me.

    I like your father's embrace of another, what, culture? For me, religion has always exercised an aesthetic appeal (at least until they started ditching the beautiful liturgy for "contemporary" services). Notre Dame is beautiful, but so is the calligraphic representation of Muhammed's name and the voice of a Jewish cantor.

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    1. Interesting article on Jewish surnames - Thomas James Golding (my grandfather)


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  4. I suppose the reasoning is this. German names can usually be distinguished from English (Braun from Brown, etc). Most German names in England were Jewish, as Jewish Germans settled in England but non-Jewish Germans did not. So German names in England indicate Jewish ancestry. Nicht wahr?

    I'm not sure how far Jewish German names can be distinguished from non-Jewish German names, just taking the name itself. Were Marx and Heine plainly Jewish from their names alone? Mendelssohn?

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  5. CONSVLTVS, I see religion as the primary source of the arts, historically speaking (though of course in the past religion was not really a separate sphere of life).

    Alan, what about non-German English names? I know little about this, but I think I'm right about Lester, and I would be happy to learn more about this. Have you read Silas Marner (George Eliot)? Silas is described as being of a different race. Would 'Marner' be German?

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  6. One other angle on this is non-conformist sects. Silas Marner was a member of such a strange quasi-Christian sect and the rites of the Church of England were alien to him. I wonder if there might be a connection between such sects and Jewish ancestry? The Sturgeons of East Anglia (my grandmother's mother was Caroline Sturgeon) were I think non-conformists of some kind. One first name I remember is Kaziah (?).

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  7. Is it important to know the origin of the name? Jewish, Christians, Moslem?

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  8. tikno, no I don't think it's important (though it's of historical interest). I think perhaps it's a bad time (and a bad day) to be talking about these things because there is so much intercultural tension in the air. I think everyone associated with this blog would agree that reason and decency are the important things. I personally feel that I have a lot more in common with people who share my values than with people to whom I might be closely related. First degree relatives are often aliens to one another.

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  9. I was stupidly supposing that being Jewish in England implied a German background, but of course that need not be so!

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  10. George Eliot has written in vain, in my case, I'm sorry to say. One day, maybe, I'll get started on her.

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  11. That given name I mentioned should be Keziah (not Kaziah). [Keziah is the name of one of Job's daughters.] Anyway, important or not (thanks for the input tikno!), I would be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to throw any light on these topics; particular names, or the general issue of whether assimilated Jews gravitated towards non-conformist Christian sects.

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  12. George Elliot was a wonderfully philo-Jewish writer, as witness "Daniel Deronda."

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  13. Mark, I have to say I would not have recognised any of those names as indicative of Jewish ancestry. It's not a subject, I confess, on which I am very knowledgeable.

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  14. Yes indeed, graciousf. I really must do some research on this issue of English Jews. I am particularly interested in how Jews were perceived in the 19th century - and the writings of George Eliot might be a good place to start. The history of the (relatively small) Jewish community is clear enough, but what of those who - for whatever reason - joined Christian churches or sects: to what extent did they retain their Jewish identity, in terms of self-perception and in terms of the way they were seen by others?

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  15. Ana, I am pretty sure some of those names listed can indicate Jewish origins, but I have little evidence for those names I say I am "curious about". You would normally expect names like Russell, for instance, to indicate Norman origins.

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  16. Tikno .romany for @'small'..I have noticed in the same surnames being used between gypsys and jews.anyone have a take on this ?

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