Friday, March 8, 2024

Not Every Sam Was a Schloime or a Shmuel

For those involved in Jewish genealogy, the fluidity of given names often presents a brick wall. You can't find the record if you don't know the name. 

Jewish traditions have unique features, presenting both challenges and valuable clues for family history. Typically, a Jewish child receives a secular name and a Hebrew name. For Ashkenazic Jews, that name is usually after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. When several cousins bear the same name, you can assume that a grandparent of similar name probably died shortly before the earliest birthdate.  

Our ancestors came from another country where they had a secular name, a Hebrew name, and often a nickname. Then they Americanized their name and selected a new name that may or may not resemble their former name. Having made that leap into a new life, they often continued to modify their name, trying on new identities.  

To work your way back you will want to learn their Hebrew and Yiddish names. To follow their trail in the United States, you will need to trace name changes. So how do we do that?


Finding Hebrew and Yiddish Names

A unique feature in Jewish tradition, the tombstone, provides the Hebrew name. If you are fortunate, there will be Hebrew on your family tombstones that will reveal both the decedent's Hebrew name and their father’s.  You may be able to work from the Hebrew name to the secular Yiddish name found on the immigration manifest. Often the Yiddish name is shortened from the Hebrew. Yisrael becomes Srul, Ishaya becomes Shaja, Eliazar becomes Lazar. 


Certain names may be calques. A calque has the same meaning in a different language.  Often calques are associated with animals. Aryeh means lion in Hebrew and Leib means lion in Yiddish. While someone’s tombstone may read Aryeh, their secular name was likely Leib and, in the U.S., they often became Louis. Dov means bear in Hebrew, Ber in Yiddish. Sometimes the two names are combined, such as Dov Ber, but there are often unrelated double names. And don’t forget those nicknames. Dov often became Berek or Berel because of the Yiddish form of the word. 


After 1906, the naturalization record will show both the name they went by in the U.S. and if different, the given name and surname they held when they entered the country. You can now work back from that document to the immigration manifest. One thing you will quickly discover is that not every Sam was a Schloime or a Shmuel. They may have been another name with an “S” such as Shimon or Shaja. 


Trying on a New Identity

When our ancestors arrived, they discovered the popular names of the day and were quick to assume them if they resembled their Yiddish name. Batya often became Bessie, Chaim become Hyman, and Chana, Anna. But not always! And some names hardly changed at all. Binyamin became Benjamin 94% of the time. You may be surprised to know that in 97% of cases Ze’ev became William. Ze’ev is a calque meaning Wolf. Wolf to William makes more sense, but it would be puzzling if you didn’t know about calques.


There were no rules governing which name they took, and names often evolved. The best way to trace them is to review city directories and census records, tracing them in family groupings so you can continue to track them as names change. You may find small changes from Bertha to Bessie, Betsy, and Betty. Conversely there can be seemingly unrelated changes as I found with a Chaim who became Elmer and then Norman.


Never assume a name was static. Knowing a person’s name at a particular time will allow you to locate records from that period. If you have a gap with no records, consider the possibility that records are hiding in plain sight, just by a different name.