Is My Surname Jewish?

Last Names More Common Among Jewish Families

You can't tell if someone is Jewish from their surname alone.
Getty / Tova Teitelbaum

Many of the names that people think "sound" Jewish are, in fact, simple German, Russian or Polish surnames. The point? You generally can't identify Jewish ancestry by a surname alone. Actually, there are really only three surnames (and their variations) that are generally specifically Jewish in nature: Cohen, Levy and Israel. Yet, even variations of these common Jewish-specific surnames may not be Jewish.

The surnames Cohan and even Cohen, for example, could indeed be Jewish in origin; but could also be an Irish surname, derived from O'Cadham (descendant of Cadhan).

Clues to Surnames That May Be Jewish

While few names are specifically Jewish, there are certain surnames that are more commonly found among Jews:

  • Names ending in -berg (Weinberg, Goldberg)
  • Names endin in -stein (Einstein, Hofstein)
  • Names ending in -witz (Rabinowitz, Horowitz)
  • Names ending in -baum (Metzenbaum, Himelbaum)
  • Names ending in -thal (Blumenthal, Eichenthal)
  • Names ending in -ler (Adler, Winkler)
  • Names ending in -feld (Seinfeld, Berkenfeld)
  • Names ending in -blum (Weissblum, Rosenblum)
  • Names having to do with wealth (Goldberg, Silverstein)
  • Names derived from Hebrew words (Mizrachi, from mizrakhi, meaning "eastern, or easterner")

Estee Reider, in Jewish World Review, also points out that some Jewish surnames may originate from professions that are exclusive to Jews.

The surname Shamash, and its variations such as Klausner, Templer and Shuldiner, means shamash, a synagogue sexton. Chazanian, Chazanski and Chasanov all derive from chazan, a cantor.

Another common origin for Jewish surnames are "house names," referring to a distinctive sign attached to a house in the days before street numbers and addresses (a practice primarily in Germany, by both Gentiles and Jews).

The most famous of these Jewish house names is Rothschild, or "red shield," for a house distinguished by a red sign.

Why do Many Common Jewish Last Names Sound German?

Many of Jewish-sounding surnames are actually German in origin. This may be due to a 1787 Austro-Hungarian law that required Jews to register a permanent family surname, a name they also required to be German. The decree also required that all surnames that had previously been used in Jewish families, such as those originating from a place where the family lived, should be "totally abandoned." The chosen names were subject to the approval of Austrian officials, and if a name was not chosen, one was assigned. 

In 1808, Napoleon issued a similar decree that compelled Jews outside of Germany and Prussia to adopt a surname within three months of the decree, or within three months of moving into the French Empire. Similar laws requiring Jews to adopt permanent surnames were passed at various times by different countries, some well into the latter-half of the 19th century.

A Surname Alone Can't Identify Jewish Ancestry

While many of the above surnames have a greater likelihood of belonging to a Jewish family, you can't assume that any of the last names are actually Jewish, no matter how Jewish they may sound to you, or how many Jews you know with that name.

The third most common Jewish surname in America (after Cohen and Levy) is Miller, which is also obviously a very common surname for Gentiles as well.

More in-depth discussions of Jewish surnames can be found at Jewish Names from Judaism 101, History of German Jewish Surnames: Is My Surname Jewish? by Esther Bauer, PhD, and The Names of the Jews by Joachim Mugdan at JewishGen.