09 July 2010

Seattle: What's in a name?

Marlene Schiffman of Yeshiva University provided an interesting session at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference on the historical impact of modern governments on Jewish names.

Focusing on Ashkenazi names, she covered the concept of "legibility," (a better term might be "visibility") or the identifying of a person, essential to the modern state. The phrase "name it - organize it" summed up the concept.

In 1843 Paris, other modern organizational tools were also used, involving language, uniform codes, registration, surnames, legal issues and taxes. "The object was to enumerate, register or conscript," said Schiffman, who stressed that this was not so much for personal identity but for state control. Thus, Personal surnames became important.

In Austria, Jews were given more freedom in the late 18th century and were also subject to the draft. They were required to obtain surnames from a list of German names, and even to choose given names from a list. While this was hailed by secular Jews, others considered it a conspiracy. Jews were integrated into the population.

In 1804, in multicultural Russia, a surname law was passed, even though Russian Jews tried to remain invisible to avoid the draft. As many genealogists are aware, many brothers in the same family often adopted different family names as another way of remaining "illegible."

In 1836, the Crown Rabbinate began keeping registers. In my own experience, the seven microfilm rolls of registers kept by the Mogilev (Belarus) crown rabbi have been invaluable research tools. Crown rabbis were later replaced with state rabbis, and by the 1850s, Jews and others were no longer invisible.

According to Alexander Beider, she added, there is no extant direct testimony of this or lists of surnames, there are evident naming patterns with Jews. For example, in Belarus, many names end in -in (Sorkin, Dvorkin, Belkin), deriving from female names (Sora, Dvora, Bella).

In 1857 Russia, Jews couldn't change their surnames. After they had finished their term of army service, they could take their godfather's name if they converted.

In Poland, Jews were assigned surnames at various times from 1787-1807. In 1821, when Poland was under Russian control, they handed out "certificates of names," which had to be carried and used for all civil or legal transactions. By 1824, most Jews had names.

In 1808, Napoleon forbid toponyms (those indicating a geographical location). Names from a list were adopted unless the name in question had already been used for a long time.

In Austria and Galicia, many names were pejorative or negative, with stories describing blackmail and bribes for a better name. The King of Poland decreed that each family was to have "a unique name" - unfortunately, it meant that six brothers may have required six different surnames. In 1787, names selected had to be approved.

Governments believed that standardized, permanent surnames would lead to greater interaction, would be more useful and help administration, track criminals and refugees. It was easy to identify Jewish names.

In Prussia and Germany, 1821 saw the acquiring of permanent names and citizenship for Jews. But by 1938, they could no longer adopt "Aryan" names. They couldn't change their surnames, had to return to non-German names, and also were required to add Sara or Israel to their given names, as identifiers.

Jewish names, said Schiffman, became Jewish "branding" in 1941, with the introduction of the yellow patch and tattooed numbers.

In the US, it was very easy to change a surname. Many immigrants did that as soon as they left Ellis Island, thus obscuring their origins.

The session conclusion was that modern governments needed to accelerate the control of population assets. When the naming process was complete, the government could see a specific group as a whole.

An interesting session, to be sure.

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