Monday, November 10, 2014

Named in vain

"Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so. The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated (in that order of importance)."
Its easy for Americans to forget the vast weight of Jew-gentile history in Europe given the degree to which the Nazi death regime so destroyed the Ashkenazic world. But it is just this history that helps make the present relations between Europeans and Israel so fraught, and still throws out little complications to the relationships between Jews and Gentiles in general.
For centuries the Jews of Europe were in but not of the places they lived, kept apart by a combination of tradition (much of it horrible) and law (much of it unjust and punitive). The tradition of patro- and matronymics rather than surnames was just one small part of that strange world where an entire people were held at lethal distance from their neighbors through generation after generation.

In our own country we can still see the deep scars left by the imprisonment of one race by another, even now, more than a century after the formal dissolution of that bond. What scars did the imprisonment - both physical, in places like urban ghettoes as well as within entire regions such as the Pale of Settlement, and social - of the Ashkenazim leave on both the "prisoners" and their "jailers"?

It is difficult for me to imagine how this must have seemed at the time. Did a man of my age and nature resent being told to take some name that meant nothing to him in contravention of hundreds of years of tradition? Or would he have seen it as just another day in the life that offered little justice and less mercy from the goyische world the surrounded him? Would hearing his new "name" have produced tooth-grinding rage, or a resigned sigh?
We know so much of our relatively-recent past and, yet, things like this remind us that we often know much less than we think we know.


Big Daddy said...

Interesting but not super surprising. I see parallels between Jewish surnames and the development of Medieval English names.
Just for fun some our family stuff includes Rabinowitz (son of Rabbi), Goldfarb or gold color, Becker (from martyrs), Levine from the Levites and Gordon (from Grodno) which is probably my Polish Great Grandfather.
Now that I think about it there are also some parallels with African American names which seem to be a mix of masters, historical figures (way too many Washingtons to be just owner based), plus trades, regions, saints and so on.

FDChief said...

The difference being that the Christians developed theirs over several hundred years, while the Jews were pushed into the process in a little more than a century.

What I enjoyed about the article was the names themselves, especially the bit about how you could "buy" a pretty nature-name like "apple tree" (Apfelbaum)...

And I love the "Gordon" coming from Grodno; must have given great-grandpa some interesting encounters with descendents of the Gordons of Inverary; perhaps he used the same line that an African-American friend of mine used when asked about his surname of Callaghan: "Well, I suspect that I'm from the Black Irish side of Munster..."

Lisa said...

Interesting, and thanks for the meditation.

Per, "Would hearing his new 'name' have produced tooth-grinding rage, or a resigned sigh?", I would imagine that rage is not an emotion granted to those upon whom such indignities are foisted.

When we moved to the South, grandma (mother's Southern stepmom) begged my father to change/shorten his name. She spoke form knowledge of the bigotry he would encounter. He refused, and I could see his barely-veiled anger seething beneath at the suggestion.

And he did suffer at the hands of the bigots, an affliction alive and well amongst humans in 2014.