For most of our history, Jews did not have surnames. In communal life, Jews were most often known by their name and their father’s name (e.g., Abraham son of Moses, Dina daughter of Isaac), or, when mentioned in prayer, by their name and their mother’s name (e.g., Dinah daughter of Leah).

For Ashkenazic Jewry, the wholesale introduction of surnames began in 1787, when a new law established by Emperor Joseph II of Austria mandated that all Jews adopt last names. Other countries and localities followed suit, and by the mid 19th century most Jewish families had surnames.

Although the officials who delegated last names sometimes did so indiscriminately, often a name can shed light on an ancestor, revealing information about his or her hereditary status, place of origin, profession, or other personal details.

Join us as we explore some of the most common family names found among Ashkenazi Jews today.

1. Cohen and Its Variants

Among the most ubiquitous of Jewish last names, Cohen is common in families that descend from Aaron the High Priest. The priests, kohanim, served in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and they still enjoy distinction today (giving the priestly blessing and being called up first to the Torah, among other privileges).

Other priestly last names include Kohn, Kahn, Kahane, Kagan, Kogan, and many other variants. (Since the sound /h/ does not exist in Russian, it was replaced with /g/.)

Note: Having the last name Cohen does not necessarily mean that you are a kohen. When in doubt, consult a halachic authority.

2. Levy and Its Variants

Levy is a common surname among families descending from the tribe of Levi (one of the 12 tribes of Israel). Historically, this tribe was responsible for guarding the Temple and singing when sacrifices were brought. They also received a tithe from all produce grown in the Land of Israel.

Common variations include Levi, Lewi, Levin, Levine, Lewin, and many more.

Note: Having the last name Levy does not necessarily denote Levite status.

3. Patronymics and Matronymics

Many Jewish surnames are patronymic (based on the name of a father or other male ancestor), denoted by the suffix -s, -son, -ovitch/-owitz, or -ovics. Thus, if one’s father’s name was Abraham, his son might have adopted the name Abrams, Abramson or Abramowitz; if it was Isaac, he was Isaacs, Isaacson or Isaacowitz; Jacob—Jacobs, Jacobson or Jacobowitz; David—Davidson or Davidowitz; Leib—Lebovics; Mendel—Mendelson or Mendelowitz; Benjamin—Benjaminson; Aaron—Aaronson. (In this vein, “Rabinowitz” is the son of a rabbi.)

The surname of the Lubavitch rebbes, Schneersohn, derives from the name of the dynasty’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

A surprising number of Jewish surnames are matronymic (based on the name of a mother or other female ancestor). These names often conclude with the suffix -in. Thus Rivkah became Rivkin or Rivlin, Feiga—Feiglin, Sarah—Sorkin, Tamar—Tamarkin, and Beila—Belkin.

Margolis, a surname shared by many famous rabbinic personalities, derives from the female name Margalit (Hebrew for “pearl”).

4. Location-Based Surnames

Very often a surname provides a clue as to the family’s place of origin. Location-based surnames include Brody (a city in present-day Ukraine), Halpern (the German city of Heilbronn), Frankel (the German region of Franconia), Schlesinger (from Schlesien (Silesia)), Gordon (Grodno in Belarus) Pollack (from Poland), Auerbach and Epstein (both towns in Germany), Ginzburg (the Bavarian town of Gunzburg), Wiener (from Vienna), Danziger (from Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland), Deutsch (German), Horowitz (the Bohemian town of Horovice), Gurevitch/Gorowitz (the Russian version of Horowitz), Schapiro (the German city of Speyer), Landau (a town in Germany), Posner (from Posen, now Poznan, Poland), Mintz (Mainz, Germany), Oppenheimer (from Oppenheim, Germany), Ostreicher (from Austria), Prager (from Prague, Czech Republic), Unger (from Hungary).

Many location-based surnames end with the suffix -sky (e.g., Minsky—Minsk, Belarus; Pinsky—Pinsk, Belarus; Twersky—Tverai, Lithuania, or Tiberias, Israel; Persky—Pershai, Belarus).

Fact: Moskowitz means “son of Moske” (a nickname for Moses), and probably does not mean that your family is from Moscow.

5. Profession-Based Surnames

A surname may have been chosen or assigned based on its bearer’s occupation. Thus you have Schmidt or Kowalski (smith); Schuster or Sandler (shoemaker); Kravitz, Schneider or Portnoy (tailor); Malamud (teacher); Schochet or Schechter (ritual slaughterer); Sofer or Schreiber (scribe); Kantor, Chazan or Spivak (cantor); Blecher (tinsmith); Kramer (storekeeper); Miller (miller); Weber (weaver).

Many of these surnames end with the suffix -man(n): Fleischman (butcher), Kuperman (coppersmith), Wasserman (water-carrier), Kaufman (merchant), Fishman (fish merchant), or Schusterman (shoemaker-man).

6. Physical Features

Sometimes names are associated with physical features or traits. Examples include Klein/Kleinman (small), Gross/Grossman (large), Alt/Alter/Altman (old), Schwartz (black hair or dark complexion), Weiss (blonde hair or fair complexion), Roth/Rothman (redhead), Ehrlich (upright), Reich/Reichman (rich), Fried/Friedman (peaceful), Scharf (sharp or intelligent).

7. Nature-Based Mix-and-Match Surnames

Many surnames reflect natural objects such as trees, minerals and animals. These are often compound names, taken from the German language, and for the most part were randomly assigned.

Here are some examples:

-baum (tree): Teitelbaum (date palm), Mandelbaum (almond tree), Tannenbaum (fir tree), Appelbaum (apple tree), Birnbaum (pear tree), Nussbaum (nut tree), Greenbaum (green tree), Rosenbaum (tree of roses).

-berg (mountain): Goldberg (golden mountain), Greenberg (green mountain—i.e., a mountain covered with foliage), Eisenberg (iron mountain), Rosenberg (mountain of roses).

-feld (field): Weinfeld (field of vines), Blumenfeld (field of flowers), Rosenfeld (field of roses).

-blum (flower): Rosenblum (rose flower).

-zweig (branch): Goldzweig (gold branch), Rosenzweig (rose branch).

-thal (valley): Rosenthal (valley of roses).

-garten (garden): Baumgarten (garden of trees), Weingarten (vineyard).

-stein (stone): Goldstein (gold stone), Silberstein (silver stone), Eisenstein (iron stone), Kuperstein (copper stone), Rothstein (red stone).

Animals: Hirsch (deer), Adler (eagle), Hecht (pike), Karp (carp), Wolf (wolf).

Other natural phenomena: Stern (star) and Sternberg (star mountain).

8. Acronyms

Some last names are acronyms of Hebrew phrases.

Katz, a Kohanic surname, stands for kohen tzedek, righteous priest, while Segal (or Siegel), a Levite surname, stands for segan leviyah, Levite deputy.

Other acronyms include Ralbag (after an ancestor named Rabbi Leib ben Gabriel), Babad (ben Av Bet Din, son of the leader of the Jewish court), and Bek (bnei kedoshim, sons of martyrs).

9. Some Family Names of Older Origin

While legal names were assigned around the turn of the 19th century, there were certain families, mostly those blessed with wealth and/or Torah scholarship, which had names for many hundreds of years. Here are some of the most common:


Apparently derived from the Bohemian town of Horovice, Horowitz is usually associated with families of Levite descent. Many famous rabbinic personalities carried this last name, such as Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (known as the Shaloh), Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Horowitz (the Seer of Lublin), and the brothers Rabbi Pinchas and Shmuel Shmelke Horowitz, rabbis of Frankfurt and Nikolsburg, respectively.

The last name Gurevitch (and similar variations) is the Russian equivalent of Horowitz (the sound /h/, nonexistent in Russian,was replaced with /g/).


Schapiro, one of the most widespread Ashkenazi surnames, is thought to derive from the German city of Speyer. Famous rabbis carrying the name Schapiro include the seventeenth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Natan Nata Schapiro, and more recently Rabbi Meir Shapira, founder of the famed Chachmei Lublin rabbinic school.


The first half of the surname Rappaport is said to derive from the German word for “raven,” while the latter half can be traced to Porto Mantovano, a town near Mantua, Italy. The family’s coat of arms pictures a raven and a pair of hands lifted in the priestly blessing, evidence of the family’s Kohanic lineage. Many prestigious families throughout Europe carried this famous name.


Landau is an old Ashkenazi surname, dating back hundreds of years. Rabbi Yaakov Landau was a 15-century German native who moved to Italy. Three centuries later Rabbi Yechezkel Landau served as rabbi of Prague, and is famous for his work Noda B’Yehudah.


According to some sources, the Luria family traces its lineage to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), and from there to King David. Notable members of the family include Rabbi Shlomo Luria— famous halachic authority and rabbi of Lublin, and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal)—considered the most eminent Kabbalist of all times.

10. So Where Is My Family From?

With the understanding that Jews moved around a good deal, and that every rule has exceptions, here are some broad strokes with which you can trace your family origin.

  1. Language: If your family name is neither Hebrew or German, the language is a great clue. Portnoy is Russian for “tailor,” so your family is probably from Russia. Farkas is Hungarian for “wolf,” so your family is probably from Hungary. The list goes on.
  2. The Classic Hungarian Names: Monosyllabic, descriptive names such as Schwartz (black), Weiss (white), Roth (red), Gross (big), Klein (small), and Stark (strong) are most common among Jews of Hungarian heritage.
  3. Goldberg, Silverstein, et al: The German-language mix-and-match names are most common among Jews from Galicia.
  4. Matronymics: Names like Rivkin, Laikin, Tamarkin, etc., are most common among Jews from the Russian empire.
  5. Look at the Map: If your name is taken from a city or town, there is a good chance (but this should not be taken for granted) that your family is actually from that city. Thus, Oppenheimer would put your heritage in Germany, and Wiener would trace your ancestry to Vienna.