Goldberg, Rosenstein, Feldman…typical Jewish Ashkenazi names. Historically, however, until the early Industrial era, Jews were generally known by a patronymical : Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Gamliel, etc. This system was common in many cultures (i.e. Johnson, Ivanovich, etc.). Sometimes people were known by their geographic origins such as Benjamin of Tuleda, a famous medieval adventurer.

As societies began to urbanize, and civil entities became larger and more organized (from city-states to nations), more and more people began to use surnames. While this occurred naturally in some communities, most Jews assumed surnames by force of law. One example of such a law is the Edict Concerning the Civil Status of the Jews in the Prussian State, * issued on March 11, 1812, by King Fredrick William III. (This edict applied only to Jews who had resided under Prussian authority since before 1772.) The edict stated:

…Jews and their dependents dwelling at present in Our States, provided with general privileges, patent letters of naturalization, letters of protection and concessions, are considered as natives and as state citizens of Prussia … The maintenance of this designation as native and state citizen is allowed only under the following obligation: that they bear strictly fixed surnames; and that they use German or another living language not only in keeping their commercial records but also in the drawing of contracts and legal declarations of intention; and they should use only German or Latin script for their signatures…

The rest of the edict enumerates the rights the Jews received.

An edict such as this one can be seen as both a way to integrate Jews into their country s culture, or as a means of forcing assimilation – that, however, becomes a discussion of opinion, philosophy and historical context.

*Text copied from:
http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/index.cfm

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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