Names can help you with dates. A good detective looks at many aspects when gathering information. Don't limit yourself to just your immediate family, include cousins too. This allows you to see the big picture and give you more clues. For many generations it has been a Jewish tradition to name a child after a deceased family member. Some named their child after a deceased member of their community who was well respected.
Pay attention to siblings who have all named a child after a grandparent or parent. This can give you a clue as to approximately when that person died.
Surnames have come from many sources. People in Europe were frequently married according to religious rituals and not civilly. In these cases, the woman's surname was often used for the children's surname. The children from these marriages were considered illegitimate by the authorities.
A matronmym name comes from a female source, usually the mother. A few Jewish matronyms are Freude, Hinde, Perle and Rose. The origin of surnames can be determined by considering several different sources. A surname can potentially be a good clue into the family history, you must remember that the name may have been bought or changed at Ellis Island (or other ports of entry).
It is customary to take the surname of the father, although as mentioned above, there are children who take the maiden name of their mother. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany it was common to use the mother's name in forming a surname. Often the suffix "mann" was added to the wife's name, as in Esthermann. This would indicate that person who formed the name was the husband of Esther.
Patronymics originally weren't used for surnames. They eventually were adapted to modern surnames. For example, Benjamin ben Abraham would become Benjamin Abrahams. The patronym was the simplest way to create a surname. The endings of the names are the only language differences. For example, son of Esther could be spelled Estersohn, if coming from Austria or Germany. The Slavic patronym ends with "vich", "ov", "off", "eff" or "kin". All of these endings indicate that the person is a "descendant of" Esther. A couple other examples are Malkov and Rivkin. All of which are matronyms. It's not wise to assume that a surname will lead to the father.
One of the largest groups of Jewish surnames are from place names. Names based on locations are good clues as to where your family came from. This type of names were used often by the Sephardim. For example, someone from Cordova, Spain would form the name "de Cordova". From Lisbon, Portugal, it would be "Lisbona" and from Italy you have "Lucca" and "Padua".
The most common suffix for a place name is "er", as in Berliner. There is also the suffix "man", which means a man who comes from...". All European countries inspired location surnames. Jewish surnames not only reflected town names, but also streets, regions, and countries.
There are also surnames from occupations and vocations. Vocational names are more common among the Ashkenazim than Sephardim. A few examples of occupational names are "Chazan", meaning "cantor", "Dayan", meaning "judge", and "Abulafia", meaning "father of medicine". Some occupational surnames are Fleischer is for butcher, Cantor/Kantor for cantor (also Singer), Kauffman/Kaufman for merchant (as well as Kramer) and Bauer for a builder.
Remember that names may have been changed or shortened at ports of entrance by immigration officials. If no one remembers the original family,you may discover it via the steamship passenger list. You can use the Ellis Island site to find your ancestor's passenger list. You will need to be a detective again, since the name on the passenger list will not be the name you know. You can use the person's place of birth, age, occupation, or possibly the spouses's name and age to help you find something that may match.
It is also possible that a name chance was voluntarily made at some later date. Many Jews changed their name to make it easier to get work. They would change their names to something that didn't sound (or look) Jewish. My grandmother's two brothers changed their names voluntarily for just that reason. Another possibility, as my great-great-great-grandfather did, give each male child a different last name to keep children from being conscripted into the army. Only sons are not drafted into the foreign armies.
It was also very common to change Yiddish and Hebrew names to more popular names. For example, Mordechai (or Mattel) to Max or Milton, Chaim to Herman or Howard and Yaacov (or Yakel, Yankel) to Jacob or even Jack.
Remember, one day all the puzzle pieces will fit together!!
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