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In the Name of Zionism, Change Your Name

Zarechansky became Sa'ar, Brog became Barak: Behind many names in this country are stories involving a desire to forge a new identity in a new land.

Efrat Neuman
Efrat Neuman
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From “Children of the Sun” (2007).
From “Children of the Sun” (2007).
Efrat Neuman
Efrat Neuman

Giora Zarechansky has never had an easy time with his surname, which in Hebrew begins with an “S” sound. “Zarechansky is a tough name to pronounce, and there’s hardly any place that I go where people don’t get it wrong. If you are sensitive about such things, you have to constantly correct people. When I have to write the name in English – Zarechansky – it is even more complex. I always have to be sure I’ve written 11 letters,” he says.

But Zarechansky, the CIO at Amitim Senior Pension Funds, has no regrets about deciding not to change his last name, as did his elder brother, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. “We have only one sister, who is married [and changed her name], so as far as I know, today my parents and I are the only ones with this name,” the younger sibling explains. (Both of them were born in Israel.)

His politician-brother’s choice of Hebrew surname, Sa’ar, was not random. The family name is of Russian origin, and was inspired by the Zarechansky railway station that belongs to the jurisdiction of the Berezivka regional council in the Odessa region of Ukraine. But the Israeli immigration clerk who dealt with the Ukraine-born father, Shmuel, when he immigrated here by way of Argentina, wrote “Sarachensky,” with a samekh. In the vicinity of Berezivka flows the Tiligul River, and the train station was probably named for the river, since “Zarechansky” means “beyond the river.” So it was that Giora’s brother Gideon decided to change his surname to “Sa’ar,” the name of a stream in the Golan Heights.

Two years after he moved to Israel, in the mid-1960s, Shmuel Zarechansky settled with his family in Sde Boker and became the personal physician of then-retired Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the same Ben-Gurion who had passionately importuned new immigrants to Hebraize their last names. Already in the 1950s, there had been a rise in the name-changing phenomenon, which had its origins during the First Aliyah (wave of immigration to Palestine between 1882-1903). Zarechansky says Ben-Gurion pestered his father to Hebraize his name as well, and even chose a surname for him: “Snir,” also the name of a stream in the north. The father declined.

Prof. Aaron Demsky, founder and director of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan University, and academic adviser for those who created the database of surnames at Beit Hatfutsot - The Museum of the Jewish People, explains that Hebraizing surnames was a way for the Jews who came to Palestine to express ideological identification.

“The fathers of modern Zionism – David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi - took it upon themselves to change their names, and so did a good share of those who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for the purpose of realizing the new national home,” Demsky says.

“Thus, ‘Gruen’ became ‘Ben-Gurion,’ ‘Shkolnik’ became ‘Eshkol,’ ‘Perlman’ became ‘Ben Yehuda,’ and ‘Shimshelevich’ became ‘Ben-Zvi.’ These people set an example, in the hope that others who arrived later would likewise change their surnames. Such an act was a declaration, a hoisting of the flag, showing that they were rejecting the Diaspora and the names they had been forcibly given there. They chose new names for themselves and they put a great deal of thought into it.”

Nonetheless, many families who arrived tried to retain some connection to their old names. For example, the Ashkenazi name ‘Eisenstadt’ (meaning, iron city) became ‘Barzilai’ (from the Hebrew word for iron, barzel). In many cases names were Hebraized by immigration officials into similar-sounding names. Thus, for example, Franz Kishunt was renamed “Ephraim Kishon” by a Jewish Agency clerk.

During the War of Independence, the Israel Defense Forces set up a committee that issued a pamphlet titled “Choose a Hebrew Name for Yourself.” Then, in the 1950s, Ben-Gurion stipulated that anyone who represented the state in a formal capacity - be it as an athlete, a diplomat or in the military - must have a Hebrew surname. Some people Hebraized their last name, while their siblings and parents may have retained the original one. The former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and prime minister Ehud Barak, for example, changed his surname, which was “Brog,” whereas his brother, Avinoam, did not.

In 1955, Ben-Gurion, as defense minister, sent a directive to then-chief of staff Moshe Dayan, declaring that only military personnel with Hebrew surnames could henceforth represent the IDF abroad. That is, even if a soldier had what Ben-Gurion called “the dubious right” to retain his foreign name, he would not be able to go overseas on assignment for the state. But there were some military personnel and politicians who defied the new rule and kept a surname that held special significance for them: Ezer Weizman, nephew of Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann, refused to change his name, and Haim Laskov, who was later chief of staff, was permitted to retain his original last name out of respect for his late father.

There was no shortage of opinions on this matter, including among civilians who did not represent the state. Demsky describes the case of Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, who was among the leaders of religious Zionism who had Hebraized his original surname, “Berlin,” whereas his elder brother, Chaim Berlin – who immigrated to Israel only in old age – kept the name. According to Demsky, alongside the desire to be a new person in a new land, many immigrants also felt responsible for preserving the name of their family that perished in the Holocaust, and therefore elected not to Hebraize it.

There are also those who eventually went back to their original name, or added it on later. The author Yitzhak Averbuch-Orpaz had to Hebraize his name for a reason that seems quite ludicrous today: To enable his debut story to be broadcast on Israel Radio. Israel Radio suggested he ask the Jewish National Fund to propose a new name, and the JNF suggested “Orpaz.” Several decades later, he added his original name, “Averbuch.” Likewise, the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former IDF chief of staff who changed his original family name, “Lipkin,” to “Shahak” when he went abroad to study, subsequently went back to being called “Lipkin,” and later still combined the two names.

“The beauty of names is that they reflect changes in history and fashion in a society,” Demsky notes. “Each person carries with him historical baggage that is reflected in names, but to a certain extent, a name is also a matter of fashion. There are people who in the throes of immigration and with the aspiration to build and fulfill [the Zionist dream] said, ‘Let’s change our name.’ What sounded nice in one generation, however, may not sound good a generation later, and in the next generation the children may want to switch back to the original name.

“I knew a man who worked for the Foreign Ministry. He changed his name to ‘Shvat,’ but when he arrived overseas in a service capacity, he was called ‘Schwartz.’ Once he retired he went back to his Hebrew name, Shvat.

Buzaglo becomes Ben

In the case of Haim Bograshov, principal of the Herzliya Gymnasium high school, the reason for the change in appellation was modesty. Bograshov was one of the rare figures for whom a Tel Aviv street was named while he was still alive, but he did not like that decision so he took the rather radical step of changing his name to “Boger.”

As in the case of Ashkenazim, surnames of many Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origins) often took a Hebrew turn as well: “Havai” became “Shaham,” “Biton” was exchanged for “Golan” and “Buzaglo” was replaced by “Ben.” In such cases, the name change does not always stem solely from a wish to forge a new Zionist identity, but also from a desire to avoid ethnic discrimination. Just last August, the Tel Aviv District Labor Court ruled that Israel Aerospace Industries had discriminated against a job candidate because of his Mizrahi origin, and had to pay him compensation of 50,000 shekels ($14,300). The court decision came after the candidate in question, Michel Malka, failed to get a position when he submitted a resume with his actual name, but subsequently, when he resent it under the name “Meir Malkieli,” found himself invited in for an interview.

Vardit Avidan, a lawyer with the Tmura Antidiscrimination Legal Center, who represented the plaintiff, says that even now she has students in her law classes at the College of Management who change their surnames before applying for internships. “I know female and male lawyers who changed their last name so they wouldn’t be categorized straight away as criminal lawyers – as generally happens when the surname is ‘too Mizrahi.’ Lawyers who work in a profession that demands attracting clients will change a Mizrahi surname if they want to open a firm.

“We did an experiment at the College of Management: Students sent law firms the same CVs, but each time under a different name – with a woman’s name, or a Mizrahi, Russian, Ethiopian or Ashkenazi name – and requested an interview. Some places realized it was the same resume, but there were those that responded only to those with the Ashkenazi name.” A surname seems important and even essential today, so it is hard to imagine that a few centuries ago family names didn’t even exist – and the choice of such a name later on was often arbitrary.

Demsky explains that most Sephardi families only took surnames after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and that most Ashkenazim adopted last names between 1787 and 1830, when authorities in their respective countries instituted a policy to register the Jewish subjects - having until then referred to them by first name and father’s name. One reason for this move was an increase in the Jewish population: The fact that more and more people had the same first name led to a need for family names.

Demsky: “The Jews viewed this as a positive move, because it showed that they were being acknowledged. On the other hand, they knew that when they had a surname it was easier to track them down for the purposes of taxation and military service.”

Those “new” surnames can be classified in several major groups. There are names that were determined by the first name of the paterfamilias. Abraham, for example, took on a suffix and became Abramov or Abrahms; Yaakov became Yankelevich; and Arieh (Leib in Yiddish) became Leibovich. Sometimes the source of a surname was the first name of a mother or grandmother, which is how “Rivkin” or “Tzipkin” came into being (from Rivka or Tzipora). Families of kohanim (the priestly class) were given names like “Cohen” or “Kahana,” and Levites became “Levy” or “Levin.” Names of one’s country of birth or profession were also widely accepted when it came to coining family names. These include, respectively, “Deutsch,” “Portugali” and “Warshawsky”; or “Kravitz” (tailor), “Plotnik” (carpenter) and “Wexler” (money changer). The late Israeli journalist Dahn Ben-Amotz’s name was originally “Tehilimzeigger” (reciter of Psalms, in Yiddish). Other groups of surnames include those related to community roles or other traits, such as “Altman” (old man) or “Gutman” (good man).

“Surnames were not sacred,” Demsky continues. “Jews who migrated from place to place changed their surname along the way, for all kinds of reasons. The surname is a mark of identification, but ultimately names were assigned under various circumstances and many Jews did not necessarily ascribe much importance to them.”

What may have contributed to this attitude is the fact that in many places in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was government or other officials who gave Jews their surnames. Sometimes the officials mocked Jews by deliberately giving them demeaning names such as “Dreyfus” (drei Fuss means “three feet” in German), which surprisingly has survived to this day. Demsky points out the prevalence among Hungarian Jews of the names “Weiss” (white), “Schwartz” (black), “Gross” (big) and “Klein” (small) – popular appellations assigned by local officials.

“There is also an interesting phenomenon,” the professor adds, “of Jews contending with foreign names that were forced upon them: ‘Wallach,’ for example, or ‘Bloch,’ were inspired by a region in Romania called Wallachia. The reluctance some people [who immigrated to Israel] had about those surnames, if they wanted a Jewish identity, was solved by turning it into a Hebrew acronym for ‘Ve’ahavta Lere’ha Kamokha’ [Love thy neighbor as thyself]. The same goes for the Polish surname Byk: byk is an ox, but it was easier to treat it as an acronym for ‘Bnei Israel Kedoshim [Israelites are saintly],’” Demsky says.

Spelling errors

In contrast to the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe, who were compelled by the authorities to take on surnames, in Yemen, for example, Jews were not forced to assume a family name. However, Prof. Aharon Gaimani of the Jewish History department at Bar-Ilan University, who studies Yemenite names, says that during the past few centuries, in that country’s larger Jewish communities, such as Sana’a, Rada’a and Sada’a, popular surnames used were often inspired by locales (“Tza’anani,” “Radai”), professions (“Nagar,” meaning carpenter) and sometimes also by plants or personal traits.

Thus, during Operation Magic Carpet (1948-1950), when some 44,000 Yemenite emigrants departed Aden for the nascent Jewish state, those who did not yet possess a surname were given one, according to criteria noted above. For example, Jews from the southern province of Sharab were named “Sharabi” – today perhaps the most common surname among Israelis of Yemenite origin.

According to Gaimani, the names were often transcribed into Hebrew with spelling errors, which have remained to this day. In some cases, siblings were given different surnames, because each stated something different during the immigration process: One gave the father’s name, another his place of origin and the third a family name. Eventually, many newcomers from Yemen and other Arab countries opted for Hebrew names, with either a corresponding meaning or similar sound. The Sibahi family switched to “Zehavi,” “Hasar” became “Hasid,” “Maorhi” became “Maor” and “Yafai” - “Yafe.” The surname of Israel’s onetime transportation minister (and Histadrut head) Yisrael Kessar had previously been “Qasr,” and singer Yigal Bashan’s name was originally “Bashari.”

Gaimani also gives the example of the surname “Zabib” (“raisin,” in Arabic), inspired by a generations-long, familial occupation involving raising, transporting and selling raisins. When some persons of this name arrived in Israel, they opted for a Hebrew version with a related connotation, such as “Gefen” (grapevine), “Sorek” (a biblical term for choice vine) or “Carmon” (from the word for vineyard, “kerem”). This phenomenon extended to first names as well: “Banat” became “Batya,” “Shama” became “Shoshana,” “Salama” was renamed “Shulamit,” “Musa” was “Moshe” and “Ya’ish” became “Yishaya.”

Genetic innovation

Today, Beit Hatfutsot has a database containing tens of thousands of surnames that were verified by members of its academic committee and classified in groups taking variant spellings and other factors into consideration.

Before the founding of the state, it was customary to publish individual name changes in the Palestine Gazette. The Israel Genealogical Society (‎) has reviewed and posted a database of the over 28,000 names appearing in the Gazette that were changed between 1921 and 1948. From the time the state was established until 1979, name changes were publicized in an official publication called “Portfolio of Notification,” and this information is also available on the society’s website. Persons interested in tracing names of their forebears can also check genealogy sites that facilitate this process by means of building family trees and cross-referencing names, dates and relationships.

Gilad Japhet, CEO of an Israeli site called MyHeritage, says tracking down relatives by name is not always simple. For example, he says, to avoid compulsory army service in czarist Russia, many Jews would “attach” their son to another Jewish family with no offspring, because an only child was exempt from the military; that young man then would receive the surname of the adoptive parents (even if there had been no official adoption), and once he arrived in Israel he continued to be called by that name.

Science offers its own way of identifying relatives. Researchers here and abroad have jointly developed a computerized algorithm that can determine what a man’s surname is based solely on data relating to his Y chromosome. This innovation has been proposed by Israeli-born Yaniv Erlich, a fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Boston, Prof. Eran Halperin of Tel Aviv University’s school of computer science and department of molecular microbiology and biotechnology and David Golan, a doctoral student in statistics at TAU. The idea is that just like a surname, in many cases the Y chromosome is passed down from father to son, with minor changes because of mutations. Therefore, it is shared by all the men in a given extended family.

The algorithm the researchers developed was tested on a sample of 911 men in the United States. Their Y-chromosome data were entered into a database of sequenced genomes of 135,000 people, who represent the most common surnames in the U.S. The algorithm accurately identified the surname of one of every eight test subjects, and erred regarding only one in 20.

This article originally appeared on January 2, 2014.

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