The news of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump naming former Wall Street banker and Hollywood financier Steven Mnuchin as his choice for treasury secretary has piqued interest in his ancestry and the origin of his unusual name.
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The Mnuchin family history in the United States began in 1916, when Aaron Mnuchin, a Russian-born Jewish diamond dealer living in Belgium, emigrated there. A year later, he sent for his wife and children. They sailed out of Cadiz, Spain on board the Montserrat, and arrived at Ellis Island on September 12, 1917. Leon Mnuchin, Steven Mnuchin’s grandfather, was 7 years old.
Leon Mnuchin would grow up to become a lawyer and art collector. His son, Robert Mnuchin, Steven Mnuchin’s father, was born in 1933. He graduated from Yale University in 1955 and after two years in the United States Army, joined Goldman Sachs in a junior position. Very junior, he told the New York Times: when he started, he wasn't even allocated a chair. Over time Robert climbed the company ladder to senior positions, and surpassed his father Leon as an art collector.
His son, Steven, the apparent future secretary of the treasury, was born in 1962. Following in his father’s footsteps, he studied at Yale University and joined Goldman Sachs, which he left in 2002.
After that brief family history, we are ready to turn to the Mnuchin name.
The broader Menuhin clan
We have already seen that the Mnuchins came from Russia and are Jewish. Indeed, Mnuchin is not an uncommon Jewish-Russian name, though in Russia the “ch” is not pronounced like the “ch” in cheese, but like the “ch” in Loch Ness.
Another notable member of the broader Mnuchin clan is violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose family decided to anglicize the Slavic “ch” with “h” instead of “ch.”
Beth Hatefutsoth suggests that the name Mnuchin is likely a patronymic, deriving from the name of a distant male ancestor. David Curwin of the Hebrew etymology blog Balashon points out that the name could alternatively be matronymic, originating in a female ancestor named Menucha, with the suffix "-in" denoting possession.
The patronymic theory seems more likely, as Menachem is more common than Menucha, and patronymic names are more common than matronymic ones. But in the end there is no way to know for sure.
Either way, whether the celebrated ancestor was Menuchin or Menucha, both names are versions of the common Hebrew name Menachem. That in turn derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to comfort.” Notable Menachems in Jewish history include Menahem King of Israel 747-737 B.C.E., Menahem son of Yehuda, one of the leaders of the 1st century Great Jewish Revolt, the Hebrew grammarian and poet Menahem ben Saruq (920-970 C.E.), and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913-1992).
The name has nothing to do with the word “munchkin,” which was invented by the author L. Frank Baum in his book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900).