A primer on Yiddish names

To mark the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and acknowledging the fact that the Shoah made Yiddish an endangered language (killing 85% of its speakers), I decided to cover Yiddish names today. Regardless of my own feelings about the language (or, more accurately, what it represents), I really am sorry it’s become a dying language.

Yiddish is only one of many distinctive Jewish languages which arose in the Europe and Asia of yore. Others include the Spanish-influenced Ladino (my favorite!), Zapharatic (a.k.a. Judeo-French), Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Georgian, Yevanic (a.k.a. Judeo-Greek and Romaniyot), Judeo-Malayalam (spoken in India), Krymchak (a Turkic language spoken in the Crimea), and Lishanid Noshan (a.k.a. Neo-Aramaic).

Yiddish evolved from Middle High German, and indeed bears a strong resemblance to German. It also takes influence from the Slavic languages, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Conversely, some languages, like Hungarian, took a good number of loanwords from Yiddish (and Hebrew).

By the Shoah, most native speakers were from Eastern Europe. Apart from extremely religious communities, it was no longer the majority language in places like Hungary, Germany, France, and Austria. It’s no accident it fell into disfavor in the countries that granted emancipation!

My characters the Roblenskies, a family of twelve orphaned siblings and their surviving aunt Etke Berkowitz, are native Yiddish-speakers from Warsaw. The teen girl whom Etke meets in the camps and adopts after the war, Tekla (Tecia) Czernowicz, is also a native speaker. Some of my other characters understand the language, but it’s not their first language.

Alphabet:

Yiddish is written in Hebrew letters, though transliteration varies, both upon personal preference and dialect. It doesn’t follow the pronunciation rules of modern Hebrew, which is based on Sephardic and not Ashkenazic pronunciation. For example, Yiddish-speakers pronounce the letter ת as an S where there’s no dot inside (which is total nails on a chalkboard for me!). Modern Hebrew pronounces it as a T, dot or not. They also often pronounce an A sound as an O. Some dialects render A as U.

Nicknames:

Yiddish nicknames are frequently formed by adding -el, -l, -leh, or some variation of the -ie/y/i sound to the end of a name. There are also irregular exceptions, like getting Motl/Mottel from Mordechai.

Surnames:

We’re probably all familiar with Ashkenazic Jewish surnames. Many of them have origins in German words and names, while Russian Jewish surnames often end in -kin(a), as opposed to the more Russian Christian ending -in(a). Spellings vary by the conventions of their host culture. Examples include Weisz/Weiss, Katz, Kaganowitz, Davidovics, Karfinkel, Goldschmidt, Goldmark, Feinstein, Müller, Goldblatt, Greenblatt, Kurzweil, Rozental, Rosenberg, and Sterngold.

Sample names:

Female:

Aidel, Eidel (Delicate)
Alte (Old; traditionally given to babies not expected to live so the Angel of Death would be confused)
Avigal, Avigali (Abigail)

Baila, Bayla, Beila, Beile, Beyle, Beyla (White) (the fifth and last of Tevye’s seven daughters to get a story in the book Fiddler on the Roof was based on)
Basya, Basel, Batka, Basha (Bassie, Bassy) (Daughter of God)
Berte (Knoll)
Berura (Pure)
Bina (Bee)
Bluma, Blima (Flower)
Bobe (Grandmother) (traditionally given for the same reason as Alte)
Bodhana (Gracious God)
Brana
Brandel (Little flame)
Breindel, Breindl (Brunette)
Brocha (Blessing)

Charna, Charne, Cherne, Cherna (Black)
Deiche
Derozha, Dreyze (My dear little one)
Devoyre, Devoire (Deborah)
Dine (Dina)
Dobe, Doba (Good)
Dova (Bear)
Dreisel, Dreisl (Drusilla)

Enye (Grace)
Etke (Esther)
Faiga, Feige, Feiga, Faigel, Feigel (Bird) (always hated this name!)
Feitel (Full of life)
Fraida, Freyde, Fraide, Freida, Frayda, Freyda (Joy)
Fruma, Frima, Frimet (Pious)

Gavrela (Gabriella)
Gitl, Gittel, Guta, Gute, Gite (Good)
Gluke, Glike (Good luck)
Golda (Gold)
Gruna, Grunnah, Grunah (Green)
Hena, Hene, Henye, Henda, Khana, Khane (Hannah)
Hinda (Deer)
Hode, Hadass (Hadassah)
Hudes (Judith)

Ita
Iza
Kayla, Kaila, Keila, Keyla (Crown of laurels) (a real name long before it was used on a soap opera character!)
Ketzel, Ketzeleh (Kitten) (usually used as a nickname, but sometimes as a legal name)
Klare
Kreine, Kroyne, Kreindel, Kreindl (Crown)
Kressel, Kresel, Kressia (Gracia)

Leiba (Lion)
Leya (Leah)
Liba, Liebe (Loved)
Maidel (Young girl)
Maryasha
Matel (Matilda)
Mazyl, Mazal, Mazel
Michla
Mina

Nacha
Nesya, Nessia, Nisl, Nissel (Miracle of God)
Perle, Perele (Pearl)
Pesha, Pessie, Pesse (Passover)
Raisa, Raizel, Raisel, Rayzl, Royze (Rose)
Rayna, Raina, Reina (Pure, clean)
Rifke, Rifka, Riva (Rebecca)
Rikel (Rich)
Rochel, Ruchel
Ronna (Joy)

Shayna, Shaina, Shaine, Sheine (Beautiful)
Shoni (Beautiful)
Shprintze, Shprintza (Hope) (the fourth of Tevye’s daughters to get a story in the book)
Shterna (Star)
Sisel, Zisel, Zusa, Zisa (Sweet) (Cecilia)
Sura, Sora (Suri, Tzeitel, Tzeitl, Tzeril, Tzerl, Zirel)

Taube, Tauba, Tobe, Toba (Teibel) (Dove)
Tema (Tamar)
Tilla (Tehilla) (Psalm)
Tirze (Favorable)
Toltsa, Toltse, Teltse, Telze (Sweet)
Treindl, Treindel (Katherine)
Tzitte (Energetic)
Tzurtel, Zortel (Gentle, tender)

Vardiya, Vardit (Rose)
Velvela (Wolf) (Wilhelmina)
Yache, Yachet (Yocheved or Jacinta)
Yente (Gossip)
Yentl (Noble, aristocratic)
Yetta, Yitty (Esther, Judith, or Etta)

Zelda, Zelde (Happy, blessed)
Zemira (Song, melody)
Zerlina, Zerline
Zilla
Zlate (Gold)

Male:

Alter (Old)
Amshel, Amschel (Thrush)
Anshel, Anschel (Angel)
Avrum (Abraham)

Bailem (He who watches over his siblings) (traditionally given to a firstborn son)
Benesh, Bendit (Benedict)
Ber (Beryl, Berel) (Bear)
Bunem (Good man)

Chatzkel, Haskel, Khaskl, Khatskel (Ezekiel)
Chayim, Chaim, Haym, Haim (Life)
Dovid, Duvid
Eisik (Isaac)
Elye (Elijah)
Evron (Ephraim)

Faitel (Full of life)
Fayvish, Faivish, Feibush (Pure, bright) (also used as a translation of Samson)
Fishel (Little fish)
Gavrel (Gabriel)
Herschel, Hershel, Hersh, Hersch, Hirsh, Hirsch, Hirshel, Heshel (Deer)
Herz, Herzl (Heart) (Naftali)
Heynoch (Enoch)
Hyman (Man)

Iser, Issur, Sruel, Srul, Sroel, Sruli, Yisroel (Israel)
Kalman, Kalmen (Beautiful name) (not to be confused with the Hungarian name Kálmán)
Lazar, Lazer (Eliezer)
Leib, Liev (Lion)
Lieber (Belovèd)
Lipa, Lipman (Belovèd man)

Manis, Manes
Maylech, Mailech, Meilech (Elimelech)
Mendel (Frequently used as a middle name for Menachem, of which Mendel is itself a nickname. Many Menachem Mendels simply go by Mendel or Mendy.)
Moishe, Movcha (Moses)
Motel, Motl, Mottel, Moti, Motti (Mordechai)

Noson, Nosson (Nathan)
Nussim, Nusim (Miracles)
Pinkus (Pinchas, Phineas)
Refoel, Rifoel (Raphael)

Safran
Schneur (Master)
Shlomo, Scholem (Solomon)
Selig, Zelig (Happy, blessed)
Sender (Alexander)
Shimmel (Simon)
Shmiel, Shmuely, Shmil, Shmul (Samuel)
Sholom (Shalom) (Peace)

Tevye (Tobias)
Todrus (Theodore)
Velvel (Wolf) (William)
Yankel, Kapel, Koppel (Jakob)
Yidel, Yidl, Yudel, Yudl (Judah)
Yusl, Yussel (Joseph)
Zalman (Solomon)
Zeyde, Zaide (Grandfather) (traditionally used for the same reason as Alte/Alter)
Zusman (Sweet man)

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