In helfman

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

Did you share the Facebook post from Jewish Currents titled “Jewish Surnames Explained?”

It is an official looking page with a map of European Jews in 1881.  The content seems authoritative; a long list of names seems to show erudition and research.

But, as author Dara Horn writes, “Why, O Internet, do you keep doing this to me?”  She points out that there is a litany of critical errors in the original article.  For instance, Kagan is not tied to the Jewish Khazar Kingdom, but is a derivative of Kahan – the spelling change should be attributed a letter shift from ‘h’ to ‘g’ common in Russian.  And Lieb, in German, means love while Leyb means lion. Dr. Horn also points out how the author made many mistakes, failing to recognize the role of place-names in naming, and supports the myth that officers miss-recorded names as immigrants made landfall in North America.

Dara Horn concludes by shedding light on yet another misconception:

In the end, and despite the number of true facts it contains, “Jewish Surnames Explained” explains little, and that badly. It is really nothing but a bobe-mayse—which, incidentally, does not mean “grandma story” but is rather a reference to the Bove Bukh, a wildly popular Yiddish romance of the early modern period whose hero, Bove, gets drawn into fantastic and utterly implausible adventures.

What makes this article a bobe-mayse, and not Dara Horn’s response, and why is that important?

Our rabbinic texts are very concerned with tracking the trail of transmission all of the way back to Sinai and therefore to God.  While we, in a Reform context, are happy to discuss the human shaping of our tradition, there is still a need for authenticity.

What is ‘true,’ ‘real,’ and ‘authentic’ Judaism?  Some find that Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism – it smells of the old country.  The pictures on the wall, the Yiddush and the Hebrew give encounters the air of truth. Some find secular Judaism to be more authentic – free of the historic burden of religion, the folk dances and communal living represent true Jewish living.

But authenticity is deeper.  It is about trust.  For Dara Horn, it is about footnotes and sources – scholarship which allows fact-checking, something often missing on the web.  For me, Reform Judaism is the right blend of past and modernity.  It reverences the traditions of the past – from both Ashkenaz and Sepharad – and is ready to deal with the hard issues of today.

Many of us were born into Judaism, and are interested in how our last names connect us to traditions and the past and how that gives meaning to our present lives.  As we continue our pursuit to bring the past into the future, let us do it with our eyes open and our minds engaged.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Rabbi Jordan Helfman

    The author of the article explains why he made the mistakes he did. Very interesting. Thank you, Jack Kugelmass for pointing me to this:

  • Ruth Skolnik

    Rabbi Helfman, for those who are interested in pursuing the surname trail, there are many authoritative sources. The library of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto, housed in the Gladys Allison Canadiana Room at the North York Central Library, 5120 Yonge Street, 6th floor, has many resources. The best are by Alexander Bieder:
    *A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire
    Alexander Beider
    (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu Inc, 1993). Compilation of 50,000 names.

    *A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Kingdom of Poland
    Alexander Beider (Teaneck, NJ: Avotaynu Inc, 1996).
    Compilation of 32,000 names.
    JGS Toronto meets on the last Wednesday of the month at 7:30 pm at Temple Sinai.

    • Rabbi Jordan Helfman

      Thank you, Ruth, for sharing these great resources and letting people know about the Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto.

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