Hebrew to English Adaptations
Slide 66 of 94
Slide 66

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I have conducted a statistical analysis of given names from over 6,000 tombstones in several early 20th-century landsmanshaft cemeteries in New York and Boston, to see if I could discern patterns in the names that our immigrant Jewish ancestors adopted when they came to America. Tombstones are a particularly useful source, because they contain both the English and Hebrew given names. Some basic guidelines have emerged, but they must be understood as just guidelines. Again, there are no hard and fast rules immigrants were free to choose whatever name sounded fashionable to them.

The new American given names fall into one of four classifications:

  1. Language-equivalent names (e.g. Avrom to Abraham)
  2. Calques -- Names with the same underlying meanings (e.g. Bluma to Flora)
  3. Phonetic Similarity -- Usually just same initial letter (e.g. Wolf to William)
  4. No correlation between the old and new names

(1) Language-Equivalent Versions. If the English language-equivalent name was considered "fashionable" at that time, that name was most often the one adopted. So most of those with the Hebrew name Avraham took the English name Abe or Abraham; the vast majority of those named Binyamin became Ben or Benjamin, and virtually all Davids became David.

But the English equivalent name was not always the name chosen. For example, despite the fact that the English-language version of the Hebrew name Moshe is Moses, only 4% of those named Moshe became Moses 78% became Morris. None of those named Yechezkel became Ezekiel; none of the Shimshon became Samson because these were not popular American names at the time.