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GIVEN NAMES, JUDAISM, AND JEWISH HISTORY
5. JEWISH GIVEN NAMES (1795-1925)
5.3. JEWISH SECULAR NAMES
Jewish secular names were non-Hebrew, non-Yiddish names used by Jews, which were indigenous to some European country or countries. These names may be divided into the following categories:
German names were the ones most commonly chosen throughout Europe by Ashkenazic Jews as their secular names. This came about since it was in Germany that Jews concentrated after the decline of Babylonian Jewry in the tenth century. Furthermore, since Yiddish developed initially in Germanic lands and touched the Jewish heart, it was natural to adopt German names with their Yiddish-like sounds. However, the same German secular names were not uniformly popular in all the countries where they were adopted.
In 19th-century Germany, the large majority of Jewish names recorded in archival documents were German secular names, reflecting the intense entry of Jews into German society during the Enlightenment period. Yiddish names were not popular in Germany among non-religious Jews during this period, a time when they were eager to absorb the German language and culture, since Yiddish was regarded as a bastardization of the German language. Yiddish names were however used by religiously-observant Jews in their families and in the Jewish community, while German names were used in their contacts outside the Jewish community.
The use of secular German names became so common in Germany that the rabbis there recognized these names for use in identifying Jewish men and women in a formal get (Jewish divorce document). The Hilchot Gitin book "Get Mesudar" by Mintz presents a list of about 500 German names and describes how they are to be written in a get. For example, for a Jew whose Hebrew name was Avraham and whose secular name was Adolf, his legal name as written in the get would be "Avraham hamechune Adolf", written in Hebrew letters. About 80 percent of these names were adopted as-is in Poland and Hungary, and local secular names were substituted in these two countries for those not adopted. In all three countries, these secular names were to be used in a get in the same way that Yiddish names had been used for hundreds of years.
After German names, the next most popular group of names imported to Yiddish were Slavic names (particularly Polish names), for it was in the Slavic regions that Yiddish expanded the most by absorption of local words, phrases, and names. At one time during the 19th century, half of the Jews of the world lived in Poland, and as a result, more Polish names were adopted directly by Polish Jews or modified by them to Yiddish phonetic equivalents than for any other European country, except perhaps Germany. Similarly, more Yiddish names and nicknames were created in Poland than in any other European country.
In most European countries, there was a tendency for Jews to adopt secular names used in the country in which they lived, and secondarily in other European countries. In Lithuania, however, very few secular names of any type are to be found in archival documents, except as one approaches the western border of Lithuania, near Poland, for example. Furthermore, the secular names adopted in Lithuania were very seldom Lithuanian names.
The Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was partitioned by Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1772, 1793, and 1795. The Third Partition resulted in the complete occupation of both Poland and Lithuania and their elimination from the map of Europe. Efforts to restore independence were unsuccessful in Kosciuszko's insurrection of 1793-1795, during fighting on the side of France in the Napoleonic Wars of 1795-1815, in the November Insurrection of 1831-1832, and in the January Insurrection of 1863-1864.
Repression was significantly increased in the Russian Partition (Pale of Settelement) following the failed January Insurrection, and even linguistic Russification was attempted. Young men were liable to be conscripted for a fifteen year (or longer) term of service in the Russian Army, and the desire to avoid service in the armies of the occupying power was typically the proximate cause of emigration. The successful assassination of the Tsar in 1881 by a radical anarchist conspiracy which included some Jewish participation led to the Russian regime's activation of a series of pogroms intended to forcibly convert, kill, or induce the emigration of the Jewish population. A massive Jewish exodus resulted, with gentiles commonly following the Jewish example and emigrating abroad. The principal period of emigration occurred after 1881 and lasted until the outbreak of WWI. It is estimated that as much as 25% of the entire population of Lithuania emigrated, most of it to the United States.
The Russian occupation repeatedly closed schools and academies in Lithuania following the various Insurrections, deliberately reduced educational opportunities, and prohibited instruction in languages other than Russian after 1864. The Roman Catholic clergy often provided illegal teaching in hedge schools. The educational level of Lithuanian emigrants varied, but many were barely literate, and some were completely illiterate.
This was not true, however, of the Lithuanian Jews. Their world-famous yeshivot and cheders for younger children continued operation. The Jews' educational and cultural levels were quite high among all classes of Jews, much more so than for the non-Jewish Lithuanians among whom they lived, and the Jews' level of resistance to the Russian pressures was very strong. Perhaps this was a factor in the Jews' unwillingness to adopt native Lithuanian names.
In Russia itself, due to the unremitting pressure on Russian Jews to be absorbed into Russian culture and society, there was but little adoption of secular names from other countries, and a smaller use of Yiddish names than in countries like Lithuania and Belarus. Accordingly, most Jews in Russia had typical Russian secular names.