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The Late Professor G. L. Esterson
Ra'anana, Israel
David Curwin
Kibbutz Migdal Oz, Israel

Our nineteenth century Ashkenazi ancestors in Eastern Europe had numerous Yiddish and European secular names that they used for various purposes.  In the case of some Hebrew names, they may have used as many as 30-40 different Yiddish nicknames (kinuim) and 20 different secular names. The Hebrew name Yehoshua is a typical example of the many name variations used for different purposes.  Jews used one name for Revision Lists, another for Rabbi's elector lists, and a third one for candle tax lists. In Western Europe, fewer given names are found per person, particularly Yiddish names.

In the paper trail they left behind, these given names seemed to be used at random, creating great confusion for genealogists who do not know if the person with one given name in one document is the same as the person with a different given name in another document (or in family tradition).

In fact, however, our ancestors gave us one very valuable hint:  the names they left us were chosen using certain grouping rules, and nearly always fell into a small number of groups, in each of which the names are closely linked together.  If we could find these groups of given names for each of the most common Hebrew names used in our European country of origin, we would have a much expanded list of hypothetical names.  This would give us an important research tool when studying archival documents. One goal of the Given Names Databases Project (hereafter referred to as the GNDB Project) was to assemble these groupings and make them available in easy-to-use data bases, country by European country.

They left us a second legacy when they emigrated from Europe to foreign countries like the US:  their strong preference for certain foreign vernacular names over others, linked to the names they had in the old country. The resulting statistical correlation between their European names and their US names provides the link between, e.g., Beyla of Baisagola and Bessie of Baltimore.  While the correlation is more complicated than this statement implies, nevertheless the legacy gives us a very important "hunting license" which may considerably narrow down the tracks of our emigrated European ancestors.  And the hunt can work just as well in the reverse direction -- from "elsewhere" to Europe.  Thus, the second major goal of the GNDB Project was, for each foreign country of immigration, to list the foreign vernacular names that are linked to the original European country given names.

Accordingly, along with archival data from Europe and foreign countries, we have used these two hints to create empirical data sets of linked given names.  The data records look like the following for the Hebrew name Yehoshua -- Yiddish names:  Ehoshiya, Yehoshiya, Yehoshiye, Hashke, Haushl, Hoshiye, Hoshko, Oshaya, Osheya, Oshiya, Shua, Yoshko, Yozl, among others; numerous secular names (depending on the specific European country); and corresponding US names such as Charles, Joshua, Julius, Oshiah, Samuel, Sidney, etc.  If one of the Yiddish names is known from archival research, then by searching the GNDB it will be possible to find all of the other possible Jewish names they may have used in the European country, as well as the possible corresponding foreign vernacular names used in a number of foreign countries.  All of the categories of given names are sensitive to the European country of origin and the foreign country of immigration.

We describe here our conception of this multiple-given-name problem, and our goals, assumptions, guidelines, and constraints to make the project work manageable and the results effective;  how we used Rabbinic literature to structure and organize sets of data bases for European countries;  how we made the links to foreign countries of immigration;  and how Jewish genealogical researchers may use our results.


Searchable data bases have been set up for Jewish given names in fifteen nineteenth century European regions (Belarus, Denmark, France, Galicia, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Latvia/Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Prussia, Romania, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine), and links are made in each record to the new local vernacular names adopted in ten "foreign" countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Palestine, South Africa, UK, Uruguay, US) to which European Jews immigrated.  Thus, for each European region, these databases include the Hebrew, Yiddish, and local and other-European-country secular names used, as well as new names in foreign countries.  These databases of linked European and foreign- country given names allow Jewish genealogists to define all of the Jewish and vernacular names which an ancestor may have used in Europe and in his new country of immigration.  The fifteen Given Names Data Bases are on-line and may be accessed at the URL:  http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/GivenNames/ .

This document is divided into two major parts:  the conceptual design of the data base structure, and a description of the computer databases. During the conceptual design, we defined a set of goals, the assumptions required, guidelines which needed to be followed, and constraints to which the new GNDB system must conform.  These factors led us to define the European and foreign regions, the acquisition of population data, definition of given names data sources, source data quality, definition of the data base fields, and the optimum procedure for entering the source data to achieve the desired results.  We have also considered how the GNDB may be linked as a research aid to other databases where given names appear.

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A major goal was that each record have a primary Hebrew and/or Yiddish given name which was recognized by Jews as the Legal Jewish Name for use in Jewish legal contracts such as a get (divorce contract), ketuva (marriage contract), and other Jewish contracts, and for calling a man to the Torah for an aliya.  The second main goal was that each record include all Yiddish and secular names which were commonly linked in that European country to the primary name;  some of these names were major names, while others were simply names of endearment, diminutives, or others.

Since these two goals led us in a direction different from the one usually used in normal onomastic studies (the origin and history of given name usage), we needed to find a different approach to guide us in structuring the data base.  The solution was to use rabbinical sources known as Hilchot Gitin -- Jewish law books written by prominent, expert rabbinical leaders as guides for community rabbis in preparing Jewish divorce documents, and for synagogue officials to use in calling men to the Torah for an aliya.

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In developing our databases we proceeded as follows:

(1)  We created a basic core set of the Hebrew names used by Jews in Europe. These names were Tanakhic, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Yiddish, and were the starting set for each country's database.
(2)  For each European country, we extracted the framework-set of primary Hebrew/Yiddish given names from the Hilchot Gitin (Divorce Law) books written for that country and the target time period (1795- 1925); then we imported these names appropriately into the basic core set of Hebrew names, converting them to Jewish Legal names.  Using this framework, we entered other archival material for that country to flesh out the names set.  Using the Hilchot Gitin names first before other sources gives each database the proper structure and provides the correct framework in which to add other names not dealt with in the Hilchot Gitin books.
(3) For each "foreign" country, we entered cemetery and other data to link the original Hebrew, Yiddish, and European-secular names to the new foreign names adopted by immigrants.
(4) After checking and refining the results, we prepared the separate European-country databases for use in stand-alone, on-line searchable databases, and as integrated sources of given names to be used as research aids while searching in other genealogical data bases such as the LitvakSig All Lithuania Data system.

A large Hebrew name database was initially assembled by extracting true Hebrew names from The Five Book of Moses, Prophets, Scriptures, Mishna, Gemara, and so on.  This was a database of several thousand names, extending up to the year 500 CE when the Talmud (Mishna and Gemara) was completed.  Only a small fraction of these core Hebrew names (2 percent) survived the centuries and were eventually used in nineteenth century Europe (the period of this research).  Our European archival research eliminated a large number of these names and added others, resulting in the above basic core set.

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ALEKSANDER ZISKIND MARCUS of Baisogala, Lithuania was born in 1856, and was given his personal Hebrew name Aleksander Ziskind by his mother and father at the time of his brit mila (circumcision).  Shortly thereafter, his parents gave him pet and diminutive Yiddish names (based on his Hebrew name), Zissel and Zissa.  Some time later, they added another diminutive Yiddish name of affection -- Zissala (little Zissel).  In the 1858 Revision List, his name appears only as Ziskind.  Later, his own son Shmuel moved to Datnuva and voted in 1907, registering his own name as Shmuel Ziskinovitz (son of Ziskin) Marcus, and also giving his father's name as Suesskind, a German name.

In the synagogue, he was called to the Torah using his Hebrew name Aleksander Ziskind, in the family and Jewish community he was called by one of his five Yiddish names (Zissa, Zissala, Zissel, Ziskind, Ziskin), and in the secular world he was known as Suesskind.  Although this is a quite normal (if small) set of given names, some Jews in Europe collected literally dozens of names, depending on the circumstances.

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