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Make a Name for Yourself

Libi Astaire

Some see in their family name a calling, a value system, or point of pride. It’s not just an appendage; it’s part of their identity. What stories do our names reveal about hidden histories and a precious past?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

When Dov Ber of Mezritch was only five years old, his parents’ house burned down to the ground. The child couldn’t understand why his mother was sobbing so bitterly.“I’m not crying about the house,” she assured her small son. “But our family tree was in the house, and now it’s been destroyed. It showed how we can trace our lineage all the way back to RabiYochananHasandlar, a disciple of RabiAkiva.”“Don’t worry,” replied the future Maggid of Mezritch, who would lead the chassidic movement after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov. “Our pedigree will start again with me.”In the end, we know who we are: the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. There’s no greater yichus than that. But what about the generations between the Avos and ourselves? For many of us, our last names provide valuable clues to the origins, travails, and sometimes prominence of the ancestors who link us to the past. For all the historic significance we accord them, family names are a fairly recent innovation. In the beginning, we were Moshe ben Yaakov or Sarah bas Eliyahu; we were the children of somebody, and that parental connection was enough of an identifier. In larger towns, where enough of us had the same names to make things confusing, a profession or some personal characteristic might have been tacked on to distinguish Moshe ben Yaakov the Sandlar from Moshe ben Yaakov the Short One. However, the idea of everyone having a surname didn’t come about until much later, when we were already in galus.

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