The origins and meaning of Ashkenazic last names

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Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names.  Some German speaking Jews took last names as early as the 17th century, but the overwhelming majority of Jews lived in Eastern Europe and did not take last names until compelled to do so.  The process began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787 and ended in Czarist Russia in 1844.

In attempting to build modern nation states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted and educated (in that order of importance).  For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas.  Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair. 

Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation.  For example if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), he would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe.  If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Moyshe.

Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement.   Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes.  Among themselves, they kept their traditional names.  Over time, Jews accepted their new last names, which were essential as they sought to advance within the broader society, and as the shtetls themselves became more modern or Jews left them for big cities.

The easiest way for Jews to assume an official last name was to adapt the name they already had, making it permanent.   This explains the use of “patronymics” and “matronymics.”

PATRONYMICS (son of…..)

In Yiddish or German, it would be “son” or “sohn”  or “er”

In most Slavic languages like Polish or Russian, it would be “vich” or “vitz” ), anglicized to “wich” or “witz).

For example: the son of Mendel took the last name Mendelsohn; the son of Abraham became Abramson or Avromovitch; the son of Menashe became Manishewitz; the son of Itzhak became Itskowitz; the son of Berl took the name Berliner; the son of Kesl took the name Kessler, etc.  


Reflecting the prominence of Jewish women in business, some families made last names out of women’s first names:

Chaiken—son of Chaikeh

Edelman—husband of Edel

Gittelman—husband of Gitl

Glick or Gluck—may derive from Glickl, a popular woman’s name as in the famous “Glickl of Hameln,” whose memoirs, written around 1690, are an early example of Yiddish literature

Gold/Goldman/Gulden may derived from Golda

Malkov—from Malke

Leaman/Lehman–husband of Leah

Perlman—husband of Perl

Rivken—may derive from Rivke

Soronsohn—son of Sarah


The next most common source of Jewish last names is probably place names.  Jews used the town or region where they lived—or more likely where their families came from—as their last name, reflecting the Germanic origins of most East European Jews.

Asch—acronym for towns of Aisenshtadt or Altshul or Amshterdam



Berger—generic for townsman

Berg (man)—from a hilly pace

Bayer—from Bavaria


Berlin—Berliner, Berlinsky











Frankel—from Franconia, region of Germany



Gordon—from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman


Halperin—from Helbronn, Germany


Heller—from Halle, Germany

Hollander—not from Holland, but from town in Lithuania settled by Dutch

Horowitz, Hurwich, Gurevitch—from Horovice in Bohemia


Krakauer—from Cracow, Poland


Lipsky—from Leipzig, Germany

Litwak—from Lithuania

Minsky—from Minsk, Belarus

Mintz—from Mainz, Germany


Ostreicher—from Austria

Pinsky—from Pinsk, Belarus

Posner—from Posen, Germany

Prager—from Prague

Rappoport—from Porto, Italy

Rothenberg—from then town of the red fortress in Germany

Shapiro—from Speyer, Germany

Schlesinger—from Silesia, Germany


Unger—from Hungary

Vilner—from Vilna, Poland/Lithuania

Wallach—from Bloch, derived from the Polish word for foreigner 

Warshauer/Warshavsky—from Warsaw

Wiener—from Vienna




Ackerman- plowman




Cooper/Cooperman—barrel maker or coppersmith









Goldsmith —goldsmith


Kastner—cabinet maker


Kramer–store keeper


Nagler—nail maker






Spielman—player (musician?)


Wasserman—water carrier 


Garfinkel/Garfunkel—diamond dealer

Holzman/Holtz/Waldman—timber dealer


Rokeach—spice merchant

Salzman—salt merchant

Seid/Seidman—silk merchant

Tabachnik—snuff seller

Tuchman—cloth merchant

Wachsman—wax dealer

Wollman—wool merchant

Zucker/Zuckerman—sugar merchant





Related to tailoring


Nadelman/Nudelman—also tailor from “needle’

Sher/Sherman—also tailor from “scissors” or “shears”

Presser/Pressman—clothing presser



Wechsler/Halphan—money changer

Related to liquor trade



Kabakoff/Krieger/Vigoda—tavern keeper

Geffen—wine merchant

Wine/Weinglass—wine merchant

Weiner—wine maker


Altshul/Altshuler—associated with the old synagogue in Prague

Cantor/Kazan/Singer/Spivack—cantor or song leader in shul 


Gottlieb–God lover

Haver—from haver (court official)

Klausner—rabbi for small congregation

Klopman—calls people to morning prayers by knocking on their windows


Rabin—rabbi  (Rabinowitz—son of rabbi)

London—scholar, from the Hebrew lamden (misunderstood by immigration inspectors)

Reznick—ritual slaughterer



Schechter/Schachter/Shuchter etc.—ritual slaughterer from Hebrew schochet



Spector—inspector or supervisor of schools



Dreyfus—three legged, perhaps referring to someone who walked with a cane



Gottleib—God lover, perhaps referring to someone very devout

Geller/Gelb/Gelber—yellow, perhaps referring to someone with blond hair


Gruber—coarse or vulgar






Koenig—king, perhaps someone who was chosen as a “Purim King,” in reality a poor wretch

Krauss—curly, as in curly hair




Roth/Rothman—red head

Roth/Rothbard—red beard

Shein/Schoen/Schoenman—pretty, handsome

Schwartz/Shwartzman/Charney—black hair or dark complexion

Scharf/Scharfman—sharp, i.e  intelligent

Stark—strong, from the Yiddish shtark 

Springer—lively person, from the Yiddish springen for jump

Sussking/Ziskind—sweet child

Weiss/Weissbard–white hair/ beard


These were sometimes foisted on Jews who discarded them as soon as possible, but a few remain:

Gans–goose                                  Inkyk–turkey

Grob–coarse/crude                     Kalb–calf


It is common among all peoples to take last names from the animal kingdom.


eagle –Adler (may derive from reference to an eagle in Psalm 103:5)

camel—Gelfand/Helfand (technically means elephant but was used for camel too)










Hirschhorn–deer antlers


Rothschild—red shield




Strauss—ostrich or bouquet of flowers


Some Jews either retained or adopted traditional Jews names from the Bible.

The big two

Cohen– Cohn, Kohn, Kagan, Kahan, Kahn, Kaplan

Levi—Levy, Levine, Levinsky, Levitan, Levenson, Levitt, Lewin, Lewinsky, Lewinson

Others from the Bible

Aaron—Aronson/ Aronoff










Mayer/Meyer (Talmudic, not Biblical)








Baron—bar aron (son of Aaron)

Beck–bene kedoshim (descendant of martyrs)

Getz—gabbai tsedek (righteous synagogue official)

Katz—kohen tsedek (righteous priest)

Metz–moreh tsedek (teacher of righteousness 

Sachs/Saks—zera kodesh shemo (his name descends from martyrs)

Segal/Siegel—se gan levia (second rank Levite)

Shub/Shoub–shochet u'bodek (ritual slaughter/kosher meat inspector)


Leyb means “lion” in Yiddish.  It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Liebowitz, Lefkowitz, Lebush and Leon.  It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew work for lion—aryeh.  The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.

Hirsch means “deer” or “stag” in Yiddish.  It is the root of many Ashkenazic last names including Hirschfeld, Hirschbein/Hershkowitz (son of Hirsch)/Hertz/Herzl, Cerf, Hart and Hartman.  It is the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew word for gazelle—tsvi.  The gazelle was the symbol of the tribe of Naphtali.

Taub means “dove” in Yiddish.  It is the root of the Ashkenazic last name Tauber.  The symbol of The dove is associated with the prophet Jonah.

Wolf is the root of the Ashkenazic last names Wolfson, Wouk and Volkovich.  The wolf was the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin.


Eckstein—Yiddish for cornerstone, derived from Psalm 118:22

Good(man)—Yiddish translation of Hebrew word for “good”–tuviah 

Margolin—Hebrew for pearl

Jaffe/Yaffe–Hebrew for beautiful


When Jews were required to assume last names, some chose the nicest ones they could think of and may have been charged a registration fee by the authorities.

According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “the resulting names often were associated with nature and beauty.  It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time.”  

Applebaum—pear tree

Birnbaum—pear tree

Buchsbaum—box tree

Kestenbaum—chestnut tree

Kirshenbaum—cherry tree

Mandelbaum—almond tree

Nussbaum—nut tree

Tannenbaum—fir tree

Teitelbaum—palm tree

other “baum” names

Names with these combinations were also chosen or purchased:

Blumen (flower)                                                         

Fein (fine)                                                       combined with:

Gold                                                               “berg” for hill or mountain, “thal” for valley,

Green                                                              “bloom” for flower, “zweig” for branch, “blatt”

Lowen (lion)                                                   for leaf, “vald” or “wald” for woods and “feld”

Rosen (rose)                                                   for field

Schoen/Schein (pretty)

Other aesthetically pleasing names









Sender/Saunders—from Alexander

Kelman/Kalman—from the Greek name Kalonymous, popular among Jews in medieval France and Italy.  It is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “shem tov” (good name)

Marcus/Marx—from Latin, referring to the pagan god Mars

ANGLICIZED NAMES (or why “Sean Ferguson” was a Jew)

Jewish last names were often changed or shortened by immigrants themselves and their descendants— to sound more “American.”  (In rarer cases, immigration inspectors may have accidently changed the names of immigrants by misreading them. )

For example, Cohen to Cowan, Yalowitz to Yale, Rabinowitz to Robbins   

And this is good old Boston;

The home of the bean and the cod.

Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots;

And the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God!   


What happened to the last names of Ashkenazic Jews who immigrated to pre-state Palestine and to early Israel???   

David Green became David Ben Gurion

Abba Meir became Abba Eban

Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir

Amos Klausner became Amos Oz

Syzmon Perski became Shimon Peres

Ariel Scheinerman became Ariel Sharon

Moshe Shertok became Moshe Sharett

Levi Shkolnick became Levi Eshkol

Yitzhak Jeziernicky became Yitzhak Shamir

Why?   To distance themselves from Ashkenazic Jewry.

For more, visit this piece on

Feeds and Reads: Jewish stars react to royal baby

Mazel tov to Prince William and Duchess Kate on the birth of their first child! The little guy arrived at 4:24 pm local time yesterday in the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, weighing in at 8 pounds, 6 ounces.

No name yet (it’s doubtful they’re waiting a full week to make it public, Jewish-style, although you never know), but in the meantime, allow us to entertain you with these congratulatory Tweets from some of your favorite Jewish stars.

Portman baby’s name reportedly is Aleph

The baby boy born last month to Jewish actress Natalie Portman and her fiance Benjamin Millepied reportedly was named Aleph.

The name was reported Wednesday by People magazine, citing an unnamed source. Portman’s representatives have not confirmed the name.

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The boy is the first child for the couple, who met on the set of “Black Swan.” Portman, 30, won an Academy Award as best actress for her portrayal of a disturbed ballet dancer in the film.

She was born Natalie Hershlag in Jerusalem; Portman is her grandmother’s maiden name.

What did you say your name was?

After the ceremony and after the reception, when all the guests have gone and the tables are cleared, there you are: Mr. and Mrs.

The next morning, the groom wakes up with his name intact. However, the bride wakes up with a different identity.

Every few days during the wedding planning process, I had a different obsession. A few days after the proposal, it was setting the right date. As plans moved along, the focus shifted to location, invitations, food, etc. And then, about a week before the wedding, it was the name change.

I had no problem with starting the day as a “Ms.” and ending it a “Mrs.”; I looked forward to it. But, while Woldoff is a very nice surname, I’d become a little apprehensive about changing my name.

Maybe it was all the work involved. I just wanted to enjoy married life after the wedding. But no, I had to plan on conquering yet another checklist: driver’s license, passport, Social Security card, credit cards, etc.

It wasn’t such an issue changing my name when I first married in my early 20s. I’d never had a business card with my maiden name, much less multiple e-mail addresses or a byline showing up on Google search results. I’ve had long-lost friends find me through the Internet because they knew that one characteristic — my name. It’s almost as if a part of me is being erased or like I’m going into some witness protection program.

But what are the options?

Some people choose to hyphenate, but I didn’t want to do that; since Namm wasn’t my maiden name, it would have been like carting along baggage from my previous marriage. Plus, there’s the issue of having a name that’s different from your children’s, which can get confusing (not to mention the possibility of giving your grandchildren a multihyphenated name).

Some couples share their last name — the wife adds on the husband’s name and the husband adds his wife’s so they have a dual last name that includes both. But again, that wouldn’t have worked in my case because I didn’t want to retain my previous husband’s name — I kept it after our divorce only because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of changing it again.

Sometimes people just combine their names to make up a new name, but being founders of a family name sounds like too much responsibility, and we’d lose a connection to the past.

That’ll also be very confusing for future genealogists trying to research family roots.

While about 90 percent of American women assume their husband’s surname, there are still a vocal few who perceive it as “archaic,” which I discovered when I came across one community blog,

Hey Kids!

What’s Your Name?

Welcome. On the last Friday of every month, this page belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles, so we’d like you to name this page. Please send your ideas to, with the subject line: New Name. We’ll pick the best one, and you’ll get all the credit.

Kein v’ Lo:

New Year’s

This section of the page will be a way for you as kids to sound off on an issue. This month’s kein v’ lo (yes and no) is about New Year’s. Should Jews care as much about the regular New Year as we do Rosh Hashanah? Here’s some info for both sides of the argument.

The Kein Side:

We live in the United States, and while we are Jewish, our day-to-day experiences do revolve around the regular, solar calendar and not the lunar Jewish calendar. (Although, coincidentally, this year, because of the timing of the lunar calendar, Dec. 31 is also the last day of Kislev, making it a Rosh Chodesh — new moon/new month — on both calendars.)

Celebrating two New Years gives us a chance to create some new resolutions twice a year.

There’s nothing religious about celebrating this New Year, because most people spend New Year’s Eve with friends and New Year’s Day watching football games and various TV show marathons. (FYI, when New Year’s Day is a Sunday, the Rose Parade falls on a Monday.)

The Lo Side:

There’s nothing really new that happens in the winter. The idea of this winter holiday started as a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. We as Jews celebrate creation during Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei.

The concept of making resolutions was started by the Babylonians, and like theirs, the resolutions we make too often are self-centered — losing weight or exercising more — rather than focusing on tikkun olam (healing the world) and making the next year better for others.

New Year’s parties are used by many people just as an excuse to drink and celebrate.

We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to with the subject line New Year’s. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Hey Kids!

It’s Your World

Welcome to your page in The Jewish Journal. The last Friday of every month belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles. In honor of the New Year and new look of this page, we want you to come up with a new name for it. Please send your ideas to with the subject line New Name. We’ll pick the best one and make it the new name for the kids page (and you’ll get all the credit).

Kein v’ Lo

The Kein Side:

Many children use the evening to collect tzedakah for different charities instead of asking for candy — or they donate the candy to a food bank. For most people, the holiday has nothing to do with religion or real witches or saints. It’s more of a chance to go out with friends, have fun and decorate. Besides, it’s a great way to meet your neighbors.

The Lo Side:

It is a pagan holiday (a night when people believed the spirits of the dead would contact the living) and a Catholic holiday (candles are lit Nov. 1 on All Saints’ Day to honor the dead), but Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. Asking strangers for candy is rude; and tricks are mean. Jewish children have Purim as a day to dress up.

What do you think. E-mail your thoughts to with the subject line

Kein V’Lo: Halloween. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Stump Your Parents

Enjoy these facts about autumn — test your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see who gets the right answers first.

1) Which Hebrew month do we welcome in November?

2) How many weeks of autumn are there?

3) What is the full moon that follows the beginning of autumn?

4) What were the first jack-o-lanterns made from?

5) Who first suggested using Daylight Saving Time?

6) Why do the leaves change color?

7) In the Torah Portion Noach (which we read Nov. 5), God put up what object to show that everything was OK after the flood?

Answers: 1) Cheshvan; 2) Thirteen; 3) Harvest Moon; 4) Turnips; 5) Ben Franklin; 6) As the leaves lose chlorophyll (which makes them green) their other pigments
are exposed.; 7) A Rainbow

For the Kids

Upside-Down Holiday

"Vanahafochu!" This is Purim’s most important word. It means: "And everything was turned upside down!" That is the story and the message of Purim. The people who were victims became victors; the servant became the master; the Jewish girl became a queen.

Esther’s name means "hidden" in Hebrew. So what are we being told? That there are two sides to everything — the side we see and the side we don’t.

Find the hidden Purim word. What do the letters in the circles spell?

On Purim, we read

the whole: __ __ O __ __ __ __ __

The Color of STOP!: O __ __

Purim’s bad guy: __ O __ __ __

The color of GO!: O__ __ __ __

Opposite of small: __ __ O

Purim’s queen: O__ __ __ __ __

The best Jewish

holiday in Adar!: __ __O __ __

What’s in a Name?

When Jews come across the biblical name for God — spelled yod-hay-vav-hay in Hebrew — custom teaches us to substitute the term Adonai ("my Lord"), for according to Jewish tradition those letters are the unpronounceable name of God. A rabbi professor of mine used to elicit nervous laughter from his students by attempting to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay, attempting to speak the "unspeakable." His seemingly irreverent effort served a good purpose — it got us thinking about the power of names and naming.

Although that name for God appears often in the Book of Genesis, it is not discussed until the Book of Exodus — until this Torah portion, Vaera, when God says to Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name yod-hay-vav-hay" (Exodus 6:3).

Historians tell us that it wasn’t until the Second Temple period (around 2,000 years ago) that Jews stopped pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay. Historians also tell us that the Masoretes, those scholars who standardized our Torah and added vowels, were the ones who added the vowels for Adonai to the letters yod-hay-vav-hay in order to remind us to substitute Adonai.

But how did God intend us to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay? In these opening chapters of the Book of Shemot (meaning "names"), when God first introduces this name to Moses, God does not forbid pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay, and there is no suggestion to pronounce it Adonai.

The impulse to make yod-hay-vav-hay something other than a shem (a name), particularly the impulse to turn it into a title — and as gender-specific a title as Adonai — comes neither from the text nor from God. Like so many other patriarchal and hierarchical labels for God, such as King and Father, the title Adonai comes from the worshippers rather than from the Worshipped.

In this week’s portion, Vaera, and in last week’s Parashat Shemot, as God establishes relationships with Moses, with the enslaved Israelites and with the Egyptians, we hear God use different names (yod-hay-vav-hay; eheyeh asher eheyeh, "I will be what I will be," Exodus 3:14; El Shaddai) at different times to different people. In so doing, God gives us permission to continue this tradition of describing and naming God, according to our comprehension, based on our own experience.

Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow, in "Standing Again at Sinai" ( Harper San Francisco, 1991), points out that we seekers of today are heirs of a long heritage. All the metaphors and symbols that Judaism has for God have come from "human attempts to speak of the experience of God who stands at the center of Jewish life. They emerge out of the Godwrestling of our ancestors and represent their efforts to name and comprehend the God they knew as with them on a long and various journey…. Traditional symbols for God thus … provide models of a process, which we ourselves continue in seeking images of God that will be adequate for our own time."

As we do so, let’s keep in mind the power of language, the tremendous role it plays in shaping our reality. It’s like wearing glasses: When I put on my glasses, I can see the world better, but the world hasn’t changed because I put on my glasses. What changes is the way I see the world; what changes is my relationship to the world. Similarly, calling God by different names and titles doesn’t change God, it changes the way we see God, and it deepens our relationship. Consider the palpable changes in a relationship marked by descriptions, titles, terms of endearment: "You are a sweetheart," "you are my sweetheart," "Sweetheart, I want to spend the rest of my life with you." What changes is your perception; what changes is your relationship.

However carefully you make your way along this "Appellation Trail," it’s not an easy one to traverse, for it is overgrown with beliefs and superstitions, emotions and politics. As Judaism continues to evolve, we can count on God to evolve with us. As we help keep Judaism vital, living, growing, so will God continue to keep the promise made to Moses so long ago to be always in process, always unpredictable: "I will be who I will be." If we were indeed created b’tselim Elokim, in God’s image, then let God’s own changing presentations of self in Torah be an invitation to remember that in any ongoing relationship — with God or with our children, with one another or with one’s self — we ought to welcome every opportunity to name ourselves and speak our truths.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

What’s In a Name?

I check surnames. It’s a reflex, and I can’t help it. If you’re like most Jews I know, you do it too. You can’t help but wonder, for instance, if some of the people at the center of the latest financial scandals are Jewish or not. We kvell at Shawn Green and cringe at Andrew Fastow, although it’s hard to figure just what being born Jewish had to do with Green’s batting average or Fastow’s alleged misdeeds.

But still, I check.

Andrew Fastow, former CFO at Enron? Hmm. Fastow. Yes, Jewish.

L. Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco? Hmm, could be but — no.

Mark Belnick, the ousted general counsel of Tyco? Maybe … have to check.

Then there is Gary Winnick, founder and chairman of bankrupt telecommunications group Global Crossing, who testified this week before Rep. L. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.) House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee wanted to know whether Winnick knew his company was in financial trouble and failed to alert investors while selling millions of dollars worth of his own stock in the meantime. According to The Financial Times, Winnick grossed $512 million since 1999, a period in which Global Crossing has lost $9.2 billion and eliminated 5,020 jobs.

Winnick has been charged with no crime and has denied any wrongdoing. “Global Crossing’s bankruptcy,” Winnick told the committee, “based on the facts known to me, is a result not of any fraud, but of a catastrophe that befell an entire industry sector.” Winnick’s lawyer says his client’s stock sale was proper and approved by Global’s counsel.

Reading Gary Winnick’s name splashed scross the national papers hits especially close to home. Three years ago to the day that I write this, the cover of The Journal featured a photograph of Winnick and this headline: “Gary Winnick Steps Out Front: ‘The Wealthiest Man in Los Angeles’ is driven to succeed and to give to the Jewish community.” In it, Tom Tugend reported that Winnick’s fortune of $6.2 billion made him Los Angeles’ richest citizen, according to The Los Angeles Business Journal. The story documented Winnick’s rise as the grandson of a one-time pushcart peddler on New York’s Lower East Side to financial whiz at the side of Michael Milken to visionary leader in the telecommunications industry.

More pointedly, it reported on the billionaire’s seemingly inexhaustible charity: a $5 million-pledge by the Gary and Karen Winnick Family Foundation to erect exhibit galleries at the Skirball Cultural Center, Hillel center endowments at three East Coast universities and a children’s zoo at the Los Angeles Zoo. His pledges and donations to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Birthright Israel, Chabad and at least 54 other groups totaled $100 million over the past three years. The Foundation’s largest single donation is the $40 million pledged to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for construction of the Winnick Institute in Jerusalem, to be designed by Frank Gehry.

All this largesse, the lion’s share of it directed toward the Jewish community, set an example for others of similar wealth to follow.

Now, of course, in the court of public opinion, Winnick is being held up as an exemplar not of philanthropy, but of 1990s greed. Though he’s worth considerably less than $6.2 billion these days, he still built a home worth an estimated $60 million to $90 million, and he may never provide satisfactory enough answers for the people whose financial worth evaporated along with Global Crossing’s.

I’m assuming this is a source of anguish to Winnick, whom I don’t know and have never met. He must know that, in light of Global Crossing’s reverses, a good many people will forever see his philanthropy, his words of contrition, his offers of recompense, as utilitarian ploys to win favor, to buy back his good name.

He is now in a place where others, including some from this community, have traveled before. How does one emerge from such a fall? The answer, surprisingly, may come from Winnick himself.

Speaking three years ago of the criteria by which he chooses philanthropies, Winnic told The Journal: “I must believe in the cause, and I demand accountability from the recipient.”

Accountability. The lack of it is what lay at the heart of the numerous financial scandals that have rocked the stock market and shaken investor confidence. It is at the heart of the endless post-boom congressional hearings at which former CEOs put on their best Easter Island faces and can rarely, if ever, account for what was taking place in the companies they headed.

There are signs that Winnick does expect accountability of himself. Heads of charitable organizations to which Winnick pledged contributions, contacted this past February by The Journal, said they were in receipt of the monies or fully expected the pledges to arrive. His offer to replenish depleted employee retirement funds by $25 million was unprecedented in the current climate of CEO duck-and-run. Having set an example with his giving, Winnick can now set one with his candor.

This would be a good thing, because employees and stockholders are not, according to Jewish tradition, the only stakeholders in our business behavior. God also calls us to account for our actions. When we die, the Talmud says, the first question God will ask each one of us is, “Nasata v’netata be’emunah” — “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty?”

In an article on Jewish law, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz elaborates: “Business ethics is the arena where the ethereal transcendent teachings of holiness and spirituality confront the often grubby business of making money and being engaged in the rat race …. It is the acid test of whether religion is truly relevant or religion is simply relegated to an isolated sphere of human activity.”

Justly or unjustly, Gary Winnick is undergoing that acid test quite publicly.

I’ve Heard That Name Before

Call up a Los Angeles City Council or Board of Supervisors office these days and you are likely to speak to someone called Adina, Adeena or Adena. It doesn’t matter if you are calling the office of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (3rd District) or the council offices of Cindy Miscikowski (11th District) or Jack Weiss (5th District). All have deputies on hand with the same name who are equipped to help citizens deal with their civic woes.

"My whole life, I had grown up thinking that Adina was such an uncommon name," said Adeena Bleich, a field deputy for Weiss. "And now I think it is funny that there are three of us all working in the similar areas. I kept hearing about Adina Solomon who works for Zev Yaroslavsky, and then when I finally met her, we had this joyous meeting and became fast friends. The other Adena I found out about when I had to call the LAPD one day, and they started telling me about this project that I knew nothing about. Finally I said something, and they said, ‘Aren’t you with Miscikowski’s office?’"

"It is definitely unusual," said Adena Tessler, who works as a legislative deputy for Miscikowski. "In my entire lifetime, I have not met that many Adinas, so to have three of them all working in municipal politics in Los Angeles is, I would say, unusual."

Although all three spell their name differently, they all share a common commitment to helping people through the political process.

"We all enjoy people, that is part of this job," said Adina Solomon, a deputy for Yaroslavsky. "We are all people people, and we really enjoy helping others."

"The name itself is supposed to mean delicate or gentle," Tessler said,"which is kind of funny when you look at the careers we have chosen. In my area, working with fire, police and public safety, I don’t spend a lot of time being delicate or gentle."

What’s in a Name?

Eric, Matt and Chris are three musicians who refuse to give away their last names. But if you guessed it was out of a lack of ethnic pride, you’d be wrong.

"I’m a pretty high-profile Jew, whether I like it or not," says singer-songwriter Eric. "It’s hard to hide when you’re in a band called JEW."

Priding itself on its pop rock, JEW has been generating some buzz with its name and its music. "Don’t Speak French" got some alternative rock station rotation this year. In May, JEW scared up good press while performing at Las Vegas’ EAT’M Festival.

The unsigned band was working out of a Hollywood studio with a producer on the then-untitled tune, "Threw Your Love Away," when The Journal caught up with them earlier this year. Their demo’s other tracks include the brooding, Nirvana-esque "Notice Me" and the 1980s pop-influenced "12/31" and "Sugarfly."

"If you put us in a mix tape with songs of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we fit right in," Eric says of his relationship-obsessed songs.

Not bad for a band whose guitarist had no musicianship several years ago.

"I couldn’t even hold a guitar," says Eric, a former personal trainer who was taught an unorthodox technique by Guitar World editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski in exchange for some fitness instruction.

"He told me, ‘You’ll literally be able to play in two weeks,’" Eric says.

"Nobody plays guitar the way I play. I couldn’t play a bar chord if you put a gun to my chest. Subsequently that’s what makes our sound so different."

"I’ve always been enamored by his drive and his naivete," says JEW’s drummer, Chris. "He’ll walk into a room and ask a musician, ‘What chord is that?’ and they’ll give him this look. Eric never has that kind of guard. It catches people off guard and it’s very disarming."

Eric grew up in Farmington, Maine, where he says he was the only Jew in school.

"[My parents] had this mutual dream of living in the woods in Maine. It was a great upbringing, but the one thing that I missed was any strong Jewish culture experience."

Oddly enough, Chris — the obvious non-Jew of JEW — had a mirror-image upbringing.

"In Potomac, Md., I was one of three goys in the neighborhood," Chris says. "When I was 13, I went to bar mitzvahs all [the] time. I knew how to make hamantaschen and I sang ‘Hava Nagila.’"

In 1995, Eric and Chris met in New York and formed an early version of JEW. By 1998, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where Chris has become something of a polyhyphenate — acting on TV series such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Homicide" playing "rednecks and yuppies," and getting three screenplays optioned, including one with Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films. Eric and Chris later met up with Matt, an old friend from their New York days who describes himself as "a total Jersey suburb Jewish kid." Shortly before New Year’s 2001, JEW — with Matt on bass — was born again as an L.A. band with a Viper Room show.

One of the band’s key attractions is its name, which JEW’s non-Jew has no problem with.

"People who will normally breeze by the name, get more involved with it," Chris says.

Eric adds, "I came up with it because the word is bold and powerful. In certain cases it’s a drawback, and in certain cases it’s been a positive. One [record company executive] told me, ‘I’ve had a hundred demos and the only reason I chose it was because it had the word JEW on it.’ But I also got a call two days ago from a high-powered manager who felt that the music was great, but was unwilling to work with us unless we changed our name."

"If we do," Eric continues, "it loses its fun and edge. We have no intention of changing it. JEW is here to stay."

The Name Game

When we were little, my brother and I realized that whenever we asked if someone was Jewish, my mother would answer by simply repeating their name, as if that said it all.

“Irving Fishbaum? Ira and Esther Lefkowitz? C’mon.”

We decided to see if we could induce this behavior and selected the perfect test case. When she came home one day, we ambushed.

“Mom, are Simon and Garfunkel Jewish”?

She looked at us, lowering her head and raising her eyebrows. “Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? C’mon.”

That was before we understood that names could be obviously Jewish, that any name containing “gold,” “silver,” “green,” “fish,” “blatt,” “baum,” “stein,” “feld” or “witz” was usually a dead giveaway. That was before we knew that Shapiro was Shapiro and Kaplan was Kaplan. Kaplan? C’mon. This is still a family joke and if she’s distracted, you can sometimes get her to do it to this day.

“Mom, is Itzhak Pearlman Jewish?”

“Itzhak Pearlm — oh, stop it.”

If Jewish names are on a scale of one to Hadassah Lieberman, mine may be a one.

It’s possible I’m the Jew with the least Jewish name ever. Teresa is misleading enough — the name of more than one Catholic saint. Strasser just takes it on home. You may remember Major Heinrich Strasser, a Gestapo officer in the film, “Casablanca.” Yes, the only Strasser anyone’s ever heard of is one of film’s most famous Nazis.

I may as well be named Noelle or Brandy. In fact, I once had a Hebrew-school teacher that was so vexed by my name she just took to calling me Rachel. I stopped correcting the poor woman and simply answered to the name Rachel for the next three years.

When I was 20, an editor at a Jewish newspaper walked up to my desk on my first day of work, didn’t introduce himself, didn’t shake my hand, just looked at me and asked, “What’s a Jew doing with a name like Teresa?” I told him he could call me Rachel if it would make him feel better.

My parents insist they did me no wrong by not calling me Jodie or Debbie or Stacy. Teresa is a good Hungarian name they say, my great-grandmother’s name, although she was called Tess.

Until recently, I’ve always appreciated having an ambiguous name. It’s nice to reveal your ethnicity only when you feel like it, when it feels safe, when it’s your choice. Now, however, I wonder what it would have been like to be called Ruth Oppenheimer or Shoshana Hirshfeld. My life would have been totally different as Mona Moskowitz, who isn’t kidding anyone.

Growing up, I never really liked the sound of Jewish surnames, their Germanic bite, all the connotations and stereotypes from which I was happy to distance myself. I planned to do away with my own surname, vague as it may be, and fantasized about becoming Teresa Willis or Teresa McBride. I figured I’d marry a guy with a nice vanilla moniker, and that would be that. I could monogram my way into belonging. I’d have a name people could spell and pronounce.

I tell you, I must be undergoing some major self-acceptance because out of nowhere, Jewish names are starting to sound downright … sexy.

As an adult, I’ve always planned to keep my last name if I got married, but I still play the dating name game, taking surnames out for a spin. Teresa Cohen? Teresa Goldstein? I still enjoy the sheer, unabashed WASPiness of Teresa Tyler or the incredible misdirect of Teresa Puccinelli, but I no longer cringe from Teresa Saperstein.

I once dated three guys named Todd in one year. Today, I say bring on Daniel, Abe, Gabe and Isaac. A David is just plain hot, a Joshua even hotter. And as I write this, with only the rarest exception (Lipschitz isn’t easy for anyone, is it?), a last name cannot be too Jewish. The more Jewish, the more texture, the more history, the more character.

Think about it, if America’s most famous “alleged” shoplifter were still Winona Horowitz, would she be any less gorgeous? What if Sarah Michelle Gellar, another ambiguously named Jew, had a different name? What if America’s sweetheart was Sarah Michelle Greenbaum? I think I like it.

As a Jew, your name identifies you. I never wanted to run from that, but I welcomed the option to “pass.” Now I wonder what it would be like to remove all doubt. “I’m Teresa Blumenfeld, nice to meet you. Yeah, Blumenfeld.”

When my stepdad was rushed to the hospital one New Year’s Eve, the ER doctor introduced herself as Dr. Wallerstein. When she left the room, my mother and I looked at each other, comforted for no good reason really, and whispered in unison, “Dr. Wallerstein? C’mon.”

What is Your Name?

God created the animals and brought them, one by one, before man to see what he would name them. Man examined the essence of each creature and assigned its name. So teaches Genesis.

The midrash goes farther: When all the animals had been named, God asked man, “What is your name?” And he said, “Adam.” Then God asked, “And what is my name?” And he answered, “Adonai, the Eternal.”

We spend a lifetime learning the names of everything around us. We acquire the survival skills of our culture — social codes, business skills, street smarts. We master the science of our generation. We earn creden-tials and degrees. We amass great quantities of knowledge and then discover that we’ve never learned the answer to the one real question — What is your name? Who are you? What are you made of?

It is a question each one of us must face. But it is unanswerable. At no point are we ever finished, at no point is our story ever complete. “You cannot measure a living tree,” wrote Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, “only a fallen tree. A living tree is in a state of growth, and we cannot assess its stature. What it is at the moment is transitory, and it gives way to the tree’s continuous unfolding. And so it is with people.” The meaning of today is determined by tomorrow. The meaning of one’s life is held in the hands of others.

I stand before a bar mitzvah to offer him the responsibilities and blessings of Jewish adulthood. But before I begin to speak, I catch a glimpse of his grandparents sitting in the first row. They are survivors — the holy remnant of European Jewry. Their eyes have seen what no eyes ever should see. These people, who stood at the gates of hell, in the presence of Mengele himself, today sit here to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson. Suddenly, the moment takes on a new meaning.

Has this boy in his shiny new Bar Mitzvah suit any clue what torturous choices had to be faced, what perilous risks confronted, what agonies endured so that he could stand here today? Should he? Does he recognize his own role in this? He is, after all, the reason they lived. It was for him that they persevered. His life — the choices he makes — either justifies their courage or throws it into absurdity. Surely it is unfair to lay upon his delicate shoulders such a burden. But it is a reality he must grow to understand. And one day, he may find dignity and courage, purpose and vision in upholding this legacy.

Kohelet, the author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, found bitter irony in this: “I loathe all that I had toiled for under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will succeed me — and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? And he will control all I toiled for under the sun … that too is futile!”

No, not futile. This is faith. We can never answer God’s question because the answer is always beyond us. We entrust the answer — our identity and eternity — to the hands of others.

Even God knows this. “What is My name?” God asks us. What will you call Me? What will you make of My name in your world, your life? The fate of God lies in our hands. “Where in the universe does God dwell?” asked the Kotzker Rebbe. And then he answered his own question: “Wherever we let God in.”

“I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by My name”(Exodus 6:2). So begins this week’s Torah portion. Then God reveals the Name. But though the letters are spelled out, the name cannot be pronounced. In Judaism, God’s name cannot be uttered. Because God is never finished. We’re never finished. Our story, our history isn’t over. We worship a God whose name we cannot articulate. Ours is a God who offers a future eternally open, a future of infinite possibilities and promise. Ours is a future whose name cannot be pronounced.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.