search
Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Attention American Jews: Find out what your name means…if you dare

It was not until I turned thirty that I knew what my name meant. It turns out the idea of “stupid Americans” is far, far more than just a stereotype.

I was having Shabbat dinner with a religious family in Israel who had taken me in when I made Aliyah. We were identifying the meanings of the names of all the folks sitting at the table. All Israelis know what their names mean, generally speaking. However, they kind of have an advantage in this regard. Israelis name their children largely with Hebrew words—some from the Torah, some not. If one’s name, for example, is Chayim, well—that’s easy. His name means “life” because all Israelis and plenty of non-Israelis know that Chayim means life. In English, if someone were to be named, say, Crystal or Love or Grace or Joy, no English speaker would have any trouble telling those folks what their names mean.

But in America, children are rarely given name which are themselves English words. You can’t go out into nature and find a “Steve.” When someone asks you how your day was, you can’t answer that it was very Marvin. We have all of these names which are simply not words, names like Henry and Thomas and Alex and Jessica and Jennifer and Britney and Marshall and Brad and nobody knows what they mean. In fact, I would surmise that most people, at least in America (or only in America), do not even think their names have a meaning at all, anywhere, anytime. They are just nonsense words—sounds the mouth happens to make when addressing other humans. This is what I thought, after all, until I was thirty, with an advanced degree already behind me.

When I told this family I didn’t know what my name meant, they looked at me horrified. After all, I had just been introduced to children named Splendor and Graceful Woman and Enlighten and Deer of the Dawn. And I didn’t even know the meaning of my own name? I said: “My name doesn’t have a meaning. It’s just Steve.” The mother, a kind woman named String, looked at me and shook her head. “Of course your name has a meaning. All names have meanings. Go look it up. After Shabbat.”

As it would turn out, she was correct. I googled the meaning of the name “Steve” some days later. Steve, short for Steven, comes from the Greek word Stephanos, which means crown in Greek. So, my name meant crown. Didn’t know that before. This little piece of information has been surprisingly handy. Now, when people ask me what my name means, I have an answer. Crown. It means crown.

Are Americans really that stupid? As it turns out, they just might be. Because while I may have had an excuse for not knowing the meaning of my first name, surely I should have known what my last name—my family name—meant. Weinberg. But once more, I never thought to investigate this detail. It just never occurred to me. Nor did I think to ask what the last names of my Jewish friends meant, many of which sounded an awful lot like my own: Steinberg, Weinblum, Goldberg, Scharfberg, Weinstein, Weintraub, Weingold. Lots of Bergs, lots of Weins, and lots of other strange pieces of words which sometimes sounded English but other times sounded like some distant cousin of English—some exotic, mysterious, scrunched up version of English which I had never heard and would never hear.

Incipit lingua Germanica.

Once I began learning German, I discovered rather immediately that all of these Jewish last names were German words. The two words in my last name, Wein and Berg, are both 101 vocabulary words in German. Wein means wine. Berg means hill or mountain. In Germany, wine tends to grow on hillsides. Hence, a Weinberg is a hill of wine or, better put, a vineyard (which, interestingly, is also two words). With all of these other Jewish last names as well, it’s the same story. The word for rock in German is Stein, so Steinberg would mean something like “rocky mountain.” The word for tree in German is Baum, so Greenbaum would equate to “green tree” and Greenberg would, of course, be “green mountain.” Across America, millions and millions of Jews are sporting cute German words in their last names—typically German colors like Schwarz (black) and Weiss (white), or German nature words like Teich (pond) or Wasser(water) or Feld (field), or German food words like Nuss (nut) or Kirsche (cherry). If I had not learned German, however, I might have never learned what my last name meant. It certainly would have gone under the radar for a very, very long time, I believe.

I once was at another Shabbat dinner in Israel and I was speaking to an American girl who was, like me, teaching English in the desert city of Be’er Sheva to elementary school kids. She told me that her ancestors came from Poland.

“Look at my blonde hair,” she said. “That’s how you know I’m Polish.”

She did have blonde hair, but it was not blonde because of her Polish roots. She just had blonde hair because some people have blonde hair. Jews from Poland generally do not ethnically resemble the Catholics from Poland. The reason for this lack of resemblance is that, well, the two groups were largely isolated from each other and did not mate with each other very much if ever. I told her this.

“Your hair isn’t blonde because you’re from Poland. You’re Jewish. You’re from a different ethnic group than the Catholic Poles—who are far more predisposed than we are to have blonde hair.” She didn’t like my answer and argued with me, swearing I was wrong. Eventually, I just dropped it.

Many Jews, I think, do not realize they have German last names because their ancestry is not German. Their ancestors are from Poland or Hungary or what was once called Czechoslovakia so they assume that their last name is Polish or Hungarian or Czechoslovakian. Anything, anything but German. But our last names are German, even if we do not have German ancestors. The reason for this is simple. Eastern European countries, like Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, were not independent nation-states in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Jews began to take on last names. They were territories of empires. One of these empires was the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, whose official language was German. Another of these empires was the Prussian Empire, whose official language was also German. And so, “Polish” Jews—if we may call them that—took on “German” last names.

We know from Franz Kafka’s diaries that he was very interested in his own name—obsessed, even. The name Kafka means nothing in German, just as Weinberg has no meaning in English (other than “he’s probably a lawyer”). But in Czech, a language which Kafka also spoke, “Kafka” means jackdaw, which is a bird in the crow family. In his stories, Kafka names none of his characters “Kafka,” but nevertheless manifestations of this name appear everywhere. The protagonist of The Metamorphosis is Gregor Samsa and the protagonist of The Trial is Josef K. In his diaries, Kafka even explains the connection between his last name and the names of his characters. About the protagonist of his short story “The Judgment,” named Georg Bendemann, Kafka wrote: “Bende has exactly the same numbers of letters as Kafka, and the vowel ‘e’ is repeated in the same places as the vowel ‘a’ in Kafka.” In another diary entry Kafka ponders over his Hebrew name. He writes: “My Hebrew name is Amschel, like the maternal grandfather of my mother. He was a very learned and pious man with a long white beard, which remains a vivid memory of him for my mother.”

Names from the Torah are no small matter. I have often wondered why so many parents name their children after biblical figures who are themselves not only flawed but occasionally criminals. Rueben? He was the first-born son of Jacob, but he also had sex with his father’s wife Bilha. I’m not saying that means Rueben is a bad person, but if I were naming my kid, I would rather he or she be named after someone who didn’t sleep with his father’s girlfriend. Simon? He was Jacob’s second son. So far, so good. But he also went into the town of Shechem to kill all of the men who had just been circumcised in order to avenge the alleged rape of his sister Dinah. Again, I’m not here to pass judgment on Simon, but there are so many names out there of guys and gals who didn’t savagely sack and plunder villages—why choose this one?

In the haftorah for the parsha of Pinchas, we read from the First Book of Kings. The story in these verses concerns King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and the prophet Elijah. I have always been particularly interested in Queen Jezebel. I find this name to be so beautiful; you know, it’s “bel,” which is good, and a “Jeze” in front of it. JezeBel. Not bad. It sounds like it could be some exotic Persian musical instrument or something. But Jezebel does not live up to her name. She is one of the Torah’s most tyrannical and bloodthirsty figures. She ordered the people of Israel to begin worshiping pagan gods again. She purged Hebrew prophets from Israel, including Elijah. Yet, Jezebel and its corollaries Isabel or Isabella remain popular names throughout the world.

In fact, deciding whether to figure out what your name means is actually a rather deep philosophical question. To ignore the meaning of one’s name is to treat language as pure, uncorrupted. In Judaism, the only name which is totally “pure” is God’s name, which itself has no meaning but simply “is.” God’s name is the only name which can “mean” without being “reduced to meaning,” if that makes sense. In this sense, God’s name is “heard” in the way babies might hear words—not as signposts toward meaning but as sounds solely for their own sake.

In my case, before I knew that my name meant “crown,” I associated myself purely with the sound, the tone of “Steve.” The same could be said for Weinberg, or vineyard. By discovering that my name is really Crown Vineyard, I reduced language from music to information. This was, indeed, quite a lot of information—information about the Greek language, about Jewish history, about American culture, about the partition of Poland. On one hand, this was a step forward in that my name transformed from gibberish into rich content. But on the other hand, this was a step backward, as Steve Weinberg was no longer a free being unfetteredly floating in the ether. In fact, this was probably what fascinated Kafka most of all about his name—that it simultaneously had and did not have meaning.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis opens with the lines that “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubling dreams to find himself in his bed transformed into a giant insect.” But the transformation which occurs is always kept in question. Physically, Samsa changed into a bug. Yet mentally, he remained the same human Samsa. In a sense, Samsa is caught—or rather, imprisoned— between two ends of the spectrum of transformation. This space of undecidability also occurs between the word Kafka and the crow bird, between Kafka and his character Samsa, between Jezebel the sound and Jezebel the symbol.

My life tip, then, would be to investigate the meaning of your name—if you dare.

Discover more by listening to my weekly podcast, The Schrift, on German literature, meditation, Torah, and cultural critique, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and on my website, steventobyweinberg.com

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
Related Topics
Related Posts

We have a new, improved comments system. To comment, simply register or sign in.