Israelis return to their Diaspora roots through their lost surnames

An Israeli Facebook “event” is inspiring young Israelis to think about the surnames their families had before they went through Hebraization in Israel.

The event’s picture. I admit I don’t understand the name of the event. 🙂

In order to participate in what is actually a fascinating social and historical experiment, go to the Facebook event, click “Join” and then change your last name on Facebook to the original last names of your father’s and mother’s families before they moved to Israel. Then, on the event wall write the story of the original surnames and/or how the Hebrew one was chosen.

Currently there are over 1,000 “attendees” with a few thousand more invited and, I’d estimate, a hundred or more stories up on the event wall already (very possibly more – it’s really hard to estimate).

For example, Ofer Callaf wrote (translated from Hebrew):

My mother’s last name is Sha’ar. In Hebrew, Dayan. My mother’s father was a rabbinical judge in Yemen. My mother is an orphan, without any brothers or sisters. My mother’s mother passed away during childbirth (as did the baby) when my mother was one year old. My mother’s father passed away one year later from sadness.


My dream is to change my last name to my mother’s last name in order to eternalize my grandmother and grandfather who died at such a young age but my mother won’t agree to it; she doesn’t want the family (my father’s family) to get offended.

Ruty Benjamini wrote a very funny story about how her grandfather decided to change his name (written in English):

My grandfather Itzchak Issac Benjamini, arrived to Israel from Warsaw in 1935 with the Yiddish surname Met מעט. He met a long lost friend on a bus in Tel Aviv. The friend ran to him enthusiastically and exclaimed “Itzchak Issac Met!!!!” They laughed and hugged and kissed each other happily. Then they noticed the silence around them, and the fellow passengers looking alarmed, worried and upset. Well, in Hebrew what the friend shouted meant “Itzchak Issac has died!”…So why are they so happy!!??


That day he decided to change his name. He gave himself, and his family the name Benjamini, after his brother in law Benjamin Freling, who emigrated to USA and has lost contact with the family.

Shiri Yoeli wrote a touching story about her family’s Hebraized name (translated from Hebrew):

My grandfather, who was a Mayler, decided to change his name when he made aliya for a few reasons:


1. When you write the name in Hebrew, it could be Mayler, Meyler or Miler.

2. It’s unclear if it should be written with one or two ‘yuds.’

3. He combined a few family stories. The name Yoeli symbolizes our Jewish roots (yo=Hashem el=God li=mine Hashem is my God). Also, his brother’s name (Yoel) who was killed in the Holocaust, is in the name…

When Jews moved to Israel around the time of the founding of the State, there were many reasons they may have changed their names. In the event’s description it says (translated from Hebrew):

Whether a clerk at the [Jewish] Agency or a teacher at school changed your name, or if it was changed out of embarrassment or out of a fear of racial discrimination… for one week we are returning to our lost names and telling our stories.


Saba and Savta, we love you 😉

And what is my family’s story?

When we moved to Israel in 1990, I don’t think my parents ever considered making our name more Israeli. But I do know that in the Old Country (Poilend), Levenstein had a much more colourful spelling: Lewinsztajn.

Roses by any other name… (From

I also know that in the 1930s in Toronto, teachers would give Jewish students English names instead of their Yiddish ones. They would choose the names for them and it seems that often, people continued to carry those names with them the rest of their lives.

For example, my grandmother’s name is Gitel but she was named Gertrude in school and is still known as Gertrude to some. She hates the name but it sounds like she had no choice in the matter and somehow it stuck. I guess that was before it became accepted to carry ethnic names in Canada.

One more story from the Facebook event. This time by Rotem Barzilay (translated from Hebrew):

My grandfather’s name around the time of the Holocaust was Cohen and with the goal of hiding their Jewish identity, they changed their family name to a Polish name, “Geshpes” [געשפס] which means iron since they came from a family that worked with iron. When his brothers made aliya, the State asked them to change their name to a Hebrew name like Chadad, they refused and suggested Barzilai [from the word barzel which means iron in Hebrew] in memory of their family who was killed in the Holocaust, although it sounds like a name from a Yemeni background and not Polish. They didn’t want to go back to the original family name, Cohen, they came to Israel, worked at settling the land, started kibbutzim and became the new and strong Jew. I decided to keep the family name Cohen because it is a part of who I am.

Will you join the fun? Joining the Facebook page here.


Deena Malka Lewinsztajn

About the Author
Deena is a new mother, a project manager and a writer living in Jaffa.