Israeli leadership surnames have been through a series of metamorphoses. Few, like Netanyahu and Rivlin, come from families that have had Hebraic names for generations. Others Hebraized their names: Gruen became Ben-Gurion, Shertok became Sharett, Myerson became Meir, Shimshelevitz became Ben-Zvi and Persky became Peres. The Herzog family did not change their name.In the Diaspora the name changes often sought to sound regional and innocuous. “Jewish” names were toned down: Cohen became Cullen, Levy became Lewis, Robbinowitz became Robb. Endings like “ski” and “witz” were dropped, to the extent that critics of Rabbi Jacob Danglow of Melbourne, Australia, whose original name was Danglowitz, said he had lost his wits. In other cases there was a process of translation so that Schneider became Taylor (or even Hyatt, going through the Hebrew “hayat,” meaning tailor, to get there); Lehrer became Teacher, Becker became Baker, and Buchbinder became Bookman. Jews in the entertainment industry went much further and adopted names that often had no obvious connection at all with their Jewish antecedents.
See the latest opinion pieces on our pageOne of the most fascinating examples is my own.An uncle whose original surname of Joachim later became James was certain that my father was formerly Appelinski, and nothing we tried to tell my uncle ever made a difference. I myself have sometimes kidded people that I come from the apple in the Garden of Eden, though actually no-one is sure which fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden and the sages thought it was an etrog. I also kid people with the notion that we are from one of the four noble Roman families, De Pommis or Min HaTappuhim (the others were Adumim, Zekenim and Anavim), but this may be wishful thinking.The truth is that my father’s family – who came to Jerusalem from Russia in the early 20th century – were called Yablotchnik. Yableke is “apple” in Russian, and what my father did when he went to Australia in the 1920s (maybe to escape an unwanted shidduch, or match) was to translate the name, first to Appleton and then to Apple. Later he changed it again, to Appleby, when he married his second wife; her first name was Cora and she thought people would laugh at a woman called Cora Apple. In the meantime my brothers and I were embarked upon our careers and were known as Apple, and we left the name at that. Some Israeli Yablotchniks retained the name as it was; others became Yalon or Tappuhi.When Russian Jews came to Australia I met other Yablotchniks but we couldn’t prove any relationship. None of this explains the original connection between our name and the apple. It is possible that some of the family grew or sold apples in Russia, or perhaps rosy apple-like cheeks were a characteristic of the family. For obvious reasons, the children of our two daughters have other surnames; through our two sons we have six Apple grandsons and (so far) four Apple great-grandsons, so there ought to be apples on the tree for some time to come. The Apple sons have daughters as well, but once they get married their Apple identity will presumably vanish.There is another Rabbi Apple – a reform rabbi in the USA, no relation. I have also heard of Jews called Apple in East Yorkshire, again not related to me.Maybe they derive from a German village with a name that sounds something like Apple.An interesting sidelight on my family is that, as mentioned above, my mother was a Joachim.When European Jews had to bear surnames many built them out of first names, so someone known as Joachim made this his family name. My maternal grandfather was Joseph Joachim, the same name as the famous violinist, though no-one can prove a connection.My Joseph Joachim died before I was born, so I couldn’t ask him. His wife Charlotte died when I was very little and I was more interested in being a child than a descendant, so I never asked her either.Maybe she didn’t know. Charlotte’s maiden name was Cohen. Her father Mendel was Glegowsky or something similar, but when he came to Australia about 1861 no-one (including himself) could spell the name in English, so as a kohen, a member of the Jewish priestly caste, he adopted the surname Cohen. When he was a peddler purveying his wares in northern Victoria he escaped from Ned Kelly’s gangster band by jumping out of a hotel window and running for his life.This is all part of Jewish history. We hope that one day our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask us about it. The Torah says, “Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandparents and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Alas, in my case my interest in our family story only really developed when it was already too late to ask my forebears. The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.