From an unknown source (thanks for passing it on, Max):
Other than aristocrats and wealthy people Jews did not get surnames in Eastern Europe until the Napoleon years of the early 19th century. Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon, Russia, Poland, and Germany were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.
After Napoleon's defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned to 'son of' names such as: MENDELSOHN, JACOBSON, LEVINSON, etc.
During the so called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to take surnames. In Austria The Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland in 1821 and Russia in 1844. It's probable that some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.
In France and the Anglo Saxon countries surnames went back to the 16th century. Also Sephardic Jews had surnames stretching back centuries.. Spain prior to Ferdinand and Isabella was a golden spot for Jews. They were expelled by Isabella in the same year that Columbus left
The earliest American Jews were Sephardic.
In general there were Five types of names (people had to pay for their choice of names; the poor had assigned names):
1-- Names that were descriptive of the head of household:
HOCH (tall) ,
COHEN (rabbi ),
BURGER (village dweller),
SHEIN (good looking),
LEVI (temple singer),
SCHWARTZ (dark or black),
2 -- Names describing occupations:
HOLTZKOCKER (wood chopper),
3-- Names from city of residence:
4 -- Bought names:
ROSENBLATT (rose paper or leaf),
ROSENBERG (rose mountain),
ROTHMAN (red man),
KOENIGSBERG (king's mountain),
SPIELMAN (spiel is to play),
WASSERMAN (water dweller),
KERSHENBLATT (church paper),
5-- Assigned names (usually undesirable):
PLOTZ (to die),
Original Birth Names of Jewish Performers:
Woody Allen --- Alan Stewart Koenigsberg
June Allyson --- Ella Geisman
Lauren Bacall --- Betty Joan Perske
Jack Benny --- Benjamin Kubelsky
Irving Berlin --- Israel Baline
Milton Berle --- Milton Berlinger
Joey Bishop ---Joseph Gottlieb
Karen Black --- Karen Blanche Ziegler
Victor Borge --- Borge Rosenbaum
Fanny Brice --- Fanny Borach
Mel Brooks --- Melvin Kaminsky
George Burns --- Nathan Birnbaum
Eddie Cantor --- Edward Israel Iskowitz
Jeff Chandler --- Ira Grossel
Lee J. Cobb --- Amos Jacob
Tony Curtis --- Bernard Schwartz
Rodney Dangerfield --- Jacob Cohen
Kirk Douglas --- Issue Danielovich Demsky
Melvyn Douglas --- Melvyn Hesselberg
Bob Dylan --- Bobby Zimmerman
Paulette Goddard --- Marion Levy
Lee Grant --- Lyova Geisman
Elliot Gould --- Ellio t Goldstein
Judy Holliday --- Judith Tuvim
Al Jolson --- Asa Yoelson
Danny Kaye --- David Daniel Kaminsky
Michael Landon --- Michael Orowitz
Steve Lawrence --- Sidney Leibowitz
Jerry Lewis --- Joseph Levitch
Peter Lorre --- Lazlo Lowenstein
Elaine May --- Elaine Berlin
Yves Montand --- Ivo Levy
Mike Nichols --- Michael Peschkowsky
Joan Rivers --- Joan Molinsky
Edward G. Robinson -- Emanuel Goldenberg
Jane Seymour --- Joyce Penelope Frankenburg
Simone Signoret --- Simone-Henriette Kaminker
Beverly Sills --- Belle Silverman
Sophie Tucker --- Sophia Kalish
Gene Wilder --- Gerald Silberman
YIDDISH ~~~THE SECRET CODE
Yiddish was the secret code, therefore I don't farshtaist,
A bisseleh maybe here and there,
the rest has gone to waste.
Sadly when I hear it now, I only get the gist,
My Bubbeh spoke it beautifully; but me, I am tsemisht.
So och un vai as I should say, or even oy vai iz mir,
Though my pisk is lacking Yiddish, it's familiar to my ear.
And I'm no Chaim Yonkel , in fact
I was shtick naches, But, when it comes to Yiddish
though, I'm talking out my tuchas.
Es iz a shandeh far di kinder that I don't know it better
(Though it's really nishtkefelecht when one
needs to write a letter)
But, when it comes to characters, there's really no contention,
No other linguist can compete with honorable mentshen:
They have nebbishes and nebechels and
others without mazel,
Then, too, schmendriks and schlemiels,
and let's not forget schlemazel.
These words are so precise and descriptive to the
listener, So much better than 'a pill '
is to call someone 'farbissener'.
Or - that a brazen woman would be better called chaleria,
And you'll agree farklempt says more than does hysteria.
I'm not haken dir a tsheinik and I hope I'm not a kvetch,
But isn't mi eskeit kinder, than to call someone a wretch?
Mitten derinnen, I hear Bubbeh say, 'It's nechtiker tog, don't fear,
To me you're still a maven, zol zein shah, don't fill my ear.
A leben ahf dein keppele, I don't mean to interrupt,
But you are speaking narishkeit.....
And A gezunt auf dein kup!'
Farshtaist = (Do You?) Understand
Bisseleh = A little
Tsemisht = Con fused or mixed up
Och un vai = Alas and alack
Oi vai iz mir = Woe is me
Pisk = mouth
Naches = Joy, Gratification
Shandeh far di kinder = A pity/shame for the children
Nishtkefelecht = Not so terrible
Nebbishes = A nobody or simpleton
Nebechels = A pititful person or playing the role of being one
Schlemiel = Clumsy bungler, an inept person, butter-fingered; dopey person
Schmendrik = Nincompoop; an inept or indifferent person; same as chlemiel
Schlemazel = Luckless person. Unlucky person; one with perpetual bad luck(it is said that the shlemiel spills the soup on the Shlimazel!)
Farbissener = Embittered; bitter person
Chaleria = Evil woman. Probably derived from cholera.
Farklempt = Too emotional to talk. Ready to cry.
Haken dir a tsheinik = Don't get on your nerves (Lit.., Don't bang your teapot!)
Kvetch = Whine, complain; whiner, a complainer
Mieskeit = Ugly
Mitten derinnen = All of a sudden, suddenly
Nechtiker tog! = He's (it's) gone! Forget it! Nonsense! (Lit., a night's day)
Zol zein shah! = Be quiet. Shut up!!
Leben ahf dein keppele = Words of praise like; Well said! Well done! (Lit ., A long life upon your head.)
Narishkeit = Nonsense