Elon Gilad has another good Haaretz column, this time on an interesting surname:

Many Israelis welcomed the news that the Israel Defense Forces’ new chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, will be the first Israeli of Moroccan descent to attain the senior post. While it is true that both Eisenkot’s parents were born in Morocco, many – including a headline in the cover of Yedioth Ahronoth Sunday – asked how it is that the first Moroccan chief of staff has such an Ashkenazi sounding last name. […] Eisenkot is far from being a common name among European Jews since in German it means “Iron feces.”

On the other hand, Azenkot and other variations on that spelling are quite popular among the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco, and have been so for centuries, much earlier than the small trickle of European Jews to Morocco mentioned by Biton. The name is recorded among Sephardic Jews as early as the 17th, when we have the first record of the name inn the person of Rabbi Saadia Azencot, who lived in the Netherlands at the time, where he was teacher of famous Swiss theologian Johann Heinrich Hottinger. […]

The name Azenkot comes from the Berber languages, where azankad means ‘deer.’ It appears in names of several Berber tribes such as the Aza Izenkad tribe of the Tata oasis and the Old Izenkad tribe, both in south Morocco. Jews with names derived from this Berber word probably had an ancestor who had some kind of relationship with these or other Berber tribes, such as trading with them or living among them.

Apparently, the name turned from Azenkot to Eisenkot, when the new chief of staff’s father immigrated to Israel.

I love stories like that! Kobi, who sent me the link, added:

I know a person with the name Tarabulski, which is even more unlikely. His parents came from Syria and the name was Tarabulsi which means “from Tripoli,” which is from the town of Tripoli in Lebanon. At the time of immigration the Syrians, who didn’t know Hebrew, had to deal with an Ashkenazi immigration officer and the result was “Tarabulski”. In the present phone book there are 28 Tarabulskis. Interestingly, I find 7 people with a similar name in the US. I wonder what else can we find about this name, maybe languagehat readers can tell us more.

So any stories about the name Tarabulski will be welcome.


  1. SFReader says

    Tarabulski sounds like typical Russification of non-Russian surnames common in the Soviet Union. It’s really strange that Israel would have same practice.

  2. David Marjanović says


    of the Tata oasis

    Tataouine? 🙂

    It’s really strange that Israel would have same practice.

    I think it doesn’t. The clue is the mentioned “Ashkenazi immigration officer” who wrote down the name in a form that made some sense to him – the Ellis Island phenomenon.

  3. The Berber word a-znkʷḍ “gazelle” (Tashelhiyt) is certainly the source of this family name; in older borrowings from Berber into Arabic, Berber /ḍ/ is normally reflected as Arabic /ṭ/, and the former phoneme is in any case consistently devoiced in some Berber varieties. The “tribal names” are certainly garbled, though, and can be corrected with a bit of Googling. “Aza Izenkad” must be a corruption of Aqqa Izenkaḍ, “Akka of the gazelles”, a village near Tata (not a tribe!); someone uploaded its 2012 graduation celebrations to YouTube. “Old Izenkad” is evidently for Ouled Izenkad, Arabic for “sons of Izenkad”, which various sites on the origins of Judeo-Moroccan family names claim is a branch of the Ida Oultite, but which no other site online appears to have heard of. Maybe this guy’s ancestors lived in one of those places; then again, maybe they just traded in gazelle skins, or prided themselves on their gazelle-like eyes, or any of a variety of possible explanations. About all that can be said for sure is that they probably spoke at least a bit of Berber.

  4. Thanks, Lameen — I was hoping you’d weigh in!

  5. My pleasure – how could I resist? It’s not every day Berber turns up here…

  6. CuConnacht says

    David Marjanović, you may be interested to learn that the Ellis Island phenomenon never happened, at least not at Ellis Island. With one exception.


  7. Rodger C says

    A bit off topic, but I wonder if anyone else is thinking about the photographer Gary Winogrand.

    I also think “Old Eisenkot” would be a great name in, say, a Fritz Leiber novel.

  8. My theory — immigration officer who knows German and is fed up with the dull routine of his job gets a wicked gleam in his eyes, dubs immigrant family the Eisenkots.

  9. you may be interested to learn that the Ellis Island phenomenon never happened, at least not at Ellis Island.

    And Potemkin never built whole villages to dazzle Catherine. Live with it.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Interesting article about Ellis Island. To some extent it argues against a strawman – the story doesn’t so much seem to be that the immigration officials performed legal name changes, but that they simply made mistakes that either became official or were mistaken as such by the immigrants themselves. Of course if they never wrote the names down, but only used the passenger manifests, that falls away, too…

  11. That’s not a straw man. That people’s names were intentionally changed is a commonplace American belief.

  12. And it can be a touchy subject: a lot of people feel embarrassed by the idea that their ancestors voluntarily changed the family name (albeit under social pressure). My family who came through the port of Providence ended up using three different spellings (an “original” southern Yiddish one, then Germano-Americanized ones with sch and sh), though happily we’ve never attributed it to immigration clerks.

  13. Quatro’s paternal grandfather was an Italian immigrant to the US. His family name of “Quattrocchi” was shortened by the immigration authorities because they found it too difficult to pronounce.

  14. Stephen C. Carlson says

    That people’s names were intentionally changed is a commonplace American belief.
    It’s even depicted in an early scene of “The Godfather, Part II,” where his name is changed at Ellis Island from “Vito Andolini from Corleone” to “Vito Corleone.”

  15. David Marjanović says

    Huh. I haven’t watched the movie, but have read the book, and there Don Vito makes the change himself, deliberately.

    found it too difficult to pronounce

    Is that one really so difficult?

  16. SFReader says

    I think “difficult to pronounce” means unfamiliar spelling was too difficult to read.

    – Kwatrokchee? Is that even a white name?
    – No, no, signor! Quattrocchi!
    – I’ll write just Quattro then.

  17. I think it’s partly a function of length too. When you say a foreign-sounding word of four syllables or more, people in the US start to tune out even if the phonetics of it are very simple.

    (To be clear, though, I’d wager that Suzi Quatro’s family lore is as mistaken as everyone else’s on this point.)

  18. Have you ever looked at any of the Ellis Island manifests? The handwriting can be pretty messy. It’s hardly surprising if some of the names ended up mistranscribed or miscopied.

  19. The American officials weren’t doing any transcription or copying, though – just checking that the entrants matched the names on the lists they were given. Shipping officials in the ports of departure may have tweaked some names, but even the “one exception” mentioned above – that of Frank Woodhull – demonstrates that people were free to use whatever name they liked once they had entered the US.

  20. January First-of-May says

    The one American name change story I’m aware of in my family – Zyama (?) Strupinsky into Sam Pinsky – was a pretty definite “changed his name after already entering”.

    (After some googling and checking genealogical sites, it appears that his original name was Shneir Zalman Strupinsky, and his American name was Samuel Pinsky. He was my great-grand-uncle – a brother of my great-grandmother.)

  21. Strupinsky is interesting; I wonder what the origin is?

  22. SFReader says

    From some place called Strupino, I presume. There are villages and lakes with that name all over Russia, Poland, Belarus and even Greek Macedonia.

    Strup means this nasty thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschar

    I suppose village would be called Strupino if it was full of people suffering from some terrible disease.

  23. “The Berber word a-znkʷḍ “gazelle” (Tashelhiyt) is certainly the source of this family name…” (Lameen)

    The Ashkenazic surname Jelinek or Jellinek means “little deer,” from the Czech. It may have to do with Naphtali compared to a doe in Genesis 49:21. Could the same apply to Eisenkot’s original family name? On the other hand, see this thread for a discussion of “animal” names.

  24. Alexei: Interesting suggestion. But there are Muslim Moroccans with the same family name: you can, for instance, watch one Dr. Omar Azenkot on YouTube, discussing cinematography at the Khenifra Experimental Film Festival. That makes me sceptical of an explanation rooted in the Bible. Then again, nothing immediately rules out the possibility that the bearers of this surname could be descended from Jewish people.

  25. David Marjanović says

    I didn’t know the name Jelínek occurs among Jews at all. It’s a fairly common name in Vienna (in Germanized spellings).

  26. SFReader says

    One of the few modern Nobel prize winners whose novels I’ve read was named Jelinek, I think she is Viennese, yes.

    She deliberately set out to write a porn novel and got a Nobel Prize for it.

    Admirable achievement, I must say.

  27. Elfriede Jelinek. (Or, if you’re Czech, Jelineková.)

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely the most important Jelineks, culturally speaking, are those whose family business ultimately bore the name R. Jelinek which to this day (having been reprivatized after state control during the unfortunate Communist interlude in Czech history) is the most important provider of slivovitz to the U.S. market. (They have also post-1989 bought up other producers, e.g. the Troyanska distillery in Bulgaria which is the source of the bottle I currently have in my own booze inventory.) http://www.collectorsweekly.com/stories/118121-rudolf-jelinek–czechoslovakia

  29. There’s an subtext to the Eisenkot story which distinguishes it from, say, the Irish Costello. Moroccan Jews, since their mass immigration to Israel in the 1950s, have been near the bottom of the ethnic pecking order in terms of economic standing, representation in government, etc. In popular culture, the image of Moroccans is that of a poor underclass, but with the cachet of being ‘authentic’ and streetwise. Conversely, German Jews, the yekkes, are stereotypically intellectuals, over-represented as professors, judges, classical musicians and the like, somewhat snobbish, and, outside of their high-class bubble, somewhat clueless.

    Naturally, the reality of the stereotypes has become more complex over the generations, but they persist. A Moroccan with a German-sounding name strikes the Israeli ear as an African-American with a Jewish surname would strike the American ear. Here, one would first think of a later marriage, or of a slave-owner’s name. With Eisenkot, the story had to be unusual, and indeed it is.

    Eisenkot, in addition to being the rare non-Ashkenazi at such a high position, has also enjoyed a reputation as an even-minded and competent administrator, who has so far managed to avoid getting entangled in the ever-more byzantine machinations of Israeli politics.

  30. Thanks, that’s very useful background!

  31. Lameen, you’re probably right – I’m hardly an expert in the field – but it might be worth adding that Jelinek is not an exclusively Jewish name either. I focused on it because of Elfride Jelinek – her father was of Czech-Jewish heritage. In the meantime, I lost sight of the elephant in the room: the large subfamily of Ashkenazic surnames derived from old Germanic terms for “deer.” It includes Hirsch, Hersch, Hertz, Hertzl, and many others.

    Their English cousin is Hart: it can be a native English or Irish name, but also an Anglicization of Hirsch, Hertz and other “deer” surnames. E.g., rabbi Hirsch Loebel of Berlin was also known as Hart Lyon while serving as the chief rabbi of London.

    @David Marjanović: consider the 19th century Viennese rabbi Adolf Jellinek and his sons; also, Thomas Jelinek, the former head of the Prague Jewish Community (2001-?).

  32. Apropos of language, Eloise Jelinek was a syntactician who worked on Straits Salish and other North American languages. Fred Jelinek was a pioneer in speech recognition. As far as I know neither was Jewish.

  33. As has been mentioned here before, intermarriage creates Jews with non-Jewish surnames and non-Jews with Jewish surnames, since Jewishness is matrilineal and surnames are patrilineal.

  34. Or, if you’re Czech, Jelineková.

    Now, if she were Czech, she’d be Elfrida Jelínková (like lots of Czech women who actually have that surname). The yer reflex has become immobilised only because her name counts as German despite being Czech.

  35. Like émigré Russians whose names get re-Cyrillicized with -офф.

  36. SFReader says

    Since Jelinek means deer in Czech, I suppose there could be plenty of Czechs with that surname too. Brief search on Google revealed people with names like Jan Nepomuk Jelinek – it’s highly unlikely he was Jewish.

  37. As has been mentioned here before, intermarriage creates Jews with non-Jewish surnames and non-Jews with Jewish surnames, since Jewishness is matrilineal and surnames are patrilineal.

    Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovky, when questioned about his ethnicity said that his mother was Russian and father was a jurist.

  38. However, he retracted that statement and now says he is the son of an agronomist.

  39. Rodger C says

    Sounds like Tommy Chong saying his dad was Chinese and his mom was a waitress.

  40. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

  41. In Poland, the family names Jeleń and Jelonek (from the basic term for ‘hart, red deer’ and its diminutive) are old (recorded as nicknames or surnames since the 15th c.). They are not stereotypically Jewish and in most cases are probably native Polish, but looking at genealogy websites I have found several Jelonek families with obviously Jewish given names (Ryfka, Szmul, Chajka, Jankiel, Towa etc.). Numerous Jews called Jelonek lived, for example, in Łomża (NE Poland) already in the 18th c.

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