What is a Yekke, and what does it have to do with Jewish baby names, you might ask?
Yekke is a (generally!) affectionate Yiddish term for German Jews. It’s derived from the German word jacke (jacket) and was potentially invented by Eastern European Jews to distinguish their communities: German Jews were often regarded as being well-dressed, assimilated and preferring to wear a short suit jacket rather than, say, the long robes associated with Eastern European Hasidic garb. Sometimes it was used sardonically, to poke a bit of fun at stereotypical German Jewish habits (for instance, they could be neurotic about timeliness, not always something their Eastern European contemporaries abided by). For the most part, though, it’s regarded as an endearing term that’s stuck for decades.
Jews have a long history in Germany, and despite the horrors and tragedy of the Holocaust, there is a burgeoning Jewish community there today (my own immediate family is among them). German Jews invented the Reform movement and, culturally, tended towards more of a secular lifestyle than in many other European countries starting in the early 19th century. As a result, many popular Yekke names are indeed Germanic in origin, rather than Hebrew. However, an interesting fact to consider is that despite this, certain German names prevailed more frequently among the Jewish community over the years than outside of it, including a number of names on the list below.
If your family has Yekke heritage, you might find some inspiration in the names below. In Germany today, much like in America, many names considered to be “grandparent era” names are trending upwards, so quite a few of these names have transcended some traditional popularity within the Jewish community to be more mainstream. And in an intriguing twist of fate, a number of Jewish names less commonly used by secular German Jews before the Holocaust have become top names in Germany right now: Noah, Levi, Elijah, Jona, Mila, Gabriel and David, to name just a few.
Note: All names are listed with their original German pronunciation; many will sound a bit different with an English pronunciation.
Albert (ahl-bert, “bright and noble”): One of the most famous German Jews of all time, Albert Einstein, is probably the most instant association with this name. It’s also highly internationally usable.
Arno (ahr-no, “eagle”): Arno, as well as its variants such as Arnold and Arnost, were used in Germany as well as other neighboring countries. To this day, these names often have a specifically Jewish association in Germany and elsewhere.
Erwin (ehr-veen, “noble friend”): Not only was Erwin common among Yekkes, but when German Jews immigrated to the U.S., they often used the Americanized version, Irving.
Felix (fay-leeks, “fortunate”): Besides famed composer Felix Mendelssohn, many other German Jews bore this sweet name, now a top boys’ name in contemporary Germany.
Ignaz (eeg-nahts, “fiery”): Who can resist the nickname “Iggy”? Interestingly, this name is very Catholic in origin; the German Jewish community adopted it and there are numerous notable Jewish Ignaz’s of history.
Max (macks, “great”): A tried and true classic, Max has stood the test of time and still gets used by Yekkes worldwide.
Julius (yoo-lee-yoos, “downy-bearded”): This Roman name became a favorite among German Jews, and given the rise of Julian in recent years, Julius could shoot up in popularity.
Otto (oh-toe, “prosperity”): Besides being a palindrome (always nifty), Otto was a mainstay name of German Jews with many renowned namesakes like Otto Stern and Otto Klemperer.
Salomon (sah-lo-mohn, “man of peace”): The German version of the Hebrew name Shlomo, Salomon was traditionally used both as a first name and a last name among Yekkes.
Walter (vahl-tehr, “army commander”): Besides the esteemed Yekke philosopher Walter Benjamin, Walter was popularly used for decades by Jews in Germany but also slots in nicely with international naming trends.
Amalie (ah-mahlee, “industrious): The original moniker of renowned Yekke mathematician Emmy Noether, it’s a lovely pick with lots of nickname possibilities.
Erika (eh-reeka, “powerful”): Erika Mann might be the best-known German Jewish woman with the name, but this literally strong name had a historically high usage among Yekke women.
Erna (ehr-na, “earnest”): While Erna is still considered a bit old-fashioned today, it’s a beautiful name that works well in multiple languages and cultures.
Frieda (free-da, “peaceful”): Currently in the top 20 for girls’ names in modern-day Germany, this lovely girl’s name, once considered old-fashioned, is a great choice for baby girls of German Jewish descent.
Hanna (hah-na, “grace”): Now a top 10 girls’ name in Germany today, Hanna was always a popular choice among German Jews when it came to using Hebrew names.
Henriette (hen-ree-yeh-teh, “ruler of the home”): This spunky name was also popular among German Jewish immigrants who moved to the United States, as it transitioned well to their new American life.
Lilli (lih-lee, variant meanings): Used as a full name and also a nickname for Elisabeth and Lillian, this name has made quite the comeback in recent years in many places worldwide.
Lotte (lo-teh, “free”): A great name on its own, Lotte can also be short for Charlotte and Liselotte, both frequently used by Yekke women. Lotte Berk and Lotte Jacobi are two notable namesakes.
Rosa (ro-sa, “pink”): Evocative of the fiery, feisty Rosa Luxembourg, Rosa was a solid favorite among German Jews for decades and seems to be making a resurgence today.
Sidonie (zee-doh-nee, “woman from Sidon”): This unusual but gorgeous girl’s name honors noted feminist and teacher Sidonie Werner, who organized the first World Conference of Jewish Women in 1929.
If you’re looking for some gender neutral baby name options, unfortunately, traditional Yekke baby names don’t lend themselves particularly well as such. However, you could certainly do a less traditional route and use names like Ali as a tribute to Albert, Stef as a nod to Stefan or Stefanie, Max, or Fredi to honor a Frederike or Alfred.