Epstein Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Epstein Surname Meaning

The Epstein surname is Germanic in origin from a place-name – Eppstein in Hesse or Bavaria or Ebstein in the Styria region of SE Austria. The root in each case was the High German ebur meaning “wild boar” and stein or “stone.”

In Hesse the Lords of Eppstein were a family of German nobility in the Middle Ages. From the 12th century onwards they ruled extensive territories in the Rhine Main region from their castle at Eppstein, northwest of Frankfurt. However, their line became extinct in 1535 and the Eppstein name no longer featured in that area. Instead the Epstein surname has had Jewish origins.

After the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492, a line moved to Ebstein in Styria and took the Ebstein name. Ebstein became Eppstein and then Epstein. During the course of the succeeding centuries the name was assumed by many Jewish people, not necessarily because of any particular line or relationship, but simply because it was a well-known surname.

Epstein Surname Resources on The Internet

Epstein Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish emigrants
  • to England, America and South Africa

The Epstein name spread amongst the Jewish community in Europe.

Eppsteins were in Prague by the 16th century. Meir b. Jacob ha-Levi Eppstein was a printer there in 1522 and Meir Eppstein a leader of its Jewish community in 1601.

At the beginning of the 19th century, two brothers in Prague – Israel and Ephraim Epstein – had acquired sufficient wealth from their calico printing to establish themselves in the Austrian capital. Gustav Ritter von Epstein built his Palais Epstein in Vienna over the course of the 1860’s. However, his family fortunes were wiped out by the Vienna stock market crash of 1873.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Epstein name also featured in places such as Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, Friedberg and Konigsberg. Jakub Epstein was a prominent merchant and banker in Warsaw in the early 1800’s.

But Epsteins, because of Russian pogroms and later Nazism, are not much seen in Europe today. The largest number of Epsteins now are in America, followed by Israel and South Africa. Almost all of these Epsteins are Jewish. But some Catholic Epsteins from the Hesse area in Germany emigrated as well.

England. The Epstein name first appeared in London in the 1860’s. Sigmund Epstein, born in Germany, was recorded as a leather merchant in the 1871 census. Morris Epstein, a cabinet maker, arrived from Russia in the 1890’s. His sons built furniture in the Art Deco style until the 1950’s.

Meanwhile Isaac Epstein had come from Lithuania in the 1890’s and settled in Liverpool. His grandson was Brian Epstein, the ill-fated manager of the Beatles who took his own life in 1967.

America. Max Epstein was the name that Polish immigrant Chatskel Barnkovsky took on his arrival in New York in 1870. His son Jacob, born on the Lower East Side in 1880, moved as a young man to England where he became the world-renowned sculptor.

Others Epsteins who came to New York were:

  • Morris and Sara Epstein who were present there in the early 1880’s. Their daughter Charlotte, born in 1884, initially trained as a stenographer but then found her metier as a swimming coach. She coached the US women’s Olympic swimming teams of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
  • Ibzig and Bessie Epstein from Lithuania who came on the Rhynland in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn. Their son Teddy became a successful New York pulp magazine publisher.
  • Rachmael (Raymond) and Krana Epstein from Minsk who arrived around 1910 and also settled in Brooklyn. Their sons Benjamin and Samuel who came with them had successful professional careers.
  • while Louis and Della Epstein, Russian immigrants, were living in Manhattan around this time. Their son Leopold changed his name to Lee Eastman and was the father of Linda Eastman who married Paul McCartney.

Louis Epstein, the son of a rabbi from Lithuania, came in 1904 and was a rabbi in Massachusetts, first at Roxbury and then at Brookline. There was later a very notable Epstein family at Brookline, including:

  • the twins Julius and Philip Epstein, screenwriters for the 1942 film Casablanca
  • and Philip’s grandson Theo Epstein, general manager for the Boston Red Sox baseball team in the year 2004 when they won the World Series.

Jason Epstein, born in Boston, was with his then wife Barbara the founders of The New York Review of Books in 1963.

South Africa.  Dutch-born Isador Epstein studied music in London and performed there as a concert pianist before emigrating to South Africa in 1929. There he became the leading piano teacher in Johannesburg.

Epstein Surname Miscellany

Epstein’s Jewish Origins.  Two prominent Ashkenazi families have claimed descent from two brothers who lived in Spain during the 13th century.

The Epsteins’ alleged patriarch was Rabbi Aharon de na Clara ben Yosef haLevi; while the Horowitzes’ alleged patriarch was Rabbi Pinhas, Rabbi Aharon’s older brother and mentor.  These two brothers were the direct male descendants of Rabbi Zerahyah ben Yitzhak haLevi Gerondi who died sometime after 1186.

Epstein family lore asserts that Aharon’s surname was Benveniste. After the Jewish exodus from Spain in 1492, this branch moved to Ebstein in Styria, Austria.  The family was Levite and took the Ebstein name.  Ebstein there ultimately became Epstein.

The Epsteins of Palais Epstein in Vienna.  The writer Stefan Zweig wrote as follows in his work The World of Yesterday: 

“It is generally assumed that the real and typical aim in the life of a Jewish person is to become rich.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For him, becoming rich is merely an intermediate stage, a means to an end, not an end in itself.  What a Jew strives for, his immanent ideal, is his ascent into the realm of the spiritual, a higher cultural level.

This is why among the Jews the striving for riches almost invariably exhausts itself in a matter of two or at most three generations of a family, and it is in particular the most influential dynasties that find their sons unwilling to take over the banks or factories, the well-established, cushy businesses of their fathers.”

The Epstein family was prototypical of this model.  Having attained wealth in the course of two generations, its orientation changed with the representative of the third, Gustav Ritter von Epstein.  His ideal – a life devoted to culture and philanthropy – was to be shattered by the consequences of the Stock Exchange crash of 1873.

Gustav Ritter von Epstein had seen his palace not only as a residence that provided an inspiring ambience for himself and his family, but also as a venue for like-minded people with whom the Epsteins could enjoy the pleasures of the arts – a salon typical of the Ringstrasse society.  The Epsteins devoted particular attention to the planning of their soirées musicales.

Paul Epstein and the Nazis.  Paul Epstein was brought up in a Jewish family in Frankfurt where his father was a professor at the Philanthropin Academy.  He too became a professor there in the 1920’s. His work was in number theory and in the history of mathematics.  Another of his talents was music and he took part energetically in the cultural life of Frankfurt.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, however, the Civil Service Law provided the means for removing Jewish teachers from the universities.   All civil servants who were not of Aryan descent were to be retired.  However, there was a clause which exempted non-Aryans who had fought for Germany in World War One.  Epstein qualified under this clause and this allowed him to keep his lecturing post.

But the decisions at the Nuremberg party congress of 1935 made it clear that non-Aryans would no longer be able to keep their posts even if they had served in World War One.   Epstein relinquished his teaching position at that time.  He did not attempt to emigrate, however, as – at the age of 64 – he saw no prospect of employment outside of Germany.

Then in 1938 on the Kristallnacht of November 9-10, ninety one Jews were murdered, hundreds were seriously injured, and thousands were subjected to horrifying experiences. Thousands of Jewish businesses were burnt down together with over 150 synagogues. The Gestapo arrested 30,000 well-off Jews and a condition of their release was that they emigrate.

The Gestapo broke into Epstein’s house at that time, but found that he was seriously ill and could not be moved. Epstein subsequently received a summons from the Gestapo.  He knew what had happened to others who had received such a summons, many having been tortured and killed.  He wanted to avoid that suffering and thus took a lethal dose of Veronal.

Epstein Numbers Today

Leading Countries Numbers (000’s)
America    9.0
Israel    3.0
South Africa    1.5

The Epsteins of Brookline, Massachusetts.  The forebear of the Epstein family of Brookline, Massachusetts was immigrant Harry Epstein, a livery stable owner in New York in the days when horses were still widely used in the city.

His twin sons Philip and Julius Epstein were Hollywood screenwriters who wrote the scripts for such classic films as Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr. Skeffington, and a popular little trifle called Casablanca.  Leslie Epstein, the son of Philip, was the director of Boston University’s creative writing program and author of nine novels.

His son Theo has been the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, a job he took at the tender age of 28, making him the youngest general manager in Major League baseball history.

His twin brother Paul has been a social worker at Brookline High School. And their sister Anya has followed in the family business, writing for the critically acclaimed TV series Homicide: Life on the Street.  She is married to Dan Futterman, an actor best known for playing the son of Robin Williams’s character in The Birdcage.

The Epsteins and The New York Review of Books.  In February 1963 the printers at the New York Times went on strike.  Until then, the paper’s book review section had been seen as the ultimate arbiter of literary and academic quality in the United States.  Its own quality, however, was not universally acknowledged.  In New York City itself a group of serious young intellectuals, writers and publishers despised the NYT for what they saw as its philistinism and low standards.

One night at dinner in the apartment of Barbara and Jason Epstein, a group of these critics were rejoicing at the disappearance of the paper from the Manhattan bookstands.  Then they realized that the event was not just a source of satisfaction; it was also a business opportunity. Besides Jason, a powerful young editor at the leading trade publisher Random House and his wife Barbara, one of the editors of the influential Partisan Review, those present included the poet Robert Lowell, his wife Elizabeth Hardwick, and Robert Silvers.

It was this group that founded The New York Review of Books, with Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein as its joint editors.  The magazine went on to become a leading intellectual journal of the English-speaking world.  Even though its pre-eminence was grudgingly acknowledged, it was also resented both by those who disliked its left-of-center politics and by those who felt excluded from its magic circle.

Epstein Names

  • Sir Jacob Epstein, based in Britain, was a pioneer of modern sculpture in the first half of the 20th century.
  • Charlotte “Eppie” Epstein coached the US Olympic swimming team in the 1920’s. She was known as the mother of women’s swimming in America. 
  • Brian Epstein was the Liverpool manager of the Beatles during the 1960’s. 
  • Jason and Barbara Epstein were co-founders of The New York Review of Books in 1963.
  • Jeffrey Epstein was the disgraced financier who hanged himself in prison in 2019.

Epstein Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 9,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in South Africa)

Epstein and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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