Goldberg Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Goldberg Surname Meaning

When Jewish people were obligated to take surnames in the early 19th century, they often chose ornamental names, such as names prefixed with “Gold” or “Rose.”  Goldberg (or “gold mountain”) was the most common “Gold” name.  Goldenberg is the Austrian variant of Goldberg. 

Sometimes Goldberg was not the actual surname back home and was simply chosen on arrival.  And sometimes the name Gold or its variant changed into Gould.

Goldberg Surname Resources on The Internet

Goldberg Surname Ancestry

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

Goldbergs emigrated to America from a number of countries.  Germany, Russia, and Poland were the main countries of Jewish settlement and Yiddish culture in central and eastern Europe in the 19th century.   The Goldberg name is usually Jewish in America but not necessarily.

America. The peak years for Goldberg immigration into the United States were from 1890 to 1910.  They came mainly to the cities of the East.  New York drew many Goldbergs, such as:

  • Hayim Goldberg, who came to America from Kovno, Lithuania in 1883 and settled in the Lower East Side of New York – where he and his wife raised eight children.
  • Abraham and Celia Goldberg, who came to New York from Bialystok in Poland with their six children in 1906.  Abraham died within the year but the rest of the family settled in Brooklyn.
  • Rube Goldberg, who arrived in New York from California in 1907.  He became well-known for his political cartoons, which were sometimes controversial during World War Two.
  • and Itche Goldberg, born in Poland, who grew up in Canada and then moved to New York in the 1920’s.  He was a lifelong promoter of Yiddish culture and was generally on the left of the political spectrum.  He died in New York in 2006 at the age of 102.

Arthur Goldberg, later US Supreme Court Justice and US Ambassador to the United Nations, was born in Chicago in 1908, the youngest child of immigrant Joseph Goldberg, a produce peddler from Ukraine.  Although the family was poor and his father died when he was eight, he made it to law school and became a prominent labor lawyer.  His nephew is the blues rock keyboardist Barry Goldberg.

Israel Gelbart arrived from Poland with his wife Rebecca in the early 1900’s, changed his name to Goldberg, and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. By the 1930’s he was well-established, operating Goldberg’s Men’s Store on King Street, and his brother George joined him from New York.  The family back in Poland, however, perished during the Holocaust.

Some Goldbergs made it West.   David Goldberg left Russia in 1879 after the death of his father for America and initially came to Cleveland.  He then moved west and settled in Butte, Montana where he became one of the town’s prominent merchants.  Max Goldberg from Russia made it out to California by 1916.  It was said that he was killed there after having been hit by a horse and buggy.

Ireland.  In 1882 14-year-old Louis Goldberg set out from Riga for the United States, but was unaware how far the journey was.  He went ashore when the boat arrived in Cork, being told that Cork was “the gateway to America.”

He moved to Limerick and started a draper’s store there.  However, Louis was badly beaten up during the anti-Jewish riots in the town in 1904 and took his growing family to Cork.  His son Gerald, born there, became the first Jewish mayor of Cork in 1977.

Southern Africa.   Other Goldbergs made it to southern Africa.

One family history traces back to Davis Goldberg from Poland who arrived in London with his family in the 1860’s.  His children, however, soon uprooted themselves, took the steamer to South Africa, and eventually settled in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Sam and Annie Goldberg, later arrivals from London, became active in the Communist party in South Africa.  Their son Denis, arrested in 1963 at the same time as Nelson Mandela, was tried and convicted of seditious behavior and remained a prisoner until his release in 1985.

Another Goldberg family who had made that journey south had come from Riga to Dublin before deciding to head for South Africa in 1901.  Simon Goldberg did not care for the Cape Colony and set off for Rhodesia ten years later.  The family story was narrated in W.E. Arnold’s 1980 book The Goldbergs of Leigh Ranch.

Goldberg Surname Miscellany

Goldberg and Variants.  The Gold surnames in America, in their ranking of frequency, are:

  • Goldberg (or “gold mountain”)
  • Goldstein (or “gold stone”)
  • Goldman (or “gold man”)
  • Goldblatt (or “gold leaf”)
  • and simply Gold.

Goldbergs in America by Country of Origin.  Goldbergs emigrated to America from a number of countries.

Country Numbers Percent
Russia   720    46
Germany   512    32
Poland   256    16
Elsewhere    98     6

Max and Rube Goldberg.  Max Goldberg had emigrated from Prussia as a very young man, living first in New York during the Civil War and then working his way west to San Francisco.

There he prospered.  With his traditional Stetson hat from his days as a cattle-ranch owner in Arizona, he was a well-known character in San Francisco. The city thought of itself as young and vigorous, without the social and class restrictions of the more established East.  Max dealt in real estate, banking, and the turbulent frontier politics of San Francisco. He ended up as the city’s police and fire commissioner.

Son Rube was born in 1883, the second of three sons and one daughter of Max and his wife Hannah.   His mother died when he was a young man and Max, who never remarried, raised the four children himself, forging a close family unity that lasted all through their lives.

At eleven Rube began taking art lessons and decided that he wanted to be a full-time artist.  But his father urged him to study something that would provide a good living.  He reminded his son that great artists, like Da Vinci, were trained as engineers first.  Rube consequently took up engineering studies.

However, he had begun to draw cartoons and, forsaking engineering and against his father’s wishes, managed to secure a job as an art assistant with the San Francisco Chronicle.  From this base his work would soon became popular throughout the West Coast.

In 1907, at the age of twenty four, Rube decided to try his luck in New York.  His father Max, now proud of Rube’s work and reputation in San Francisco, backed his decision.  Success came quickly.  1909 saw the debut of his first widely acclaimed cartoon series, Foolish Questions. He became a nationally-syndicated cartoonist and was soon said to be earning the huge sum of $100,000 a year from his drawings and books.

Itche Goldberg and Yidishe Kultur.  In secular Yiddish circles, Itche Goldberg is best known as the editor of one of the longest-running journals of Yiddish literature, Yidishe Kultur. He served as editor from 1964 to 2004 when he published the journal’s final issue.

He fought to keep Yidishe Kultur alive right to the end of his life.  In an interview in 2004 he said:

“I only have two dreams.  One dream is that someone will knock on the door and I will open it and they give me a check for $150,000 for the magazine.  Second dream is that someone knocks at the door and I open it up and he gives me a corned beef sandwich. Those are my only two dreams. I’m not asking for much.  Really, I’m not.  And I think they’re both reachable.”

He was soon to celebrate his 100th birthday.  In his honor, a group of Jewish musicians performed an adaptation of I. L. Peretz’s Oyb Nit Nokh Hekher (“If Not Even Higher”), with the libretto by Itche Goldberg. It was one of more than twenty works that he had written with the composer Moyshe Rauch.

Goldberg New York Bagels.  The history of Goldberg’s New York Kosher Bagels dates back to the early 1900’s when a young Polish immigrant, Isadore Goldberg, opened a little bagel shop on the Lower East Side of New York.  Isadore’s son later moved the store to New Jersey.

The Goldbergs no longer own the store. But a modern version of the original bagel shop, Goldberg New York Bagels, can be found in the Jewish neighborhood of Pikesville just outside Baltimore.  In fact there are two versions of Goldberg New York Bagels as there is a rival branch in Rockville,  Maryland.

The Goldbergs of Leigh Ranch.  Simon Goldberg was the pioneer who left the comforts of the Cape Colony with his family in 1912 to pastures new in Rhodesia.  With his family settled in a large, rambling house in Salisbury, he ran a store at Norton about twenty mites from town.  He loved the countryside and soon added a 3 000 acre farm to his store.

Mick, his eldest son, joined a firm of wholesale merchants at seventeen and soon made his own mark in business.   Mick Goldberg worked out at Penhalonga for them, later bought their business, and moved his mother, Esther, two sisters Sarah and Rachel and four brothers, Hymie, Maurice, Bennie and Jack out there.

The family secured the mine concession and built up a very successful trading store and butchery business. Because of the concession, which meant that all the purchases by the African mine workers was to be deducted from their wages, the African name given to the Goldbergs was Magaboza, literally meaning “credit.”

That was only the start of their entrepreneurial efforts.  When tobacco was introduced into Rhodesia in the 1930’s, the Goldberg brothers bought up vast areas of land and developed Leigh Ranch. This for a time was the largest single unit producing tobacco in the world.

Goldberg Names

  • Itche Goldberg, born in Poland, was a lifelong promoter of Yiddish culture in America.
  • Rube Goldberg was a creative American inventor and cartoonist.
  • Arthur Goldberg, born in Chicago, was an American statesman and jurist who served as the US Secretary of Labor, Supreme Court Justice, and Ambassador to the United Nations during the 1960’s.
  • Denis Goldberg was a South African political campaigner who stood up against the apartheid regime.
  • Whoopi Goldberg, born Caryn Johnson, is a popular American comedienne and actress.

Goldberg Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Goldberg 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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