Shapiro Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Shapiro Surname Meaning

Shpria – which became Shapiro – was the Jewish name for the city of Speyer on the Rhine.  Speyer had a large Jewish population during the Middle Ages and Shapiro denoted someone from Speyer.

The Shapiro surname might also have derived from the Hebrew word sofer meaning “scribe” or from the Russian word safir meaning “pure.”  The main spelling variants today are Shapiro and Schapiro.

Shapiro Surname Resources on The Internet

Shapiro Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and England

The Jewish community of Speyer thrived for more than two hundred years from the late 11th century. Speyer at that time was an important center for Ashkenazi culture.  The early Shapiros there were rabbinical scholars – Rav Schmuel of Shapiro and his son Rav Schlomo Shapiro, the first to adopt Shapiro as a family name.

However, religious persecution of the Jews began and the Jewish population of Speyer steadily declined until by the year 1500 there were none remaining there.  They spread elsewhere.  Notable Shapiros were later to be found in Lithuania, Prague, and Cracow in Poland.  Others were to be found among the Jewish communities in Hungary and elsewhere in Poland and Russia.

America.  Most of the Shapiros that came to America originated from Russia rather than from Germany.

New York.  Among these Shapiro coming to New York were:

  • Jacob Shapiro, born in Odessa in 1899, came as a young boy and was one of the chief mobsters in the garment district during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He co-founded Murder Inc. as his weapon of enforcement.  Among those wiped out during his splurge of killings were the three Shapiro brothers (not related to him) also into racketeering, who were murdered in the early 1930’s.
  • Meyer Schapiro, born in Lithuania in 1904, arrived also as a young boy, but achieved renown as an art historian.
  • while Joseph and Jennie Shapiro came as well from Lithuania.  Their son Ted became a noted Tin Pan Alley songwriter in the 1920’s.

Elsewhere.  One immigrant Shapiro family could trace their history back to Amsterdam where two Shapiro brothers were meat wholesalers who supplied Napoleon’s army.  One of these brothers, Abraham, travelled with this army to Russia in 1812 and remained there afterwards, settling in the Minsk area.  From his line came Isaac and Eliyahu Shapiro whose families migrated to Wisconsin and California in the late 19th century.

Morris Shapiro also came to America from the Minsk area, although at a later date.  He achieved renown as a weight-lifter and was known as “the Mighty Atlas.”  He lived out his life in Las Vegas.

Shapiros in Odessa were food suppliers to the Tsar’s fleet in the Black Sea during the 19th century.  They emigrated to America in 1903, settling in Indianapolis where they opened Shapiro’s Delicatessen.  It still flourishes.

The Shapiro House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire was home from 1909 to 1928 to Abraham and Sarah Shapiro, immigrants from Ukraine who had changed their name from Millhandler.  The house has been preserved as a museum of that time.

Samuel Shapiro, born in Estonia in Russia in 1907, came with his parents to Chicago at a young age.  Known as “Smiling Sam,” he briefly became Governor of Illinois in 1968.

Shapiro Surname Miscellany

Speyer and Shapiro.  In Jewish sources Speyer is best known as one of the three Jewish communities on the Rhine, the other two being Worms and Mainz, which were destroyed during the first Crusade. These three communities are also remembered for their set of civil regulations known as Takanot “Shum,” Shum is an acronym for Shapiro (Speyer), Vermaiza (Worms), and Magentza (Mainz).

In spite of the destruction of the Jewish community in 1096, it seems that it was later restored since there were references to rabbinical scholars from Speyer in later periods.  The most famous of these was Rav Shmuel of Shapiro, whose son Rav Shlomo Shapiro, rabbi of Heilbronn and Landau, was  traditionally the first to use Shapiro as a family name. While there are no precise dates for Rav Shmuel or Rav Shlomo, contemporary evidence suggests that they were active during the middle of the 15th century.

All traditional Shapiro lineages in eastern Europe start a little later – with Rav Noson Notte Shapiro of Grodno who died in 1577. From his line came the famous mekubal, Rav Noson Notte Shapiro of Krakow, author of Megale Amukat. 

Two Shapiro Brothers.  Two Shapiro brothers were successful meat wholesalers, supplying meat to Napoleon’s army.  During Napoleon’s 1812 war against Russia, one brother, Abraham, accompanied Bonaparte’s army as it rampaged across Europe.  The other remained in Amsterdam.  After Napoleon’s drive faltered on the steppes of Russia, Abraham Shapiro remained in Russia.  He married a Russian woman and settled there.  Meanwhile, the family of his brother in Amsterdam died out.

In 1880 an attorney wrote to Abraham’s descendants from Amsterdam saying he would come to Slutsk near the family home to deliver the yerusha, the inheritance, of the Amsterdam’s family to its Russian relatives.  The family gathered to receive what it thought would be vast riches. They were very disappointed to receive not money, but a yichus brif instead, a listing of their patrilineal descent from Ezra.

The yichus brif explained that the family possessed the name Shapiro because Ezra was a scribe and that the Hebrew word for scribe was sofer.  Over millennia sofer became Shapiro.

Shapiros in America by Country of Origin.  Most of the Shapiros that came to America originated from Russia rather than from Germany:

Country of Origin Numbers Percent
Russia   257   68
Poland    65   16
Germany    31    9
Elsewhere    26    7

Mobster Jacob Shapiro.  Shapiro grew up on the streets in Brooklyn.  It was said that he met his crime partner, Lepke Buchalter, there when both boys were trying to rob the same pushcart.  Instead of fighting over the spoils, they agreed on a partnership. Buchalter served as the brains and Shapiro provided the muscle in an alliance that lasted for decades.  They were active in labor racketeering in the garment district and later in bootlegging.

Jacob was a big hulk of a man who had a way of roaring when he was angry.  He would yell: “get out of here;” and it would sound like “gurrah da here.” He did it so often that his nickname became Gurrah.

In the late 1920’s Shapiro and Buchalter formed Murder Inc, an organization that performed contract murders for organized crime.  One of its most dedicated members, Shapiro personally oversaw many contract murders and recruited promising gunmen for future membership.

By the late 1930’s, however, Shapiro and Buchalter had become the focus of US Attorney Thomas Dewey’s crime investigations.  Shapiro was eventually convicted of conspiracy and extortion and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.  Buchalter went to the electric chair for murder in 1944.

Shapiro’s Delicatessen.  The Shapiros had once been the primary food supplier for the Czar’s naval fleet in Odessa.  But the anti-Jewish pogroms that erupted in Russia at the turn of the century meant that Louis Shapiro was spending many nights fending off vandals while Rebecca and the children were hiding in the basement.  The Shapiros therefore emigrated to America in 1903.

They settled in Indianapolis.  After raising capital through pushcart street sales of flour and sugar, they set up shop at Meridian and McCarty streets, with living quarters above the store for themselves and their eight children.  The Shapiros saw to it that the grocery was a family affair, waking the children at three each morning with the rallying cry: “The day is half over already!”

The grocery featured canned goods stacked in dazzling pyramid displays, pickles and mayonnaise, and kosher deli meats supplied by the Vienna Meat Company out of Chicago. The transition to restaurant began after the end of Prohibition in the mid-1930’s, when aging Louis, suffering from back problems, delegated the running of the store to sons Abe, Izzy, and Max.

Max served as major domo of Shapiro’s for 44 years.  He guided Shapiro’s through several expansions, including a kitchen and bakery that could fully accommodate the preparation of its minimum daily requirement of 300 pounds of steam-cooked corned beef briskets; 100 pounds each of pastrami, turkey, and roast beef; 150 to 200 loaves of rye bread, and the quartering of 1,000 pickles.

Helen Shapiro, English Pop Singer.  Helen Shapiro was the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants to the East End of London. Her parents were piece-workers in the garment industry and Helen, born in Bethnal Green in 1946, grew up in that neighborhood.

Although too poor to own a record player, her parents encouraged music in their home.  Helen played banjolele and sang with her brother occasionally at his youth club.  She had a deep timbre to her voice and friends gave her the nickname of “Foghorn.”  At the age of thirteen she started singing lessons at the Maurice Burman School.  Burman’s connections led to Columbia recording a demo of her singing.

The rest was history.  In 1961, at the age of fourteen, she had a UK #3 hit with her first single, Don’t Treat Me Like A Child, and two number one hits, You Don’t Know and her best-known song Walkin’ Back to Happiness. When she first went on tour, the Beatles were the back-up act.

A quarter of a century later, Helen Shapiro decided to walk back to happiness through her new-found belief in Jesus. And she is still walking, preaching and singing the gospel.  Her website is Manna Music.

Shapiro Names

  • Jacob Shapiro, co-founder of Murder Inc, was a New York mobster of the 1920’s and 30’s.
  • Carl J. Shapiro founded Kay Windsor in 1939 and built it up to be one of the largest women apparel companies in America.
  • Helen Shapiro was a British pop star of the 1960’s.
  • George Shapiro is an American show business manager and television producer, best known for representing Jerry Seinfeld.

Shapiro Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 13,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Shapiro 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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