Other than aristocrats and wealthy people Jews did not get surnames in Eastern Europe until the Napoleon years of the early 19th century. Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon, Russia, Poland, and Germany were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes.
After Napoleon's defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned to "son of" names such as: MENDELSOHN, JACOBSON, LEVINSON, etc.
During the so called Emancipation, Jews were once more ordered to take surnames. In Austria The Emperor Joseph made Jews take last names in the late 1700s, Poland in 1821 and Russia in 1844. It's probable that some of our families have had last names for 175 years or less.
In France and the Anglo Saxon countries surnames went back to the 16th century. Also Sephardic Jews had surnames stretching back centuries.
Spain prior to Ferdinand and Isabella was a golden spot for Jews. They were expelled by Isabella in the same year that Columbus left for America.
The earliest American Jews were Sephardic.
In general there were Five types of names (people had to pay for their choice of names; the poor had assigned names):
1-- Names that were descriptive of the head of household:
COHEN (rabbi ),
BERGER, BURGER (village dweller),
SHEIN (good looking),
LEVI (temple singer),
SCHWARTZ (dark or black),
2 -- Names describing occupations:
HOLTZHOCKER (wood chopper),
3-- Names from city of residence:
4 -- Bought names:
ROSENBLATT (rose paper or leaf),
ROSENBERG (rose Mountain),
ROTHMAN (red man),
KOENIGSBERG (king's mountain),
SPIELMAN (spiel is to play),
WASSERMAN (water dweller),
KERSHENBLATT (church paper),
5-- Assigned names (usually undesirable):
PLOTZ (to die,explode), KLUTZ (clumsy), BILLIG (cheap), DREK (shit)
For additional and more comprehensive information on naming research, check out A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From the Russian Empire by Alexander Beider, PhD, published 1993 by Avotaynu, Inc, Teaneck N.J. ISBN 0-9626373-3-5, pp 1 through 91. It is quite an education.... Art Mayoff