Jewish Currents has a great piece out this week: The Origins and Meanings of Ashkenazic Last Names. From 1787 until 1844, Eastern European Jews were forced to abandon an age-old tradition of naming people after their father or mother, a la 'Jason ben (son of) Calvin' and adopt a more easily tracked and taxed last name. The construction and meaning of those names has always fascinated me.
From Jewish Currents:
In attempting to build modern nation-states, the authorities insisted that Jews take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted and educated (in that order of importance). For centuries, Jewish communal leaders were responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government, and in some cases were responsible for filling draft quotas. Education was traditionally an internal Jewish affair.
Until this period, Jewish names generally changed with every generation. For example, if Moses son of Mendel (Moyshe ben Mendel) married Sarah daughter of Rebecca (Sora bas Rifke), had a boy and named it Samuel (Shmuel), the child would be called Shmuel ben Moyshe. If they had a girl and named her Feygele, she would be called Feygele bas Sora.
Jews distrusted the authorities and resisted the new requirement. Although they were forced to take last names, at first they were used only for official purposes. Among themselves, they kept their traditional names. Over time, Jews accepted the new last names, which were essential as Jews sought to advance within the broader society and as the shtetles were transformed or Jews left them for big cities.