A list of names of Jewish passengers who arrived at Ellis Island in 1913.
A list of names of Jewish passengers who arrived at Ellis Island in 1913.

I don’t have a ‘Jewish’ name, and other Jews won’t leave me alone about it

Dear Dawn: I read the article in Kveller “I Took My Husband’s Jewish Last Name and I Don’t Regret It,” written by a Jew by choice. Here we go again: “Jewish” names. Where does that leave converts without a husband with a “Jewish” name? I cannot even read past the headline. Jealous on one hand, and horrified, this is still being normalized on the other hand bias against Jews by choice without Ashkenazi names. Anyway, it just hit a nerve. Many times I have been quizzed by fellow Jews, asking me what my maiden name is. Trying to see if I am a “real” Jew. Ugh. How can I combat the onslaught of queries about my last name? — Frustrated

Dear Frustrated: I hear you! Jews are a prying lot, worried about acceptance, identity, authenticity. We also have a good deal of comfort with intrusive questions. It doesn’t do us much good.

Names are a big deal. I know a halachic Jew with the last name Church. You can imagine the shocked looks that gets. I remember a non-Jew telling me that they were verbally attacked for “pretending” to be a Jew because they had what is apparently a common Jewish name in Britain, Davis. Who knew? A young woman starting conversion study was told at the outset, “You should probably change your name since in Yiddish it means ‘shame’.” Gosh, thanks rabbi.

Your discomfort is quite understandable. Who wants to be interrogated? Especially when the goal of the questioning is to perhaps exclude you.

This is a problem not just for Jews by choice. It’s a problem for Jews with names that are not from the Ashkenazi tradition.

But what bothers me most is the detriment it does to children. It comes up for adults from interfaith families who are Jewish on their mother’s side, but got a name like O’Flaherty from their non-Jewish dad. As we all know (she says, tongue in cheek), there are no Jews in Ireland, right? (I say this with apologies to my Irish Jewish friend M.)

What can you say to stem the flow of someone else’s need to pigeonhole you? Let’s begin by putting the issue back where it belongs, with the questioner. The person asking about your name has an agenda; you do not. So turn the question back on them. You could say:

Why do you ask?

Does my name bother you?

My father wasn’t Jewish if that’s what you’re wondering about.

Why is this such a popular question?

What’s your maiden name?

Or, for a man, what’s your wife or mother or grandmother’s maiden name?

Or you could put your hand on their arm and say, “For your own sake, I want to point out that probing questions about names is a hand grenade for many young Jews who don’t have a traditionally Ashkenazi name. I encourage you to find other ways to get to know someone.”

You are also justified in replying with your true feelings, “I am so sick of that question! I’m sick of being interrogated.”

Please keep in mind that you do not owe them a reply. You can stare blankly and then walk away. You can ignore the question. You can change the subject. If they insist on repeating the question, it’s time to either walk away or state, “I’ve been politely trying to change the subject.”

Will your interrogator have an emotional reaction? I hope so.
What I know from psychological studies is that experiences that have a strong emotional component are the ones that humans best remember. It is likely that the person will feel ashamed and will remember not to do that again — not with you, and, God willing, not to anyone.

I have one other idea that I hope will move the Jewish world to a more knowledgeable and inclusive state. There is a Torah portion called Shemot, meaning “Names.” I have experienced rabbis using this Shabbat to invite their congregants to acquire a Hebrew name if they don’t have one. This service also could be used to discuss names, Jewish names, names that become Jewish, the diversity of Jewish names, the born Jews who were given a Yiddish name rather than a Hebrew one.

How our names define us, limit us, or benefit us. There’s plenty to talk about here.

Meet with your rabbi and discuss the possibility of them giving a sermon on this topic, one that includes information about how hurtful it is when one’s name is perceived as a “bad” one.

Do let me know how you progress with this.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].