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Jewish Names

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We Jews are hyper-sensitive. Recently, several people have told me how embarrassed they are that Jewish names are so prominent in the current spate of legal cases involving sexual abuse.  We even get agitated over the pronunciation of Wineshtain instead of Weinstein and Epshtein instead of Epstein. Why? Because anti Semites, even unwitting ones, like to throw up such names as evidence of Jewish turpitude – even if every people on earth has good ones and bad ones, criminals and saints. Perhaps some more than others. But one would want evidence for that, not prejudice.

I wonder if this isn’t the other side of the coin that glorifies Nobel Prizewinners whose names sound Jewish even if they don’t think of themselves as such. I haven’t heard anyone accuse scientist Professor Charles Lieber, arrested on suspicion of illegal dealings with China, of being Jewish. But I bet we would have if he had got an award.

In most of the Western world, Jewish sounding names no longer indicate any relationship with Judaism. In the US, German protestant immigration in the nineteenth century brought hundreds of thousands of Germans to the US with names that might sound Jewish but equally not!  Was the Nazi Rocket scientist Werner Von Braun Jewish because Jews are called Braun too? 

The intermarriage rate has been so overwhelming in the US that Jewish sounding names may indicate no more than that a hundred years ago someone had a Jewish ancestor. Many immigration officers frustrated by complicated Eastern European names often substituted simpler Jewish ones.  There was once a famous England football player called George Cohen whose family came from Poland and were Catholic. 

How many Jews changed Jewish sounding names for pucka English ones to disguise their origins?  Remember Captain Robert Maxwell – the British MP, millionaire and rogue? He was born Binyomin Hoch.  Or Kirk Douglas, who died recently, began life as Issur Danielovich. There were literally thousands who similarly transformed themselves. When people called Rosen (or indeed Rosenstein or Rosenberg) ask me if we are related, I tell then there’s not a chance unless their grandparents were called Roserazowski from Radomsk!

The fact is that, originally, Jews didn’t have surnames at all. Surnames began in the Medieval period usually describing people’s rank, activities, and jobs. Then they began to describe where they came from. For Jews, it started in Spain and Portugal but didn’t spread widely until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when modern nations made it a requirement. They were imposed on European Jews with emancipation.  Jews adopted surnames often arbitrarily based on a whole range of criteria that applied equally to non-Jews.

So when surnames became obligatory they fell into a range of categories. A name based on a father’s or grandfather’s given name became the family surname. For instance, Johnson (John’s son), Eriksson, or Jacobson, MacArthur.  In Arabic, Ibn or Abu Saud. In Eastern Europe Abrahams or Abramson.  In Persia, it would be Abrampour. Sometimes there would be female names such as Soros from Sarah, Rivkin from Rivka or Mirkin from Miriam. 

Geographic names – a town, city, region or country. Worms, Frankfurt, Vilna, Wien, Karlin, Pinsky, Yerushalmi, Hamburger, Toledano, Sharabi, Yazdi, Bloch, Deutsch, Hollander, Pollack, Sarfati, Franco, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Shami, Turkel. 

Names reflected one’s work. A Bauman, Glazer, Glassman, Schneider, Miller, Smith, Schumacher, Goldschmidt. In Persia, Hakim was a doctor.  Metals: Gold, Zilber, Kupfer, Cooper.  Jewels: Diamante, Rubin, and Perl. Colors: Roit, Roth, Grin, Gruen, Weiss, Schwartz, Blau, Braun.  In nature, Bach (a stream) (No – Johann Sebastian Bach was not Jewish!), Berg (mountain), Stein (stone) Stern, Boim or Baum, Birenbaum, Rose or Bloom, or Holtz (wood).  Physical traits: Shein (beautiful), Lang Grois, Gross (large, great) or Klein (small). But most of these were just as likely to be non-Jewish as Jewish.

There were ceremonial names for Jews. Cohen, Kogan, Kahane, Kahn (could be Indian too), Katz for Kohen Tsedek, in Persia it is Cohen Sedgh. Aaron, Levi, Levene or Lavine. Jewish communal leadership and functionaries: Rabin, Rabinowitz, Rabiner, Rabi, Hacham, Lamdan. Cantors: Chazan, Zinger, Schulzinger, Soloveitchik or Soloway (did the lead actor in “The Affair” strike you as Jewish?). Melamed, Lehrer, Darshan, Maggid, Shohet, Schecter, Sofer and Schreiber. There were even names such as Wekker for someone who wakes people to prayer or Shulklopper who bangs on doors of the synagogue. Names signified a good or holy person like Fine, Galanti, Heilig, Gottesman. And different periods of time: Sontag, Montag, Mittwoch, Freitag, Sommer, Herbst, Vinter.  Or Jewish holidays like Yomtov, or Bondi.

And these are just my random selection. Yet many people live in fear they might be rumbled as Jews.

So no, I do not, for one moment, worry about people who have committed crimes because their names might possibly indicate that they are or were once Jewish. Since when did a name alone define one’s identity? Yet the sad fact is that they do. Anti-Semitism and racism bestow an inherent characteristic or obloquy upon a name. At some moment, the frequency of insult takes its toll. Blacks applying for jobs often find that their non-Waspish names, first or second, make it harder to get an interview. If you have a Muslim name you must be a terrorist. Italian names implicate one in membership of the Mafia. Is that why De Niro didn’t get an Oscar this year? Mexican names are proof that one is a drug dealer or a criminal. 

All prejudice ascribes generalities that are neither merited nor moral. And those of us who suffer from prejudice, whether Jewish, Italian, Mexican or Asian, are sensitive. But sensitivity can go too far. We need to rise above it. If anyone tries namecalling, just remind them about people who live in glass houses. And not so nicely!

I don’t have to apologize for someone with a Jewish name who behaves atrociously. He has nothing more to do with me or Judaism than Donald Duck. Is Colin Kaepernick Jewish? Or Whoopi Goldberg a rabbi’s daughter? Did Jeffrey Epstein ever set foot in a synagogue? In what way would they be connected to me other than phonetically?

On the other hand, when a religious Jew (outwardly pious who is dressed and identifying as a religious Jews) behaves atrociously (as on planes) or criminally (as seems to be a weekly occurrence in New York), that makes me feel ashamed and reflects badly on my religion and my God. I wonder what sort of religion we have if it produces, and seems to protect such exemplars. Men with neither shame nor modesty. Wolves in black sheep’s clothing. It is also no comfort that all other religions have an atrocious record of clerical abuse.  At some stage, one must wonder whether there is something wrong with the culture that produces such felons in numbers. Or something wrong with religious or political sects that promote violence or criminality to impose their views.

7 thoughts on “Jewish Names

  1. Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Rosen, You reminded me of a women I once meet who was convinced everyone whose surname ended with “ Burg” was Jewish. “ She presumably had never heard of Hindenburg or an Ice-burg”.

    1. Like the joke about the American Jew attacking a Chinaman over Pearl Harbour and the Chinaman retaliating over the Titanic ( Iceberg/Goldberg).

  2. I once had a conversation about this with a Muslim woman. We agreed that a Muslim or a Jew committing a crime – even murder, did not reflect on us or make us feel guilty. However, if the said crime was done in the name of our religion, because Hashem or Allah wanted this done – then it made us feel very uncomfortable. I have an extra layer of discomfort when it turns out that the perpetrator is Israeli. This is silly in a country of 9 million people, but there it is.

  3. Dear Jeremy,

    This week you conclude by pressing the notion that religion and sects of various types fail in various aspects – “no comfort that all other religions have an atrocious record of clerical abuse” – “something wrong with the culture that produces such felons in numbers” – “Men with neither shame nor modesty”.

    I tend to think that there are good people in every religion, despite the beliefs that their faith thrusts on them, not because of those beliefs. I get the impression you feel the same because you generally find your own way of interpreting what works rather than relying on what someone else instructs. Whilst I cannot be anything other than Jewish in culture and ethnicity, the older I get the more unconvinced I get about all religions. They often display some of those distasteful characteristics you mention, and they continue to look like (generally) male assertions about how things should be run, often with little regard for the welfare and happiness of those they seek to control.

    By the way, as regards name my father, originally Levy and a medical GP, but concerned about antisemitic prejudice, had changed his name to match with cousins who did have legal connection. My career was in finance, so I had to get used to being known as a bean counter!

    Best regards, Mosh

  4. I just recall the story of the two Jewish men who met in the street. “How are you Schneider? Long time no see.” says the first. “My name is Nelson,” protests the other. “How did you get from the Schneider I knew, to Nelson?” says the first. ” Well,” says the second, “a Schneider is a tailor and I went ‘tailor, railer, schmayler, sailor – Nelson’.

    In full agreement with you, as always, Jeremy.

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