This is another post from one of our terrific summer interns, Caroline Kahlenberg, who completed this piece for us as she completed her time with us. Many thanks, Caroline!
Last week, an article in The Forward caught my eye: “When Your Name Screams, ‘I’m Jewish!”
The author of the piece, Lenore Skenazy, wrote: “It’s an issue that Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill, and Lena Dunham never have to deal with, but Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Goldblum, and Sarah Silverman have: an obviously Jewish last name… For the Goldsteins and Shapiros in life, there’s a Star of David hanging over every introduction.”
Historically, as we know, many Jews tried to dismantle this invisible but palpable Star of David by changing their last names to something less “obviously Jewish.” Hollywood Jews, in particular, have been known to do this: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Jonathan Leibowitz switched to Jon Stewart. In the same tradition, Natalie Herschlag—paradoxically, very well known for her Israeli identity—became Natalie Portman.
Why the name changes? In large part, they were an attempt by Jews to “pass” as “real Americans” in a country rife with anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant.
“Passing” was often seen as a good career move, whether in Hollywood or New York. In 1948, one anonymous Jewish New Yorker explained this rationale in an Atlantic article titled “I Changed My Name.” The anonymous author, who legally switched from a ‘forthrightly Jewish moniker’ to a ‘more universal one,’ wrote:
“I’ve let my new name open doors. I’ve already found things easier, my entrée smoothed, the new way… In giving up my old name I had nothing but a headache to lose.”
Two months later, David L. Cohn of Greenville, Mississippi wrote an impassioned response to this piece in the same publication—this time, titled “I’ve Kept My Name.”
Detailing his own experience with an overtly Jewish name, Cohn wrote, “Gentiles, knowing me to be a Jew, have all my life taken me into their hearts and homes… In Greenville, neither I nor any of my co-religionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish.”
Now, before I started my internship at the ISJL, I would have been shocked that such a response came out of Greenville, Mississippi—in the heart of the Delta, which many consider “the most southern place on earth.” Rather, I would’ve guessed that a Mississippi Jew would be the one writing about his experience with anti-Semitism, while the New Yorker would respond as Cohn did. Instead, back in 1948 – the opposite was true.
And after a summer researching the history of these small Southern communities, I’ve come to learn that Southern Jews—while certainly not immune to anti-Semitism—were typically quite respected in their communities as civic and business leaders. And, perhaps because of this, they frequently and proudly used their “obviously Jewish” names for their stores—for instance, advertising the high quality of shoes at “Weinbergs” or cosmetic bargains at “Rosenzweig’s.”
In fact, Southern Jews so frequently employed their conspicuously Jewish names in business that one of the tricks we use to guide our research—in addition to Stuart’s High Holidays research method —is simply driving down a town’s main street looking out for (often faded) Jewish store names on buildings, such as “Goldsmith’s” in Alexandria, VA or “Klotz’s” in Staunton, VA. We also sift through City Directories searching for Jewish-named businesses—of which there were many.
Of course, as historians, we have to carefully cross-check using census records, congregation memberships, and Jewish organization lists, because some “Jewish-sounding” last names, such as my own—Kahlenberg—actually have no Jewish roots at all. Still, it’s a surprisingly effective method, since a) Jews most commonly settled as merchants in the South, and b) often used their last names for businesses.
To be sure, Jewish store names are not unique to the South: think Bloomingdale’s, Calvin Klein, or Katz’s Deli—all based in New York. However, it’s no coincidence, I’d argue, that David Cohn’s animated defense of his Jewish name came from a small southern community, where, it turns out, being a “Goldstein or Shapiro” often came with a certain appreciation and respect.
Nor is it a coincidence, I’d say, that one of the nation’s most successful—and conspicuously Jewish-named—businesses was founded exactly 40 years earlier in that same town of Greenville, Mississippi: Stein Mart. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
What do you think about the blessing or curse of having an “obviously Jewish name?” Share your thoughts in the comments below!