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!
It’s something that makes most Jewish people cringe: that moment when, in the midst of some celebrity or political or financial scandal, it’s revealed that there’s a bad guy who happens to be Jewish. And now, quite publicly, this Jewish person has done wrong.
Let’s call them the “Bad News Jews.”
I was pretty young when I first realized that if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re the only Jewish person someone knows, you will become a go-to-source on All Things Jewish. Not just around holiday times, but also when there’s someone Jewish in the news. Especially when the news is not good, and a fellow known-to-be-Jewish person is getting some bad press.
It was Monica Lewinsky who first taught me this.
I was in high school back when she was in the news. Despite the fact and context of that story, and the whole topic being, y’know, not exactly appropriate conversational material to dive into with a teenager, people would ask me what I thought about that situation. They would ask what I thought about her: Monica Lewinsky, who “sort of looked like me,” as I was told a couple of times. Like maybe, since we were both Jewish, I had some insider info on this hot mess (um, nope!); or I’d be more sympathetic to her plight (um, nope!); or at least I’d be more personally impacted by the story (um… nope… ish?).
That last parenthetical “nope-ish” is where it gets complicated. Because while it doesn’t have anything to do with us, and seems misguided when non-Jewish friends and family ask us specifically about these “Naughty Jews,” well, there is some truth to the fact that we cringe a bit harder when someone Jewish is revealed to be the bad guy in a news story. Even when we have no actual connection to the person, we feel embarrassed. Like it’s making “us” look bad. The same way we take pride in “our” Albert Einsteins, we cringe at “our” Anthony Weiners.
How do we respond to Bad News Jews? When people ask for our opinion, what do we say?
After years of being in this position, my response has become pretty standard. When someone asks me what I think “as a Jewish person,” I try (and sometimes fail) to not roll my eyes, and then lead off by saying that I don’t speak for “the Jews,” I can only speak for myself. A person, who happens to be Jewish, but whose opinions only represent me, and are not representative of all Jewish people. Just like, yes, that schmoe in the news is a person, who happens to be Jewish – but whose actions speak only for him/her, and are not representative of all Jewish people. In a small town, where the Jews are few – like the rural town where I grew up, and the small Southern city where I live now – it somehow seems both more remote and removed, and yet also all the more personal.
It’s a sound basic strategy, but it doesn’t always stop the questions. Or the cringing.
What’s your response when people ask for your “Jewish opinion” on bad news on fellow Jews?
Continuing with excellent posts from our excellent summer interns, history intern Caroline Kahlenberg considers the southernness of Alexandria, Virginia.
Two weeks ago, during our History Department research trip to northern Virginia, the same question continued to crop up: Is Virginia—and the northern border of the state, specifically—still considered the South? When we posed the question in our interviews with rabbis and long-time Jewish community members, the response was never simple. On some occasions, in fact, the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” took on a literal meaning.
Indeed, it’s a hard question. Defining the American South—and who is considered a southerner—has long been a topic of debate among journalists, historians, and social critics alike. It seems that everyone has their own criteria: some use the SEC football league as a guiding principle, while others prefer to base it on the sweetness of their tea.
Being neither a football fan nor a tea drinker, I turned to Virginia’s history to explore this question further. While discussions of southern identity surfaced in every congregation we visited, the city of Alexandria poses an especially interesting case.
Alexandria—today just 6 miles south of Washington, DC—was actually founded as part of the nation’s capital in 1791 and remained part of the city until 1846. During that era, Alexandria’s economy was deeply involved in tobacco production and in the slave trade. Alexandria was also the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, when the Civil War broke out, most Alexandrians—including the city’s Jewish citizens—were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Certainly, then, 19th century Alexandria aligned economically and politically with the Old South, and it remained culturally removed from Washington DC well into the 20th century. But in the decades after World War II, as the greater D.C. metropolitan area grew to once again encompass the city, Alexandria lost much of its distinct southernness .
Suburbanization largely explains this shift. In the 1950s, many federal employees moved out of DC and into the newly developed northern Virginia neighborhoods surrounding Alexandria, greatly altering the “Southern” character of the region. Alexandria, too, became one of the many “bedroom communities” catering to Washington. The shift also altered Virginia’s political landscape by bringing more liberal voters into a traditionally conservative state, which eventually transformed it into the swing state that it remains today.
As new arrivals transformed Alexandria into a suburb of Washington D.C., the Brown v. Board decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 brought new energy to the struggle for African American civil rights. Led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., most areas of the Commonwealth of Virginia engaged “massive resistance” to school integration. While Alexandria was slow to enforce the federal verdict—integrating in the mid 1960s—the city did come to terms with integration sooner than other parts of Virginia. Prince Edward County, for example, shut down its schools for five years in defiance of integration. While the history of Alexandria’s integration is neither a perfect nor complete measure of the city’s regional identity, it provides some insight into its demographic and cultural transformation.
Hailing from a suburb of Washington, DC myself (though on the Maryland side) I can certainly relate to this complicated geographic identity. Personally, I don’t call myself a southerner. And according to the native Mississippians that I’ve met during my time here in Jackson, I’m most definitely a Yankee. But in Vermont, where I attend college, friends and teachers quite often consider Maryland the South, or at least close enough to it; to them, I’m not a true Yankee. The South is relative.
So, is today’s northern Virginia still the South? Looking at its recent history, I’d say “not exactly,” but it certainly retains some Southern elements. In addition to the historic Old Town, the people we talked to in Alexandria, for instance, were extremely hospitable, something I’ve come to greatly appreciate in Mississippi. I can’t exactly say the same about northern Virginia’s heavy traffic, which had a certain “DC” feel. Ultimately, though its location on a map has remained the same, the area’s cultural, demographics and politics have become less aligned with today’s Deep South, and more so with the country’s Mid-Atlantic region. Overall, it’s a tricky question. Next time, maybe I’ll just try the tea.