What’s In A (Jewish) Name?

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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.”