When a Name Screams 'I'm Jewish!'

There's a Star of David Hanging Over Every Introduction

What’s In a Name?: Unlike some other Jewish celebrities, Sarah Silverman’s name marks here as a member of the tribe.
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What’s In a Name?: Unlike some other Jewish celebrities, Sarah Silverman’s name marks here as a member of the tribe.

By Lenore Skenazy

Published July 26, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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It’s an issue that Mila Kunis, Jonah Hill and Lena Dunham never had to deal with, but Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Goldblum and Sarah Silverman have: an obviously Jewish last name. A name that tells people who don’t know you from Adam (Sandler) that either you share something deep in common with them or you’re a very different kettle of fish.

A kettle, in fact, of gefilte fish.

Whether those preconceptions are right or wrong, it’s strange that some Jews don’t have to deal with them at all, while others do. For the Goldsteins and Shapiros in life, there’s a Star of David hanging over every introduction. But for me, this was a total nonissue until I was on a speaking tour in Austria and Eastern Europe in June when, suddenly, I understood what it’s like to go around as Fruma Fannie Finkelberg.

While most Americans can’t figure out my name (Hungarian? Italian? Weird?), the two medical students I started chatting with at a food stand in Sofia, Bulgaria, got it instantly when we exchanged cards. “Skenazy,” they read aloud. “Oh — you’re Jewish.”

How the h —??

It happened in Vienna, too, more than a couple of times: Locals recognized the name — and commented: “Skenazy like Ashkenazy. Hmmm.”

“Don’t ‘hmmm’ me!” I wanted to shout. After all, this was a country where almost everyone who was identified with “Ashkenazy” did not benefit from the type of attention it brought. Unable to cruise under the radar, I started wondering how it feels to be exposed like that all the time. So I asked.

“Every now and then I feel a little bit of fear, because I know anti-Semitism still exists,” said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills, Calif., psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Aware Parent” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). “Even the most nonjudgmental people automatically categorize.” And when they categorize under “Jew,” certain stereotypes can come up.

This happened recently with one of Walfish’s patients, whom she really liked: “I happened to hear by accident the husband describe me as ‘greedy,’ or ‘money hungry,’ and I was stunned,” she said. Had her name been Fran Walter — a change that had been suggested more than once, back when she was a singer — it’s unlikely that this exact description would have come up.


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