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.
Of course, historically many Jews shortened or changed their names to avoid anti-Semitism, and some still do. And then there are those hoping for another way “out,” including a Manhattan nutritionist who deals almost daily with the knee-jerk response to her name. “I was at a swimming class the other day and they’re reading my name off a list, and that’s when it usually happens. They say, ‘Got any complaints?’” sighs Shari, whose last name, as perhaps you have guessed, is Portnoy. Over the years she has learned to parry the joke with one of her own: “I’m trying to get rid of the name. Can you help me?”
Roberta Monkash, a Monroe, N.Y., performer, is happy that her name is not outrageously identifiable. “It has kind of an exotic sound to it. My late husband was ‘Goldberg,’ and that does not sound exotic.” She kept her maiden name for another reason, too. As the child of a survivor, she felt a little safer with a less obvious name. Her mother “was almost paranoid about doing things that looked Jewish,” Monkash said. After all, the mom survived the war by pretending to be a Christian.
But then there are those who wouldn’t give up the identifying moniker for anything. “I enjoy having a Jewish last name because it much better identifies me as a Jew than does my first name,” said Van Wallach, a proposal writer at an accounting firm. His dad was crazy about racecars, so he was named for a British car from the 1950s, the Vanwall. (His brother Cooper was also named for a car.) “If I was a girl,” Wallach added, “I would have been Jaguar.”
In his teens, the Texas-raised Wallach became more and more interested in Judaism, and by the time he had a son of his own, 18 years ago, he gave him the name Samuel Selig Wallach to make sure anyone and everyone would know the child’s ethnicity.
I’d say he succeeded.
And then there are those for whom the Jewish name is just icing on the babka. “Whatever their preconception is — particularly of New York Jews — I’m swimming upstream already,” said Ron Goldberg, inventor of a new kind of cane, the Isowalk. “Outsiders take one look at my face, and they assume Goldberg.”
“I think that my face tells people I’m Jewish,” said Sharon Silber, a therapist in Manhattan. She’s happy with the name/face combo. Her uncle, on the other hand, was Haimvelvel Bonda, and he lived in Uruguay. “But when he came to America on business, he used the name ‘James Bond,’ and secretaries would get real excited and it was just a little old Jewish man in the auto parts business.”
The nice thing about Jewish names is that they can say a whole lot about who you are, or nothing. And if you don’t like what they’re saying, well, you wouldn’t be the first to change the conversation.