What Kind of Jewish Name is O'Donnell?


Published May 14, 2014.
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The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: seesaw@forward.com

Should I take his Irish last name?

I’m a 30-year-old Jewish woman engaged to an Irish man with a very non-Jewish sounding last name. I have always wanted to take my husband’s last name, but his very goyishe sounding one is making me reconsider. As for our religious plans post-wedding, I am a barely observant Reform Jew and he is totally on-board on observing holidays in the same minimal way I do. So really, this isn’t a religious thing at all, but more a cultural one. —McSomebody

McGinity is a Jewish name now

KEREN R. MCGINITY: I understand your hesitation. Although plenty of Jews have “goyishe sounding” names due to intermarriage or because their ancestors wanted to improve their socioeconomic prospects, many people assume someone isn’t Jewish if his or her last name appears ethnically “other.” What do you want your name to say about you, your identity politics, and your new family? Do you envision children in your plans?

When I wear a nametag at a Jewish event and someone inevitably says to me, “McGinity? That’s not a Jewish name,” I tell them: “It is now.” My maiden name was Rockland, a bland American fabrication by my Jewish grandparents in 1946 to enable my uncle to get into medical school. I made a premarital deal with my former spouse: I would take his authentically ethnic last name and we would raise any children as Jews.

Know that how you feel about observance may evolve over time. According to my research and personal experience, people who intermarry often have a Jewish reawakening after they become parents. When I walked down the aisle more than two decades ago, I could not have predicted that a child of mine would attend a Jewish day school. My daughter was the only one with an Irish name on her preschool cubby; today, Shira is developing a strong Jewish identity. If you take your husband’s name and have a child, give that child a distinctively Jewish first name to counterbalance the Irish last.

Finally, you have more choices than bearing the burden of an Irish last name or simply keeping your maiden name. Perhaps you can agree on an alternative by hyphenating or devising a new name altogether.

Dr. Keren R. McGinity is an author-educator affiliated with Brandeis University. Her books include “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America” and “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood.” Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com/.

Surnames are no longer the Jewish identifier they used to be

JANE LARKIN: It used to be easy to identify our Jewish classmates, neighbors, co-workers, and public figures by the sound and spelling of their family name, but now more than ever before, Jews come with traditionally non-Jewish last names, reflecting the diversity that is Jewish life in America today, and will be tomorrow. The last name of the president of my synagogue is McCartney, and as he pointed out in his installation address, he is listed in the temple directory after McCain, McCallister, and McCann, and followed by McCoppin, McCraw, McCurry, and McIntosh to name just a few.

More than ever, names can give a false impression of lineage. Professional athletes such as David Eckstein, Trevor Rosenthal, and Ryan Zimmerman sound Jewish, but aren’t, while Jose J. Bautista, Brian de la Puente, Taylor Mays, and Antonio Garay are members of the tribe.

Surnames are no longer the Jewish cultural identifier that they used to be. When we were packing our apartment to move from Connecticut to Ohio, my husband overheard a conversation between our two movers. One of them noticed the mezuzah on our front door and asked the other, “Is Larkin Jewish?” His partner responded, “It can be. It depends if it’s spelled the Jewish way.”

As far as we know, there is no Jewish spelling of the Irish name Larkin. Larkin descendants were stalwarts of the Christian church in certain areas of Ireland. But through our son, Larkin will join the increasingly diverse list of Jewish surnames in America.

My advice is to take your husband’s name–your new goyish sounding moniker will have plenty of company, especially in Reform Jewish circles–and highlight your Jewish heritage in another way. Today, a better indication of our Jewishness is the values we live by, the language we use, and the symbols we display.

Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.

This isn’t a cultural issue, so much as an aesthetic one

LAUREL SNYDER: Here’s a question: what would you do if you’d fallen in love with a man named Joe Picklefarter? Or what if your firstname was going to rhyme with your new last name? (for instance Ruth Booth)? Would you change your name in those cases?

My instinct is to say that this isn’t a cultural issue, so much as an aesthetic one. In fact, plenty of “Jewish” names are actually just German names, or Polish names. My own name, Snyder, only feels Jewish because we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of it that way. There’s no real cultural significance to my name.

Maybe you need to ask yourself why you’ve always wanted to take your husband’s name.

Is it because you want the family to have a single name, for a sense of unity? If so, maybe he should take your name, or you guys should consider blending your names, as more and more couples are doing today. Pick something you both like!

Or is it because you feel like you’re a fairly traditional person, and the idea of keeping your own name is just uncomfortable for you? If this is the case, you may just have to bite the goyishe bullet.

Marriage is about compromise, and learning to reconcile your expectations with your reality is a requirement. Perhaps this is an important first step.

Laurel Snyder is the author of books like “Bigger than a Bread Box” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher.” Find her online at laurelsnyder.com or on Twitter @laurelsnyder.


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