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Why does Herschel Walker have a Jewish first name?

The word ‘hirsh’ is Yiddish for deer. But let’s not jump to conclusions

When Georgia’s Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker played for Donald Trump’s ill-fated football team, the New Jersey Generals, he lived in Verona, New Jersey. In his autobiography “Breaking Free,” Walker says the luxury condo where he lived was in a “predominantly Jewish” area, and one day a neighbor asked him his name.

“Herschel’s a lovely name,” the neighbor told him. “My father was named Herschel. You must be Jewish.” 

No, Walker responded, he wasn’t Jewish.

So how did he get that name? 

Walker’s full name is Herschel Junior Walker, and elsewhere in the book, he says he was named for his paternal grandfather, born in 1910. “Herschel” peaked in popularity as a baby name between 1900 and 1912. 

Johnson County, Georgia, where both Herschel Walkers were born and raised, was named for a 19th-century politician, Herschel Vespasian Johnson. Johnson served as Georgia’s governor and a U.S. senator before the Civil War. He was also the vice presidential running mate for Stephen Douglas, who lost the 1860 election to Abraham Lincoln. 

Now, a Black family a couple of generations after slavery ended probably wasn’t naming children after a slave-owning Confederate politician. But “Herschel” was not an unusual name in that time and place. In fact, online searches turn up numerous Herschel Walkers in 19th- and early 20th-century Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere.

So why does Herschel sound Jewish? Well, “hirsh” is Yiddish for deer (“hirsch” in German) and it’s a common Jewish and German last name. The first name “Hirschel” (spelled in various ways) was popular in Jewish families before World War II. Famous bearers of the name include Herschel Bernardi, who got his start in Yiddish theater and played Tevye in the 1981 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Other contemporary associations include the beloved children’s book “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” inspired by stories of Hershel of Ostropol, and “Walking Dead” character Hershel Greene, a Christian Georgia farmer

But if you’d always assumed that the Herschel Backpack brand was named for an itinerant Jewish peddler, we’re sorry to burst your bubble. It was named for the tiny Saskatchewan village where the founders’ Scottish great-grandparents lived

But wait. There’s a Jewish connection there after all. That village was named for British astronomer Sir John Fredrick William Herschel, whose father, Sir William Herschel, discovered the planet Uranus. And according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Sir William’s grandfather Abraham was of Jewish descent. 

As for Herschel Walker’s son Christian, well, there’s a long Jewish history behind that name too.

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