Disclaimer: All names in this post are completely made up (and often from random name generators). If I happened to accidentally choose your name, I apologize. Well, except for the famous names. I just felt like using those.
It's very common for converts to take on a Hebrew name as their "everyday" name, even if only in some parts of their lives. I appear to be in a very small minority: At present, I don't intend to use my Hebrew name for anything more than its legal uses.
But I'm not talking about Hebrew names, really. It's very common throughout the world for people to take on a different first name than the one on the birth certificate, even if it's just a nickname for the legal name. (For example, William can be called Bill and no one would think anything of it.) People also use their middle names, nicknames that aren't related to their legal names, and sometimes a random name they've chosen. It's usually pretty easy to change your first or middle name legally. At marriage, it can be particularly easy to add the Hebrew name (or another one) to a legal name.
Last names are harder. And that's where our discussion begins today. Over the last few weeks, I've had a few discussions about converts who choose a "Jew-y" last name, usually in an attempt to "fit in" better. Or at least not stand out so much. (Of course, this is always paired with a "Jew-y" first name, which is probably the Hebrew name.) I can understand that, even if I don't agree with it. There is no way I can know all the facts and experiences that went into someone choosing to change his last name to something "more Jewish." But I was most surprised by a born-Jew who said that a woman with a very "non-Jewish" last name should consider changing it since she's divorced and dating. The woman is not a convert, a male ancestor of her former husband had converted. Thus, she currently has an "obviously non-Jewish" last name, despite having no connections to conversion. What's so wrong with that?
I'm not talking about Smith or Johnson, not even Lopez. I'm talking Nguyen, O'Flannagan, or Nzeogwu. I can understand the emotions that cause converts to make that kind of change, but I don't understand why it would occur to a born-Jew as an option. First, why would this even occur to them as an option? It certainly hadn't occurred to me, and I deal with all kinds of Jews with "non-Jewish" names! But secondly, and more disturbingly, born-Jews should know better than non-Jews and former non-Jews about the variety of "Jewish" names. It can be easy to say, "Feldsteinkohn, he must be Jewish!" but it's much harder to say, "Oh, McSmithson...not Jewish." The odds are higher in both cases, but it's not a given. The Jewish people has mixed and melted with "native populations" throughout history and increasingly so today. America is terribly Ashkenazi-centric, but I had no idea it had reached the level that people believe they have to change their names in order to get married or fit in.
I suppose the "distinction" could be that it's "okay" to have a "non-Jewish" name if you converted, but if you didn't convert, you shouldn't be made to suffer the stereotypes against converts. I admit, being a convert can be both a blessing and a curse when dealing with people who think that being a convert defines you. And those people are the first ones to say, "This name is Jewish. That one isn't."
I imagine these issues can often be a consideration for divorced convert women who choose to keep their ex-husband's "Jewish" last name after divorce. Of course, there are other considerations in that case, especially it being a pain to switch your legal name back to your maiden name and get all your legal documents re-issued (driver's license, passport, Social Security card, etc). And why do all that when you might marry again??
I guess this is all another "shidduch crisis" issue that I'll never understand.
(For the record, I think people choosing a "Jew-y" last name is incredibly uncommon. Super unlikely you will ever know anyone in this situation.)
But let's talk about this. Is it ok to give yourself a "Jewish" last name? Does it make a difference to you (yes, you!) whether the name change has been made the legal name or if it's just the name the person uses in Jewish circles? Does it matter if the person still uses the "non-Jewish" legal name for some purposes, like work? Does it matter if the new last name happens to be a family name? Do you think other converts will feel differently about this decision than born Jews? Would you assume certain things about a person who does this?
I don't have answers to these questions. But I think that American society generally distrusts people who change their last name for things other than adoption (or an absentee/bad parent) and marriage. I think the perception is that the person is running away from something or is an ex-con. It's very hard to change a last name legally (generally, you have to prove you're not trying to hide from creditors or hide a criminal past, among other things). So I admit it bothers me less if the name has become the legal name. But I don't know how many "normal" people know this distinction.
If this is a route you decide to take, know that one "slip up" can seriously harm your reputation. One dropped driver's license (or "Oooo...let me see your driver's license picture!") can reveal your legal name. Not to mention your past crossing paths with your present (hello, Facebook!). Rightfully so or not, people may suddenly question everything else you've ever told them. They may feel deceived. But should their hurt feelings matter or does it matter more that those same people may have created the social conditions that made the person choose a new name?
Important Sidenote: If you're pre-conversion and choose to adopt a "Jew-y" name, remember that there are certain halachic situations where you need to make sure people aren't assuming you're halachically Jewish based on that name. (Even though they would be idiots to rely on only a name.) Whether you choose to reveal your legal name or not, you still need to reveal your halachic status when required. Worse case scenario in that case, they'll assume only your father is Jewish.
Changing my last name never even occurred to me, probably because all this is far too complicated for me to keep all those facts straight.
The Take Away: At the end of the day, why do our communities make people feel that this is necessary?? We are doing something terribly wrong, and it needs to change. No one should think that people named Flannery O'Connor, Nelson Mandela, or Pablo Neruda cannot be Jews. If for no other reason, these "Jewish" last names have no bearing on whether someone is Jewish when the halachic standard is whether the mother is Jewish. Taking a quote from the movie Wet Hot American Summer, all of the following names could be people who are not halachically Jewish: "Amanda Klein, Jessica Azaria, Ira Stevenberg, Sol Zimmerstein, uh, David... Ben Gurion."