Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Should You Make Up a "Jew-y" Name for Yourself?

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."


  1. I had a very Irish-sounding name prior to my conversion. It didn't bother me very much that my name didn't sound very Jewish because I belonged to a small shul and most people already knew that I had converted.
    When my husband and I married, I got a more likely Jewish name. Around the same time, our shul closed and we joined a much, much larger shul (almost ten times larger, where we knew almost no one).
    Since I don't want to tell EVERYONE new that I meet that I converted, it is easier now that I have a more Jewish (or less Irish-sounding) last name.
    I'm not sure that I would have made up a Jewish-sounding last name at conversion, since my now-husband and I were dating when I converted and we knew we were going to get married one day. However, I do know that, as a woman, it is easier because you are more likely to take on a more Jewish-sounding name than as a man, who will keep his last name.
    I agree that there is something going on that is wrong, but I think that it is rooted in something right. It didn't start out that we wanted to exclude people, it started out that we wanted to be able to identify with one another, to know one another because there are so few of us.

  2. I'm a patrilineal with a Jewish last name, married to a born Jew with a last name common among both Jews and non-Jews. Being instantly recognizable as Jewish was just one more reason to avoid changing my name on marriage. I probably wouldn't have changed anyway, but if my last name was something overtly non-Jewish and my husband's name was really Jewish, I might've at least seriously considered it.

  3. I have a very ethnic (and not Jewish) last name. It sometimes presents questions in Jewish circles, but it's easy to explain away as "yes, it's from my father's side" and just drop the subject if I'm not wanting the conversion conversation. I don't look that ethnicity at all, so it's very plausible that I have a Jewish mother (I have German ancestry, it's just not Jewish German.

    I have no plans to start being called by my Hebrew name or changing my last name until I get married.

  4. I used to be self conscious about my first AND last name because the first is a single letter switch away from Christian, and the last was madeup by my grandparents when they emigrated from Spain to fit in. I've come to embrace both because both my Hebrew and secular names are those of Queens (can't go wrong with that!), and my last name reflects my ancestor's decision to change a part of who they were just to fit into their new home. I recently went through a trunk of family stuff, and I found a lot of "hiding" who they were for safety concerns. For example a Siddur covered in a cloth with a cross in it, to hide it.

    Changing my family's last name again to fit back into American Jewish life (and for it to change yet again upon marriage anyway) seems silly because there is a rich history to why I have the surname I do. In short, I do not want to forget my grandparent's choices and the circumstances that led them to make them.

  5. I never really intended to use my Hebrew name after conversion, but when I came to Israel, someone in the Hebrew U registration bureaucracy found my English name confusing, and asked, "Don't you have a Hebrew name?", so, like so many immigrants to so many places, I went along.

    My family name was somewhat easier to spell and was more ambiguous in origin, but I was relieved of that by marrying a boy with an unambiguously Jewish name.

    Had I remained in America, I doubt I would have bothered changing my name legally. In Israel, changing your name is one of the few bureacratic procedures you can do *easily*.


  6. My husband's last name is a VERY common Jewish last name. Ironically, his family isn't and his mother did not want to name him "David" because it sounded "too Jewish" in combination with the last name.

    Well... Joke's on her. Both him and I converted. :-P What is hilarious though, is that people frequently assume that its ME that's the convert, not him and that he grew up Jewish.

  7. >No one should think that people named Flannery O'Connor, Nelson >Mandela, or Pablo Neruda cannot be Jews

    They can be Jewish...if they are half-Jewish on their mother's side, or by conversion. (Ok, for Flannery it could be her husband's last name :)) This is precisely what people who choose to change their last name try to accomplish - they dont want to stand out as much as converts or want to avoid additional questions. Some are open about being converts, some are not. Nothing wrong with either approach.

    If one has a Jewish last name, they may or may not be Jewish,

  8. historically, most of the last-name-changing happened in the reverse. my maiden name is not particularly jewish, though my whole family is FFB on both sides. my married name isn't jewish at all because it was changed to avoid discrimination. my MIL is a convert, but her father was jewish, so, ironically, her name is the most jewish-sounding of all. go figure.

    1. Yes, and it makes it so hard to find documentation. We know only up to the 2nd generation on all my parents sides, mostly german jewish immigrants in the late 1800's

  9. As a woman with a very "non-Jew-y" last name ( Nwabuoku), I've not the slightest intention of changing my name at all,not even when I marry. I have had hassle enough with xenophobes who have issue with non Anglo-Saxon sounding names anyway and will not pander to anyone's culture issues regardless. As I often joke, apparently I didn't have enough problems as a Black woman with a "foreign" name, so I needed to go and begin conversion to ensure myself constant headaches.

  10. Within the state I live, it is very easy for one to change their surname...just go to the probate judge office, fill out a form of current name, what you want it to be, explain why, have it notarized, pay the assistant to the probate judge the $65 and wait 2 weeks for the name change decree to arrive in your mailbox. I legally had my surname changed after my conversion as an outward statement that what I was before the day of my conversion died at my ceremony. BTW...I love reading your blog and find it to be very informative!

  11. I have been considering changing my last name, fyi it's Kizer, I have jewish ancestry on both parents lines, but more so on my mothers side. I was recently searching if there is a Hebrew equivalent to my surname, not Melech of course which would be King,...but something with similar letters. I've always wondered if my fathers ancestors changed our family name to Kizer from something more European sounding/spelling/etc. I found out that the letters to spell our name in Hebrew would be the same for Kosher, Kasher...Kaph Shin Resh. Is this a common, ot suitable Jewish Surname? Assuming I always seek to live as Kosher a life as possible? I would use it as a safeguard, as a constant reminder to live as fit in G-ds eyes as possible.