Recently, a link has been going around the Interwebs that has been infuriating me. This link, likely based on this Slate article, purports to provide the basis for Jewish names. It provides a map and detailed explanations for many Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish names. The information on the name origins in the article is essentially correct, so why am I mad enough to write a post over lunch ranting about it? Here’s why.
There is no such thing as a Jewish Name.
Perhaps I should explain. There are people who are Jewish. They have names. But the name in isolation from the person is not Jewish. People with Eastern European names (such as those in the article) may or may not be Jewish — to view them as Jewish on the basis of their name alone is stereotyping. Further, there are people with names not covered in the article that are Jewish. People convert to Judiasm. People convert out of Judiasm. People change their names. People get married. It is wrong to assume that everyone named Cohen or Levy or Goldberg is Jewish. It is wrong to assume that someone with the last name of Davis or Smith or Jones isn’t. It is also wrong to assume that the person of color sitting next to you isn’t Jewish — two years ago the Southern California Regional Man of the Year (from the Men of Reform Judaism) was a Chinese fellow that had converted to Judaism and was very active in the community.
There are black Jews, there are Asian Jews, there are African Jews, there are Hispanic Jews, and there are Jews from almost every country and ethnicity in the world. This is because Judaism is, at its heart, a religion. It is a belief system that people can adopt; when they do, they are just as Jewish as someone from birth. People can also choose to leave Judaism and move to other belief systems. The point of this is: You can’t determine someone is Jewish by name alone; to do so is succumbing to a stereotype.
If you circulate the article, don’t refer to “Jewish names”. The article discusses names common to Jewish people of Eastern European origin.