Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question, while not about theology or conflict in the Middle East, is deceptively important—for it’s about every Jew’s, indeed every adult human’s, favorite topic of conversation: baby naming. “We’ve all heard stories of American Jews anglicizing their names,” writes the pseudonymous and shy “Jew with a Waspy Name.” But “now that the U.S. has more or less accepted us and Jewish identity is weakening for many, is it time to de-assimilate? Should those of us with goyish-sounding names re-adopt our original family names?”
Should the Optons return to being Oppenheimers (to take one real-life example)? Should the Greens take back Great-Grandpa’s original name, Grunfeld? Along those lines, when naming our children, “should we go with Old World Yiddishy names like Gitl and Yankl? Or stylish new Israeli names like Gal and Yoav?” (Or, you know, like “Liel”?)
To begin, let’s look at precedent. Those of a certain age will remember the great 1970s and ’80s bathroom reading The Book of Lists, compiled by Irving Wallace, Amy Wallace, and David Wallechinsky. And we always wondered, what’s with the Jewish guy? In fact, of course, David had reclaimed the family’s original Jewish name, which his dad had been born with and which his sister had left intact. A more straightforward solution than the one adopted by feminist Jewish writer Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, who resorted to the virgule to reclaim her family’s discarded nomenclatural heritage. A bit clunky, but it gets the point across.
So the first rule of name reclamation is that there are no rules. Michael Douglas can become Michael Douglas/Danielovitch. When writing of Michael Landon, we could go back before the little house, all the way to the littler house in which he was born as Eugene Orowitz.
But before you personally go on that archaeological dig, there are a few considerations.
First, if your family has had a certain last name for three or four generations, since Ellis Island, that is heritage, too. Discarding Grandpa’s name to honor Great-Grandpa could be seen as thumbing your nose at Grandpa. Second, some names that our ancestors adopted to seem less Jewish were so widely adopted by Jews that they became kind of Jewish—last names like Garfield or Miller, for example, or first names like Sidney and Milton, taken from English poets and given to aspiring tailors and orthodontists. So who’s to say what will or won’t sound Jewish a couple generations from now? There are already a lot of Jews with the last name Tan or Wu.
Finally, keep in mind that last names were gentile impositions in the first place. Go back a thousand years, and we had names like “Moshe, Son of David” or “Rukhl, the Tall One, Not the Short One” or “Yossi the Pervert.” We took names like Goldfarb and Eisenstein because gentile duchies and principalities made everyone, Jew and gentile alike, have two names. So if you really want to be old-school, maybe drop the last name altogether. Nothing says Jewish heritage like “Heather, Who Has Two Mommies,” or “Mark the Mouth-Breather.”
But bearing all that in mind, remember: The name “Noa” for girls is played out.