I’m not interested in fussing at Jews for being baffled by “Christian” names like Christopher and Mary or, Muslim names like Ali and Fatima and all the other names that are associated with non-Jewish culture. I do want to deal with the self consciousness that some converts feel about their given name.
I’ve been told about the embarrassment of being called out for being a Khristin or a McDonald. First or last names can be questioned in a Jewish environment.
First, why is this so common? Jews have been restricted by non-Jewish societies from mixing with the larger population for thousands of years. Jewish communities were constantly in danger of being assaulted. Living with that kind of fear has led to Jews developing alertness to potential danger from ‘the other’. Thus any indicator – including a name – could warn Jews to be on the defensive. At times this led to Jews from different communities to even suspect each other.
When someone named John Christianson sits in a synagogue, Jews around him may wonder whether he could be checking them out for an attack. As recently as January 15, 2022 a strange man entered the synagogue at Colleyville, TX and held congregants hostage. My point here is, cut congregants some slack; they are coming from a place of anxiety. Unfortunately things are not getting any better so building fear is going to fuel the suspicions. Note this article about the current state of antisemitism in the USA.
It isn’t just converts to Judaism that are questioned. My friend, Dan McClosky discussed his last name and its role in his life at his adult bar mitzvah. If you are on Facebook you can hear his comments here,
Jump to 1:35 for Dan’s speech.
My point? Don’t think you are alone. This is a COMMON unpleasant occurrence in Jewish life.
A couple Jewish Chrises
I recently read an article by a Jew by choice discussing his name, Chris, here.
Not being much of an ESPN watcher I didn’t know who Chris Berman was until he was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
What can you do about having a non-Jewish name?
Let’s face it, you can change it! If you’d prefer to use your Hebrew name, a name you got to pick for yourself, you can. I’ve even accompanied a friend to his court hearing where he legally changed his name.
I have another friend whose name was Egyptian. He chose to simply switch to going by his Hebrew name. He certainly “looked” Semitic, since he is, and decided to blend in.
However, you may love your given name. It may have been chosen by someone you love. Or you may be named after a relative to whom you are close. In this case you need to decide how you want to respond to that probing question, “How can you be Jewish with that name?”
I suggest you decide beforehand how you want to handle these inappropriate questions. Don’t be caught by surprise.
You can be quite direct, “Wow, you don’t even know me and you’re working to offend me!”
You can turn the tables, “Where did you get YOUR name?”
You can sidestep, “What makes you ask that? Are you concerned about my identity?”
You can just roll your eyes and walk away.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation.
On the other hand, some people do love to tell their conversion story. They want to enlighten the asker and broaden the person’s understanding of who is a Jew. If you are one of these people, enjoy! But please add that not everyone is as happy to answer as you are and that politeness requires that the questioner refrain from asking this of others.
Now, tell me where YOU stand?
Do you like to tell your story?
Do you feel affronted by these types of questions?
How have you handled different sorts of questioners?