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What’s in A (Jewish) Name?

The Joneses are Jews and the Cohens aren't? What?

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Issur Danielovitch Demsky better known as Kirk Douglas

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Jewish people have a certain love for knowing they are connected. Who among us hasn’t played Jewish Geography, or the non-controversial version of “Who’s a Jew”?

The game of “Who’s a Jew” is a seemingly harmless game, often played on social media and in casual conversations with friends. Frequently, it transpires when meeting someone new, or learning a new name. This is also played when you see a name of a celebrity or some other public figure, and you declare that they must be Jewish based on their last name. No other clues, just a last name. You don’t factor in their first name; that is irrelevant. So, a person named Aviva Williams may not be Jewish, but Soda Pop Goldstein must certainly be Jewish. See where I am going?

Jewish last names are a relatively new concept. Sephardic Jews adopted surnames around the 10th or 11th century. This was largely a result of interacting with the larger non-Jewish community, and subsequently adopting the practice of conversos.

Ashkenazim did not use surnames until much later, and by the end of the 19th century, it was commonplace. The adoption of the surnames for Jews in Europe was not a result of mingling with the local community, but as a result of government policies which mandated surnames for Jews.

We all know stories, or have family stories, of ancestors moving to North America, and changing their last names to non-Jewish names. We can name celebrities who changed their names to become marketable.

Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall. Issur Danielovitch became Demsky and then Douglas – Kirk Douglas.

This seems rather innocuous. We have a strong history regarding last names, as well as a profound connection to our last names. So why does it matter in the context of “a minority within a minority”?

It matters because it should not be used as a marker for who is Jewish.

In the day to day life of a Jew of colour, who may not have a “Jewish” last name, it is not unusual to hear comments about not having a Jewish last name, which leads to speculation about whether or not the person is Jewish.

Or to the misconception that most Jews of Colour (JOC) are probably converts. There is absolutely nothing negative about being a convert. It is more about the assumption that conversion is the sole path for JOCs to Judaism.

On a larger scale, it could potentially lead to JOCs not being formally counted as Jews within the wider Jewish community.

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Recently, there was a survey of Jews in Canada. It is an incredible document which covers multiple aspects of Jewish community life.

However, when you review the study methodology, it is apparent that possibly a significant segment of our community may have been overlooked. The respondents were chosen based on a list of common Jewish surnames. Names such as Campbell, or other ‘non-Jewish’ names would not appear on that list.

We will miss some non-Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, converts, Jews who only have a Jewish mother, or interfaith households, where the non-Jewish partner’s last name is the listed name.

Not only are we missing an opportunity to categorize the diversity of our community, we are also missing their crucial voices.

So, the next time you play “Who’s a Jew”, look beyond the last name. A Jew by any other (last) name is a Jew.

Rivka Campbell, a Jew of Jamaican descent born and raised in Toronto, seeks to build community among Jews of Colour in Canada, while opening dialogue among the mainstream Jewish community about the experience of Jews of Colour. She is the co-founder of the group Jews of Colour – Canada, and the sole Canadian recipient of the URJ’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. Rivka is a recognized speaker on Jewish diversity, and is filming a documentary on Jewish diversity. 

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Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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