Monday, July 6, 2015

How do You Identify Someone Who's Jewish?


I recently read about Narrative 4, an initiative that facilitates story exchanges between groups from all over the world. The idea is for people from different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, or other identities to build understanding through storytelling, to make people walk in each other’s shoes. 

People from two different groups pair off, one from each, and share stories that in some way define them. When the pairs gather together hours later, each is responsible for telling their partner's story, taking on the person's persona, and speaking in the first person.

I read how two high schools, a tony private and a poor public school, used Narrative 4 to shatter their student’s stereotypes of each other. Accompanying the essay, were photos of selected partners with quotes from the featured students. I glanced at the pictures and read the quotes. One caught my attention.

“[Y]ou realize, Oh, my God, there are people who don’t have anything like what I have. And you realize you’ve been given an unfair advantage. It’s my responsibility to use that advantage for social justice and to make the world a better place.

Immediately, I thought, “This kid is Jewish. He’s talking about Tikkun Olam."

The concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is talked about a lot in Judaism. You’ll hear both secular and religious Jews talk about the obligation to “make the world a better place.” And the idea is repeated in Jewish texts, liturgy, and music because it is central to Jewish belief. As Joseph Telushkin writes in Jewish Literacy, “Judaism believes that the goal of the Jewish existence is nothing less than ‘to perfect the world under the rule of God’…ethical monotheism is the goal of Judaism and the purpose of the Jewish mission in the world…”

I quickly glanced at the student’s name to see if it gave me any clue if I was right about his Jewish identity. It wasn’t a last name commonly thought of as Jewish. But I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t Jewish.

It used to be easy to identify who was Jewish by the sound and spelling of a family name, but now more than ever before, Jews come with traditionally non-Jewish last names, reflecting the diversity that is Jewish life in America today, and will be tomorrow. The last name of the former president of my synagogue was McCartney, and as he pointed out in his installation address, he was listed in the temple directory after McCain, McCallister, and McCann, and followed by McCoppin, McCraw, McCurry, and McIntosh to name just a few.

Nowadays, O’Briens are Jewish and Sternbergs are not. Some of the names of the Jewish families in our network include Johnson, O’Connell, O’Donnell, Powers, Shanks, and Ybarra.

More than ever, names can give a false impression of lineage. Professional athletes such as David Eckstein, Trevor Rosenthal, and Ryan Zimmerman sound Jewish, but aren’t, while Jose J. Bautista, Brian de la Puente, Taylor Mays, and Antonio Garay are members of the tribe.

Surnames are no longer the Jewish cultural identifier that they used to be. When we were packing our apartment to move from Connecticut to Ohio, my husband overheard a conversation between our two movers. One of them noticed the mezuzah on our front door and asked the other, “Is Larkin Jewish?” His partner responded, “It can be. It depends if it’s spelled the Jewish way.”  

As far as we know, there is no Jewish spelling of the Irish name Larkin. Larkin descendants were stalwarts of the Christian church in certain areas of Ireland. But through our son, Larkin will join the increasingly diverse list of Jewish surnames in America.

Today, a better indication of our Jewishness is the values we live by, the language we use, and the symbols we display. That's how I knew this young man was Jewish, and that's how others will know that the children of intermarriage who carry non-Jewish sounding names are Jewish too.