June 27, 2002
The Name Game
When we were little, my brother and I realized that whenever we asked if someone was Jewish, my mother would answer by simply repeating their name, as if that said it all.
"Irving Fishbaum? Ira and Esther Lefkowitz? C'mon."
We decided to see if we could induce this behavior and selected the perfect test case. When she came home one day, we ambushed.
"Mom, are Simon and Garfunkel Jewish"?
She looked at us, lowering her head and raising her eyebrows. "Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? C'mon."
That was before we understood that names could be obviously Jewish, that any name containing "gold," "silver," "green," "fish," "blatt," "baum," "stein," "feld" or "witz" was usually a dead giveaway. That was before we knew that Shapiro was Shapiro and Kaplan was Kaplan. Kaplan? C'mon. This is still a family joke and if she's distracted, you can sometimes get her to do it to this day.
"Mom, is Itzhak Pearlman Jewish?"
"Itzhak Pearlm -- oh, stop it."
If Jewish names are on a scale of one to Hadassah Lieberman, mine may be a one.
It's possible I'm the Jew with the least Jewish name ever. Teresa is misleading enough -- the name of more than one Catholic saint. Strasser just takes it on home. You may remember Major Heinrich Strasser, a Gestapo officer in the film, "Casablanca." Yes, the only Strasser anyone's ever heard of is one of film's most famous Nazis.
I may as well be named Noelle or Brandy. In fact, I once had a Hebrew-school teacher that was so vexed by my name she just took to calling me Rachel. I stopped correcting the poor woman and simply answered to the name Rachel for the next three years.
When I was 20, an editor at a Jewish newspaper walked up to my desk on my first day of work, didn't introduce himself, didn't shake my hand, just looked at me and asked, "What's a Jew doing with a name like Teresa?" I told him he could call me Rachel if it would make him feel better.
My parents insist they did me no wrong by not calling me Jodie or Debbie or Stacy. Teresa is a good Hungarian name they say, my great-grandmother's name, although she was called Tess.
Until recently, I've always appreciated having an ambiguous name. It's nice to reveal your ethnicity only when you feel like it, when it feels safe, when it's your choice. Now, however, I wonder what it would have been like to be called Ruth Oppenheimer or Shoshana Hirshfeld. My life would have been totally different as Mona Moskowitz, who isn't kidding anyone.
Growing up, I never really liked the sound of Jewish surnames, their Germanic bite, all the connotations and stereotypes from which I was happy to distance myself. I planned to do away with my own surname, vague as it may be, and fantasized about becoming Teresa Willis or Teresa McBride. I figured I'd marry a guy with a nice vanilla moniker, and that would be that. I could monogram my way into belonging. I'd have a name people could spell and pronounce.
I tell you, I must be undergoing some major self-acceptance because out of nowhere, Jewish names are starting to sound downright ... sexy.
As an adult, I've always planned to keep my last name if I got married, but I still play the dating name game, taking surnames out for a spin. Teresa Cohen? Teresa Goldstein? I still enjoy the sheer, unabashed WASPiness of Teresa Tyler or the incredible misdirect of Teresa Puccinelli, but I no longer cringe from Teresa Saperstein.
I once dated three guys named Todd in one year. Today, I say bring on Daniel, Abe, Gabe and Isaac. A David is just plain hot, a Joshua even hotter. And as I write this, with only the rarest exception (Lipschitz isn't easy for anyone, is it?), a last name cannot be too Jewish. The more Jewish, the more texture, the more history, the more character.
Think about it, if America's most famous "alleged" shoplifter were still Winona Horowitz, would she be any less gorgeous? What if Sarah Michelle Gellar, another ambiguously named Jew, had a different name? What if America's sweetheart was Sarah Michelle Greenbaum? I think I like it.
As a Jew, your name identifies you. I never wanted to run from that, but I welcomed the option to "pass." Now I wonder what it would be like to remove all doubt. "I'm Teresa Blumenfeld, nice to meet you. Yeah, Blumenfeld."
When my stepdad was rushed to the hospital one New Year's Eve, the ER doctor introduced herself as Dr. Wallerstein. When she left the room, my mother and I looked at each other, comforted for no good reason really, and whispered in unison, "Dr. Wallerstein? C'mon."