My Name is Shannon, and I’m a Jew

By Shannon Naomi Zaid

My internship with the Jewish United Federation and InterfaithFamily has put me in religious Jewish settings that I wouldn’t have normally found myself in. During one of these times, working an InterfaithFamily booth at an event, an issue was brought to my attention that I’d never thought existed: prejudice based on names. In this day and age it seems so odd to assume something about a person based solely on their name, especially so in the U.S. where the culture is a founded on many different ethnicities and geographical backgrounds. Yet there I was, trying to defend my Judaism to a couple of older Jewish men who thought I was Catholic based off my name.

The River Shannon

River Shannon

The origin of the name Shannon is Irish. Depending on whom you ask it means: small and wise, or river. My name was given to me by my birth mother, and my parents chose to keep it when they adopted me. In some ways I can understand why these men assumed I was Catholic. The southern nation of Ireland has been and remained Catholic for centuries, and the name “Shannon” derives from Ireland’s longest river, River Shannon. That being said, I was upset that they couldn’t picture a Jew having my name, and it was only after I explained to them my family background, that they acknowledged me as Jewish.

I understand that in Judaism a name carries weight. Historically, there were three groupings of Jews: the Levites, Kohens and Israelites. Descendants of the Levites and Kohens were tasked with special religious duties (e.g. Kohens were priests and Levites served directly under the Kohens), while the Israelites (i.e. everyone else) held the lowest standing. At some synagogues, Kohens and Levites are still treated differently from everyone else. For example, Kohens can be called up to read from the Torah first, followed by Levites. Even outside the biblical context, a family’s name identifies a person. The Jewish community has always been tight knit, and last names now serve as a tool to help place a person in the community.

In the case of first names, I notice the repetition of certain names within the Jewish community. Daniel, Jeremy, Rachel, Joseph, Sarah, Ari, Noah, Adam, Elizabeth, Rebecca, David, Jonathan, Dana, Shana, Michael, Sam. Chances are you’ll come across these names in a Jewish community, but that doesn’t strictly mean all Jews take their names from the same set. There are Jews all over the world in many different countries. You can’t expect that they all share the same few names.

While I am proud to call myself Jewish, I recognize its drawbacks. Judaism is very good at being exclusive, even toward those who identify with it. Call it a design flaw, or a result of social conditioning from centuries of persecution, either way an individual shouldn’t have to be questioned on what faith they are because their name is different.

Growing up in an interfaith family, I always felt as if I was secretly having an identity crisis, never knowing where I really fit it. But I’ve grown into myself, and I know who I am. My name is Shannon. I identify as a secular Jew. I come from an interfaith family. I’m adopted. Part of my family is from Israel, and the other half is from Europe. I know and understand all of this. The problem is everyone who doesn’t understand.

Intercultural Adoption

The Boston Jewish Film Festival is underway, running November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues. We reviewed a couple already, and are pleased to tell you about another one now.

I Love You Mommy is a stirring documentary about one family’s cross-cultural adoption of their daughter, Faith.

With two biological sons and a daughter previously adopted from China, this American Jewish family is looking to adopt a second daughter. They agree with their children to adopt an older girl so that their daughter can have a big sister. The documentary follows the family as they travel to China, meet their new daughter, Faith, and, over 17 months, go through the struggles of becoming a family together.

If you’re like me, you might have some knowledge of adoption, and might have friends who have adopted children before. None of my friends have adopted older children (Faith is 8 or 9 years old when she’s adopted) who are also from other countries. It was stirring to see Faith’s initial reactions to her new mother (she’s scared, she cries) and to her grandfather (she steps away from him when he approaches and hides behind the adoption agency’s interpreter) — the two family members who traveled to China to get Faith. Watching how her parents react to, and include, cultural differences and celebrations is really refreshing to see, as is Faith’s acclimation to her new culture, family and religion.

It’s amazing to watch her transition, see how the family grows with her, meets her challenges, and welcomes her as a new addition to their family and home.

If you’re in the Boston area, I Love You Mommy is playing on Tuesday, November 9 at 7:00pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.

I recommend it!