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What Kind of Jewish Name is O'Donnell?

May 20, 2014

This article was reprinted with permission from The Forward

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: seesaw@forward.com. This edition of The Seesaw features InterfaithFamily Parenting Blogger Jane Larkin.

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Should I take his Irish last name?

I’m a 30-year-old Jewish woman engaged to an Irish man with a very non-Jewish sounding last name. I have always wanted to take my husband’s last name, but his very goyishe sounding one is making me reconsider. As for our religious plans post-wedding, I am a barely observant Reform Jew and he is totally on-board on observing holidays in the same minimal way I do. So really, this isn’t a religious thing at all, but more a cultural one. —McSomebody

Surnames are no longer the Jewish identifier they used to be


Jane LarkinJANE LARKIN: It used to be easy to identify our Jewish classmates, neighbors, co-workers, and public figures by the sound and spelling of their 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 president of my synagogue is McCartney, and as he pointed out in his installation address, he is listed in the temple directory after McCain, McCallister, and McCann, and followed by McCoppin, McCraw, McCurry, and McIntosh to name just a few.

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.

My advice is to take your husband’s name–your new goyish sounding moniker will have plenty of company, especially in Reform Jewish circles–and highlight your Jewish heritage in another way. Today, a better indication of our Jewishness is the values we live by, the language we use, and the symbols we display.

Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
The Jewish Daily Forward

The Jewish Daily Forward is a legendary name in American journalism and a revered institution in American Jewish life. Launched as a Yiddish-language daily newspaper on April 22, 1897, the Forward entered the din of New York's immigrant press as a defender of trade unionism and moderate, democratic socialism.

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