That's Funny, You Don’t Sound Jewish
What’s in a name? Lots more than you think.
By Mary Beth Crain
Ever since I wrote Confessions of a Madonna/Whore, Yum—Kippers! and Santa Cohen is Comin’ to Town for SoMA, an interesting phenomenon has occurred. Readers are writing in, wondering how I could possibly be Jewish with a name like Mary Beth Crain.
It’s not the first time this has happened to me. A few years back, after co-authoring, with Terry Lynn Taylor, the 365 daily meditation books “Angel Wisdom” and “Angel Journeys,” my editor at HarperSanFrancisco asked if I would like to write another daily meditation book centering around Jewish wisdom and the Torah. I did the book proposal and she loved it and took it to pub board, whereupon marketing vetoed it because “ This book needs a Jewish author and nobody will believe someone with a name like Mary Beth Crain is Jewish.”
My editor was as frustrated as I was by this ignorant attitude, but had to comply with majority rule. “Maybe you could use another name,” she offered. “What was your maiden name?”
“Gersten,” I replied.
“Hmm,” she said. “Mary Beth Gersten…Nope. It’s the Mary Beth that’s the real problem. It’s just so…Catholic.”
Yes, most everybody thinks my real name is Mary Elizabeth. You’re Jewish? Yeah, and the Pope wears a tsitsis.
Well, allow me to enlighten y’all. I was, in the manner of the best Jewish tradition, named after a deceased, beloved relative, in this case my great-grandmother Mary Goldenson, a nice Jewish girl from Sweden. Beth is the Hebrew word for “House of,” as in Temple Beth David, “House of David,” or Temple Beth Israel, “House of Israel.” In this case, you could say my name means “House of Mary,” a compliment to my great-grandmother.
There’s another reason for my name, though: my mother was a big fan of the 1940s actress Mary Beth Hughes. Put the two motives together and you get Mary Beth Gersten, daughter of Hazel and Emil Gersten. My mother’s maiden name was Bretstein, by the way, which certainly sounds Jewish, doesn’t it? My father’s name, Gersten, is of Austro-Hungarian origin; he emigrated to the U.S. from Vienna with the Nazis on his heels in 1938; immediately met my mother at a dinner for Jewish refugees held at her temple in Rochester, New York; served in WWII; and married her upon his return in 1946.
When my twin brother David Paul and I were born in 1951, we received our “American” names, and our Jewish names as well. David’s Jewish name is “Dovid Pinchus.” Mine is “Chaya Mindl.” Chaya means “life.” If I’m not mistaken, I think “Mindl” was my great-aunt Hermine’s Jewish name. Everybody loved Hermine, a big-hearted woman who was a well-known cateress in New Jersey, and would serve, free of charge, home-cooked kosher meals to all of our Jewish boys stationed at the base near her home during the war. I think they thought naming me after her would bring me good luck.
“But how did you, or your great-grandmother, ever get a name like Mary?” I’m often asked. It never seems to occur to people that Holy Mother Mary, who undoubtedly went by her Hebrew name, Miryam, was absolutely, positively, most sincerely Jewish, as was her son, Yeshua. How quickly we forget.
Now, on to Crain. I married my first husband, Robert Crain, in 1970. We were together for 16 years. During that time I became a writer, and then a fairly well-known writer. By the time we divorced in 1986, “Mary Beth Crain” was firmly established as my pen name. I really couldn’t change it at that point, nor did I care about doing so.
In an article I recently found on the web entitled “Jewish Names,” author Tracey B. Rich notes,
“Contrary to popular belief, you cannot tell whether people are Jewish from their surnames. According to the Jewish genealogy site Avotaynu, the third most common surname among Jews in the United States is Miller, which is also one of the most common names among gentiles. In college, I knew a McGuire who was Jewish and a Kline who was not. Artist Camille Pissarro, boxer Daniel Mendoza, actor Hank Azaria and pop idol Paula Abdul are all Jewish, but their names don’t sound Jewish to most Americans. We cannot, however, take credit for people with such Jewish-sounding names as rocker Bruce Springsteen, songwriter George M. Cohan, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, or basketball player Julius Irving, aka ‘Dr. J.’”
Here’s a little brain teaser to test your JIQ (Jewish Intelligence Quotient). The following Jewish celebrities took on non-Jewish names to make it easier to assimilate into Gentile culture. Can you guess who they are?
1. Robert Zimmerman
And the answer is:
1. Bob Dylan
Bonus question: Which celebrity was born Allan Konigsberg?
Answer: Why, film director and quintessential nebbish, Woody Allen, of course.
Fooled ya, huh?
Then there’s Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. I didn’t know he was Jewish, did you? After all, Jimmy Stewart wasn’t. Martha Stewart isn’t. Of course, Jon’s real name is Jonathan Stewart Liebowitz. But he dropped his last name, he says, because people had trouble pronouncing it. Like Kubelsky? Or Kaminsky? Or Zimmerman?
And if you were in Rome in the 1500s, do you think you’d have picked out Angelo Cerusti, Angelo di Giuseppi, Petra San Giusto, Benedetto di Angelo di Cori or Speranza di Stella di Sicilia as Jews, based on their names?
On the other side of the coin, there’s Norman Jewison, director, of among other hit movies, Fiddler on the Roof. A Jew if ever there was one, right? Wrong. He’s an Episcopalian. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. It never occurred to me that somebody with a name like Norman Jewison would be anything but Jewish. And the director of Fiddler to boot? God’s joke on all of us.
And if you ran into a pop singer named Esther, would you recognize her as Madonna, after her extreme Kabbalah makeover? The Catholic-born performer adopted the Hebrew name in 2004, hoping to shed her Material Girl image for that of the biblical figure celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim. “I wanted to attach myself to the energy of a different name,” she told 20/20. "So I read about all the women in the Old Testament and I love the story of Queen Esther."
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Santa Cohen Is Comin' to Town.
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