Categorized | Cohen_Joel_H., USA

Jewish names: Keeping their ‘witz’ about them

By Joel H. Cohen

Joel H. Cohen

NEW YORK — A favorite old story of mine (okay, almost all my favorite stories are old), tells of the four Moskowitz brothers – Lowell, Norman, Hyman and Max – who develop what is the prototype of the modern automobile air conditioner.

They take their idea to Henry Ford, who is very interested in the concept, and both sides agree on a purchase price. But there’s a deal breaker: The brothers quite naturally want the Moskowitz name displayed, but Ford, notorious anti-Semite, won’t consider showing such an obviously Jewish identification.

But he’s still interested in buying the brothers’ offering, and the Moskowitzes are still interested in selling it. Eventually, both sides agree to a compromise – the air conditioners will bear the first names of the brothers. Which is why today, the settings of those air conditioners appear as lo, norm, hi and max.

Groan if you must. But the anecdote not only reveals an imaginary tidbit of automotive history, but illustrates a phenomenon, often self-inflicted, of hiding Jewish names. Sometimes the originals are changed to very British or Irish or Scottish-sounding ones

(Full disclosure – My family name isn’t Cohen. In the old country, Russia, it was something like Kazdan, and, according to family lore, an Ellis Island inspector wrote down the closest Jewish-sounding name he knew: Cohen.)

A name that’s obviously Jewish is often a plus, as in avoiding being asked by a skeptical classmate or colleague how come he or she was absent from school or work on Rosh Hashanah. And it discourages the telling of anti-Semitic stories, jokes or doing deprecating stereotypical impressions, at least in the Jewish person’s presence.

Some name-changes, either shortened forms (such as dropping the ending “witz” ) or completely different takes, were generational, And it was a shock to read obits of parents with Jewish names, whose male survivors had a drastically different, “neutral”-sounding family name.

In decades past, attempts to avoid being identified by one’s decidedly Jewish name were commonplace among entertainers and other celebrities.

Some changed their names to ones that still retained their Jewish identity. For instance, Gertrude Berg was born Tillie Edelstein, but more than popularized her adopted last name when the played Molly Goldberg in “The Goldbergs.”

For fun, try to match the well-known names of these celebrities with original, Jewish=sounding names below. Depending to a large degree on your age, some will be very easy. For others, difficult.

Bernard Schwartz, Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Betty Joan Perske, Natalie Herschlag, Emmanuel Goldenberg, Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Judith Tuvin, Jerome or Joseph Levitch, Melvin Kaminsky Jerome Silberman, David Daniel Kaminsky, Milton Berlinger, Benny Kubelsky, Jason Greenspan, Nathan Birnbaum, Jacob Cohen, Robert Allen Zimmerman, Asa Yoelson, Israel Itzkowitz, Chaim Witz.

Many modern celebrities have kept their original, Jewish names, among them Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Itzhak Perlman, and Barbra Streisand (though she dropped the “a” from the middle of her first name).

Former Senator Joe Lieberman didn’t hide from his Jewish name (and, in a nod to Shabbos-observance, pledged to be available 24/6,) when he ran unsuccessfully for U.S Vice-President with Al Gore in 2000.

Many decades earlier, a writer named Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich chose a pen name that was about as Jewish as one could find — Sholem Aleichem, the Hebrew greeting that means “peace be with you.”

Some moderns are still trying to mask their Jewish origins by disguising their original names, but there are increasing indications that, as in the song popularized by one of the prominent name-changers, the times might be a-changin, in that regard.

That trend is exemplified by another (old, but not that old) story. At a bris some years in the future, the mohel announces, “the baby’s name is Shlomo; he’s named for his grandfather Sean.”

One can only hope that more keep their “witz” about them.

P.S. The celebrities’ names, as we know them:

Tony Curtis, Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Portman, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Judy Holliday, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Jack Benny,Jason Alexander, George Burns, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Dylan, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor; Gene Simmons.


Cohen is a freelance writer and humorist residing in New York.  He may be contacted via [email protected]


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2 Responses to “Jewish names: Keeping their ‘witz’ about them”

  1. Brian G. Andersson says:

    For the record: No one’s name was changed at Ellis Island. No inspector changed a name on a passenger manifest. The records were generated at the port of embarkation. This is one of those enduring myths. I assure you, as an expert in the field, that only the immigrants themselves ever altered their names.

    All the best from New York for Chanukka and Christmas!

  2. Michael Feldberg says:

    Darn, I now have to assume that anyone I meet who’s name is Ferguson isn’t descended for someone who replied to the Ellis Island immigration agent when asked his or her name, “Ich forgesen.”


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