On being a Muslim with a Jewish name

If you met someone who introduced himself as Bob Shabanowitz and tried to guess his ethnicity, the chances are that you would conclude that he is Jewish. But there is such a person and he is in fact a Muslim, descended from the Lipka Tatars in the Baltics, one of the Europe’s oldest Muslim communities, and that it is a common Muslim name in his native town as he discovered when he made a visit back there.

The public radio program The World had an interesting program about his experience in growing up in upstate New York as a Muslim with a Jewish name. He said that his family did not publicize their religion and that almost all his boyhood friends were Jewish and he attended their bar mitzvahs though of course he never had one. His family faced anti-Semitic discrimination because of their name and at the same time Muslims felt that he could not be a real Muslim because of his East European roots. Now 66 years old, he lives in rural Pennsylvania now and keeps quiet about his religion and says that members of his motorcycle club, unaware of his religion, will sometimes make anti-Muslim comments to him or in his presence.

In Sri Lanka, one’s name is a very strong indicator of one’s ethnicity and that can create awkwardness for those people who have mixed parentage and adopt their father’s name as is customary. They can experience bigoted comments aimed at their mother’s ancestry, and I have had friends who had this uncomfortable experience.

I went to a high school where we had students of all ethnicities and some years ago someone created a mailing list of many people who were in the same class and were friends. This list was used to share stories and exchange information. But it turned out that one person who would send out emails to all also had carefully created a sub-list of only those with names indicating that they were of the majority Sinhala community and sent them separate emails with racist sentiments against Tamils. Of course, I was unaware of this since I never got those emails since my name is clearly Tamil. But one of the people on the Sinhala sub-list is a friend of mine with strong anti-racist views and he had blasted this guy and told him not to send him any of those emails anymore, and thus revealed to me the guy’s real character.

This shows the danger of making two major errors. One lies in making an assumption about a person’s ethnicity or religion purely on the basis of their name. The other is assuming that just because someone shares your ethnicity, that they share the same prejudices as you.


  1. raven says

    One lies in making an assumption about a person’s ethnicity or religion purely on the basis of their name.

    1. It doesn’t work very well in the USA.
    Most of the Euro Americans are mixes by now of at least a variety of Europeans.
    Last names don’t tell anyone much about ethnicity except that you are probably some part of something.
    And very few Euro Americans speak any of their ancestors languages unless it was English.
    .2. Same goes for religion.
    Half my extended family is Protestant, half is Catholic.
    So, which one am I supposed to hate???
    Made even more confusing because I’m an out atheistic Pagan.

    .3. More and more on the west coast, I’m seeing younger people and asking “What are they?”
    The have dark hair, tannish skin color, and don’t look like much of anything identifiable.
    The answer is obvious.
    They are mixes of assorted hispanics, blacks, assorted Asians, Polynesians, Native Americans, South Asians, middle Easterners, etc. and European Americans.
    People in the USA historically and today, mix and rapidly at that.

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    I’m part English, part Irish, part Scottish, and part German. I argue with myself a lot.

    Two of my great-grandfather’s were priests, one Anglican and one Presbyterian. The Anglican priest had the German surname, and the one with the Irish surname was the Presbyterian. (Though he actually was the priest at the United Church of Canada, because out where he was there weren’t enough Presbyterians to form their own church. That’s fundamentally why the United Church exists, due to a group of relatively mainline Protestant churches looking around and realizing that the population density out west wasn’t anywhere near high enough to each build their own churches, and they had more in common than differences.)

  3. Ray says

    I’m a Sri Lankan, but many times when I’ve said it other Sri Lankans go “Oh no, you’re not!” because if anything, I look like a darkish German. Actually, my oldest traceable ancestor was a Latvian Jew who immigrated to Antwerp in the 1500s (at that time part of the Dutch empire), his descendants spreading with the Dutch colonialist expansion and reaching Sri Lanka via Bombay. My first and second cousins’ name include Ramalingam, Philips, McIntyre, Williams, Martenstyn, Jacobs, Solomons, and a plethora of others. So what am I? A racist’s nightmare, I hope.

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