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My ancestry is not eastern-European, and sometimes when I meet people in a Jewish setting and we introduce ourselves, I'm met with "that's not a Jewish name" (referring to my last name, mostly). I don't think the person saying this means to challenge me; it's just an observation. But it seems to call for a reply, and I'm never sure what to say. "There are Jews in Italy", while true, feels a little dismissive, but the details of my family background really aren't relevant most of the time. I understand that Miss Manners would call for something like "why does that concern you?", but that doesn't feel like an appropriate Jewish response to me somehow.

In a casual encounter with a stranger who does not appear to be trolling, how should one respond to this kind of statement? Is there any factor in one's background that, if present, would affect how one responds -- does the answer change if you're the product of an intermarriage, the descendant of a convert, a convert yourself, the descendant of crypto-Jews (marranos), etc?

(No, I'm not going to change my name to dodge this problem.)

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It may not be a Jewish name, but it is the name of a Jew. –  Double AA Apr 24 '13 at 14:39
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That sort of question itself is not an appropriate Jewish question. "My father's family is from Italy" seems like a reasonable answer to me. –  Charles Koppelman Apr 24 '13 at 14:39
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I think the right response would depend on the social/conversational context in which the challenge was made. For example, if it's someone for whose social/Jewish education you are responsible (e.g. your child or student), it may make more sense to teach them about variant Jewish migration patterns and not making assumptions; if it seems like the person's trolling, a curt response like "I guess it is." may be most appropriate; etc. –  Isaac Moses Apr 24 '13 at 14:46
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Just say "It is Armenian for 'schwartz'" –  Danno Apr 24 '13 at 14:53
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@MonicaCellio, it does make the question more specific and therefore more answerable. It's probably specific enough that someone might have a good "Ms. Manners style" guideline that covers it well enough for most situations. –  Isaac Moses Apr 24 '13 at 15:11
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1 Answer 1

This Wikipedia article gives the background on the development of Jewish surnames.

The range of sources for such names includes:

  • the place from which the family came
  • translation of the Hebrew patronymic
  • the Austrian emperor Joseph the second issued a decree called Das Patent über die Judennamen which compelled the Jews to adopt German surnames.
  • Napoleon also, in a decree of July 20, 1808, insisted upon the Jews adopting fixed names
  • a tendency to translate Biblical names into French
  • Toponyms form, perhaps, the larger number of surnames among modern Jews
  • trades and occupations

You could direct the person to this article or better try to find the origin of your surname and explain it to the enquirer emphasizing that essentially surnames were imposed upon us!

As you probably know, (Wikipedia)

Cellio is a comune (municipality) in the Province of Vercelli in the Italian region Piedmont, located about 80 km northeast of Turin and about 45 km north of Vercell

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