Over the last few years, I’ve wondered how some names came to be associated with certain characteristics. How did the names Karen or Chad become personifications of negative personality traits in and of themselves? I don’t really know anyone with those names, and yet, perhaps due to mass cultural delusion, I kinda get what people mean when they say it. But I feel bad, too — because I know what it is to be judged solely by your first name.
My name is Chris. From meaningless, made-up analysis for bored people online, I have learned that this name is traditionally associated with being the name of a “good guy” who is kind or fun or something to that effect. In other words, Chris has a positive connotation — or, at least, not a negative one (sorry Chads).
However, in the Jewish community, Chris has a different meaning. Chris = NOT A JEW.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve read well-meaning or seemingly innocuous articles or chapters of Jewishly-oriented books (especially on dating, marriage and parenting) in which my first name — usually the diminutive by which I was called growing up (Chris, rather than Christopher) — is used as shorthand to denote a person who is not Jewish.
Occasionally it’s used to describe a non-Jewish friend who might not know about some Jewish topic, like Hanukkah or Passover. This Chris might even be an ally to the Jewish community. But usually, I have seen it describe someone inextricably outside the fold of the Jewish community, outside of the Jewish people — someone who will just never belong.
To this day, I remember the first time I saw Chris used this way. I was in my bedroom, a high school student reading a book on Jewish parenting (because it was among the last of the Jewish books I could find in my library). It was late, and I was reading the chapter on dating, which presented ways to calmly and reasonably discuss with your child why you don’t want them to date non-Jews. My name was used to denote the nice guy who should be a friend, but nothing more.
Of course, this wasn’t meant to be personal to me; it was just a name selected. But it was selected to convey one thing: This person is not one of us.
I remember feeling so alone and ashamed of my name when I read this. I had a very Christian childhood (sprinkled with some Jewish adjacent influences), but I came to embrace Judaism as a young teen. I don’t fit in with a lot of Jews by choice, since I didn’t come to Judaism as an adult (although my official conversion didn’t happen until my 20s). Yet despite calls to rabbis, traveling to temples hours away for High Holy Day services, reading anything I could get my hands on about Judaism and beginning the practice of lighting Shabbat candles when I was 14, I still remember having a tense feeling in my chest when I read this scenario in which my name was used to mean not Jewish. My already overly self-critical voice of pessimism and doom was telling me “you’ll never really belong.” I still get a twinge of that feeling every time I’m in a new Jewish space.
Over the years, I have seen Chris used to mean non-Jew, the person who can’t be one of the tribe, many times. Occasionally I see the gender reversed, and it’s a non-Jewish girl, indicated by the feminine version of the same name. To any Jewish Christines or Christinas out there: I feel you.
Even in positive articles or stories about interfaith relationships, Chris is often used to denote the same idea: not a Jew. The wonderful book “Mr. Perfect on Paper” by Jean Meltzer talks about an observant Jewish woman falling in love with a very much non-Jewish man. Guess what his name is? I don’t mean this as a criticism of the book; it’s just another reminder of my name’s connotations.
Add to this the times I’ve been in Jewish spaces and had lovely conversations with otherwise strangers and felt a warm connection to them, only to be asked “and I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” — and see their eyes glaze over when I tell them.
To be fair, I also get a look of surprise when I tell Jewish people where I am from and where I live (in rural Louisiana). They are often surprised that I grew up in the region I still live in today (I tried really hard not to pick up the local accent). I planned very early in life to become Jewish and to move away. I have so far succeeded in only one of those endeavors.
A woman pretty high up in Chabad in a major Southern city once asked me point-blank, “If you’re Jewish, then why did your mother name you Chris?” Mind you, we had literally just met. I wanted to respond: If your whole goal is to be open to Jewish people, then why didn’t your mother raise you to be kinder?
I think about all these instances of othering every time I write a submission to a Jewish publication or feedback in the comments section on Jewish websites. Most of all, I recently really worried about being named Chris when I signed up for online Jewish dating sites. Besides the added difficulty of my location, what does my name connote to potential matches?
In defense of this perception in the Jewish community, I do understand why Chris is not considered a Jewish name, and I definitely get why my full first name (spelled CHRISTopher) indicates a non-Jew in many people’s minds. I am sure there are Jewish people (probably primarily Jews by choice, like me) named Muhammad or after Hindu deities, who have immersed in the mikveh only to find that their Jewish status confuses others.
With my goal of moving away from where I grew up, I always thought I would end up going by my Hebrew name. But that is more difficult when you stay in an area with few Jews, close to where you were raised. Also, in the small Jewish communities I have been a part of — each an hour and a half, in opposite directions, from where I live — Hebrew names aren’t used that much.
My mother, who, along with my father, has become Jewish (the three of us converted separately over a period of years) has semi-jokingly apologized for the problems my name has caused. In her defense, she wanted me to have a “normal” name not associated with anything. My father, on the other hand, wanted to name me after his Creek uncle, Noble Hector. I’d love to be called that today, but growing up, it would have been difficult to have a unique name with my self-conscious personality.
I am proud to be Jewish. So, despite articles and publications and connotations and self-doubt and my self-conscious personality, I’m here to say: My name is Chris, and I am a Jew.