I Took My Husband’s Jewish Last Name. Here’s What It Taught Me About Antisemitism.

Living in Northern Ireland, I'm used to conflict and division. But I had never experienced anything like this.

“G-E-T-Z … yes, that’s a Z at the end.”

I find myself saying this a lot these days. I have a new awareness now, though, that makes me wary when the follow-up questions inevitably start.

Changing my surname has been a learning curve for me in ways I did not expect. Having wrestled with deciding whether to change my name or not after marriage (I still legally hold both names for now), I grew to love the idea of us sharing this name as we started a new chapter in our lives.

In the beginning, the novelty of my married name made me answer these questions with excitement. I was proud to share in my husband’s culture and heritage and I knew our name was uncommon where I live, in a country with a small Jewish community.

I am from Belfast in Northern Ireland, and I had never met a Jewish person until I met my now husband. My knowledge of antisemitism, and indeed Judaism, had been limited to my reading of Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and a movie about concentration camps shown in a history class in school. It horrified me and left a lasting impact, but it was consigned to the past and something that had happened elsewhere.

What I knew and experienced in the city that I have called home my whole life was that a name can signify which side of the religious divide you were born to: Catholic or Protestant. I remember being aware that my own name was deemed “neutral,” meaning people couldn’t tell by my name alone what my religion and upbringing were, and I knew that this was a privilege and a kind of safety.

When my husband moved here from New York at the beginning of the pandemic so we could marry, I never imagined he would feel uneasy here. I am not Jewish, so I had not experienced antisemitism up close and personal before. I knew, like everywhere, Belfast had its own brand of bigotry, but it was specific to us and I believed it wouldn’t touch him. Northern Ireland is, after all, a changed and peaceful place.

But then there were the signs. Some were trivial: the constant comparisons of him to any Jewish celebrity that a person could recall in a moment, from Josh Groban (who was not actually raised Jewish) to, somewhat bizarrely to me, Woody Allen. Some were sharper: questions about how comfortable I was having a surname with a ‘Z’ in it. Did I know it was the name of a car model? And what were my thoughts on the circumcision of our non-existent sons?

I felt uneasy and confused, unsure of what exactly I was experiencing. All I knew was that I didn’t want to tell my husband the things people were saying to me, as I wanted him to feel at home.

Then, I had my first day back at work this year since the pandemic began. It was my first day of professional life as a Getz. In the break room, a man I had worked with previously asked me what my married name was. Having gone through the routine of repeating it, spelling it, confirming that it was not a “made up” name and that yes, my husband is American, we got to the point where I said, “It’s a Jewish name.” He then proceeded with an “each to their own but I think…” rant about how all Jewish people were destroying the world through the conflict in the Middle East, that they used the Holocaust as their excuse for murder, and if he were me, he would be “very careful” about having children with my new husband. I stood frozen in shock and anger. This was supposed to be a professional work environment. Had I invited this somehow? I had walked into the room to make a cup of tea and had simply told him my surname. I left feeling invaded and powerless. We had to work together that afternoon and as it was just one day, I told myself to keep my head down.

From that point on everything changed. The comments about how my new surname could benefit me in my career and the speculations over how much money we must have no longer seemed trivial. Because they were not.

When the conflict in the Middle East erupted earlier this year, I realized how naïve I had been. I started to receive blatantly antisemitic messages and snide comments on social media despite having remained quiet, refusing to add to the noise and fury that was gathering online. Yet, my surname alone seemed to be enough to provoke cruelty from people I knew, people I considered friends. I could never have imagined just how lonely this would feel. I was heartbroken to understand how regular an occurrence this had been in my husband’s life, no matter where he was in the world.

I felt I couldn’t and shouldn’t speak about this because I am not Jewish, my husband is. It is not my place nor my desire to speak for Jewish people, and yet, I was constantly being asked to now and I didn’t know what to do. I had people ask me if certain comments or jokes were antisemitic (tip: If you have to ask, probably). I was constantly asked my opinion on the Middle East and asked if my husband was “that kind of” Jew. I was being burdened to explain, to educate, on things that were new to me to people that were being openly antisemitic, and I was angry. I retreated and tried to say less and less to protect us both. But why should the choice have to be between silence or safety?

I was born before the Good Friday Agreement brought peacetime to Northern Ireland and I have spent a lifetime learning all the subtle and nuanced ways in which division and conflict remain when violence dissipates. I believed that people here would understand better than most how complex this kind of situation is and how weaponizing someone’s name is an act of hate. However, our own divisions seem to have left some with a sense of entitlement instead frame this situation to fit their own narratives. In neighborhoods where Union Jacks are flown, Israeli flags are now displayed alongside them while Palestinian flags hang from lampposts in areas with Irish tricolors in a bizarre appropriation and playing out of our own conflict. Drawing these ill-informed comparisons does a disservice to us all.

Our name is not an open invitation for another’s hatred. Our name does not tell you our religious beliefs or ask for a conversation about politics. But it does tell a story: of my husband’s immigrant Eastern European relatives who carried it to America, as we have now carried it to Ireland.

So please, still ask me about this name if you’re curious, because I am curious too and I love to share what has been shared with me.  I love to celebrate our cultures and when we light the Shabbat candles, I am proud of this family we have created in an increasingly volatile world. I am grateful for the times we live in because it allowed us to meet and get married, and I am grateful for all the people we have met who have welcomed us and never made us feel less. I am proud to be a Getz, and proud to be a woman with the choice to choose her own name.

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