Menu Home

A Jew By Any Other Name

It’s my custom when I’m introduced to someone for the first time, to shake their hand and tell them my full name. At this point in my Jewish life, I’m used to giving people whiplash when I tell them. They always try to hide the subtle eyeball-flip from my face to the kippah on top of my head and back. Sometimes I have to stifle a chuckle when they’re multi-flipppers, as if their eyeballs are stuck in the groove of some scratched visual record. Face–kippah—face–kippah–huh?

I began wearing my kippah (yarmulke in Yiddish) as a way to express my humility before God and adherence to Jewish tradition while in synagogue. As my sense of the holiness hiding behind life’s mundane everyday activites grew, I began wearing it all the time, to mark my recognition that the Divine is only and always as close as we allow the Divine to be. Wearing a full-time kippah is a common custom among Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, mostly men. Reform Jews generally don’t adopt the practice, so I’m used to standing out in a crowd of fellow Jews of my chosen denomination.

Still, there is no halacha (Jewish law) that says a Jew must wear a head covering. In the eyes of some ancient sages, it’s equally kosher to worship or go about your day with a bare head. From time to time I re-examine why I wear my kippah, and whether I’m getting out of it the intended effect–humility and remaining mindful of the mitzvot (commandments.) The answer always comes back yes, but sometimes I just want to leave the house without wearing one (I have a small collection) to see how I would feel doing so.

Except that my last name is Doyle. And anyone who meets a bareheaded Doyle automatically assumes one very important thing about them: that they are an Irish Catholic (or at least, a Christian.) Hands up everyone who has non-Christian Irish friends. See? And unless I want to go that extra, creepy yard and tell people I’m meeting for the first time verbally that I’m Jewish, that’s it. There aren’t any first meeting do-overs. I’ll be assumed to be something I am not.

It’s absolutely reasonable for anyone to assume that with my last name I adhere to a specific religion. The problem is that when that happens, I automatically become a Jew in hiding. Although the world got one extra Jew in me when I converted, assumptions like that erase that fact.

And frankly, I happen to think someone with an Irish last name being Jewish is a very important thing to know. Not just because I prefer to be understood as a Jewish man, but because it sends a message that we don’t have to remain tied for life to the traditions into which we were born. If a Doyle can be a Jew, an (insert surname here) can be an anything they want to be.

So for the sake of humility, Jewish pride, and free thinking about one’s own life, I keep my kippah on throughout the day (and now maintain all my online avatars and headshots showing me wearing one.) Admittedly, there are situations where a few people have had trouble getting the message. An example from real life:

Me: “Hi, I’m Michael Doyle. Nice to meet you.”

New Acquaintance: “Wait a second, Doyle? Did you say Doyle? I don’t understand.”

Me: “What don’t you understand?”

New Acquaintance: “Doyle’s not a Jewish name!”

Me: “In my case, it is.”

New Acquaintance: “But how can that be?”

Me: “Because I’m Jewish.”

New Acquaintance: “But, but you have an Irish last name!”

Yes. And a Jewish one, too.


Tagged as:

Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion

Follow My Socials:

Contact Me:

13 replies

  1. My grandfather was “out at Easter” (A participant in the 1916 rebellion against English rule in Ireland), and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the IRA. He was also a native speaker of Irish (As were his children, including my Donegal-born father)

    Yes, we’re a JEWISH family!

    1. Oh, I don’t know. Most of my relatives on my father’s side have Irish-language names. My father was Liam, his brother was Micheal. I have cousins with names like Peadar, Lorcan, Eamon, Aoife, Mairead, etc.

  2. Michael,

    A delightful essay with a clever title. I came across this when I went to pass on the URL to my Rockower Award winning essay titled (tada): “A Jew by Any Other Name.” (You’ll find an extended version from CJ over at Clearly, we have had similar experiences and share some common agendas.

    As a novelist, I use a pen name based on my Hebrew name to convey in print more quickly and unambiguously “where I am coming from.” Themes of Jewish, ethnic, national, and political identity are an essential subtext in all three of the techno-thrillers to date: Bashert, The Dome, and Web Games.

    I think that our answers to the question, who is a Jew? will have a great deal to do with shaping the future of Judaism and klal yisrael. The more rigidly and narrowly we draw the boundaries, the more we ensure a shrinking demographic dominated by fecund fundamentalists and offset by an ever growing population of secular, unaffiliated, and interfaith families.


    Larry “I’m Jewish” Constantine, AKA Lior Samson

  3. Michael,

    Great post and great blog! Yesher koach! This 28 of Elul will be the the first anniversary of my own conversion, and let me tell you, as a NuYorican I turn a few heads when I wear my kippah, though some folks probably assume I’m Israeli.

    Like you, I’m a Reform Jew who is exploring the mitzvot by degrees and with as much kavanah as I can muster. I don’t wear kippot every day but as of the first day of Elul this year I’ve been laying teffilin, with a great deal of shuffling of printouts, siddur pages and even my iPad to get it right, which is how I found your blog (via your teffilin post). I’m very glad to have discovered Chicago Carless as it speaks to me on so many levels: a New Yorker with ties to Chicago (my lovely wife is a Chicagoan/Winnetkan), an ex-Catholic who’s found his Jewish soul, a Reform Jew who was actually grateful when the Chabadniks caught up with me on Sukkot so I had a chance to wave the lulav and etrog.

    Looking forward to future posts!

    1. Hi, sorry I meant to greet you as Mike in my previous comment!
      I got confused reading the previous commentator’s name, and the editing tool didn’t work in my Safari, somehow.
      Anyway, again, looking forward to more Chicago Carless!

      1. It’s ok, I do go by Michael. Six years ago when I created my blog, i went by Mike and it isn’t possible to change my Admin name, unfortunately.

        Thank you for reading. I read your comment on the Water Taxi on my way to work this morning and I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m very glad to know I’m not the only Reform Jew who wears–or feels okay to publicly talk about–tefillin. I’m happy that post connected for you. I understand being appreciative about the Chabadniks, too. Although if you they ever ask you if you want to put on tefillin, you can grin and say you already do 🙂

        In advance, Shabbat Shalom!

        1. Between water taxis, trains, awesome museums, the lake and a great Jewish community I sorta want to move to Chicago! Your winters scare me though. Anyway, thanks for joining the JBC forum.

  4. Great post. As a German Jew, I always get a similar, although not quite intrigued, look. how can you be German and Jewish? they ask. Simple, I reply. One is a nationality, the other is a religion. They have nothing to do with one another, and you can be and represent both at the same time.

    Whether you were born into it, or have chosen to follow that path, your religion is a belief. It has nothing to do with where your ancestors were born, but how they have chosen to live their lives.

    I continue to applaud you on the path that you have taken. Keep up the good work!

Leave a comment...