In 1969, the year I was born, Joshua cracked the top 200 names for American boys for the first time since records began to be kept in 1880: #197. Forty years earlier, in 1929, Joshua had ranked #729, and the name started the 1960s well into the 400s. In my childhood, however, it became very popular: by 1979, it was in the top ten; by 1983, it was in the top five. Indeed, Joshua was the third-, fourth-, or fifth-most-popular name for boys every year from 1983 to 2008. A consequence of this extended prominence is that, although the name has now lost some of its luster (in 2022, it came in at #60), Joshua’s overall rank in the hundred years from 1923 to 2022 is high: #20.
When I was young, if you were called Joshua, you were probably Jewish—or at least this was true in New York City, where I was born and raised. Later on, the name was at least as likely to indicate that you were black (and not Jewish).
A budding linguist, I observed the social shift of my first (so-called Christian) name with no small fascination. And I was particularly interested because of my last name: a Joshua Katz had to be Jewish, after all. In fact, however, I am not.
Last week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I checked into a hotel in Washington, D.C. I handed my driver’s license to the woman behind the desk, who immediately said to me with a warm smile, “Shabbat shalom!” This was unusual for three reasons: it was a Wednesday; the woman was black; and people are so sensitive these days that I would have thought no employee would risk verbalizing such an ethnic or religious assumption.
In any case, finding the greeting both charming and amusing, I struck up a conversation with the clerk, who told me that she lives in a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. She was amused in turn to learn that my middle name is Timothy—an unexpected onomastic twist that suggests my Jewish father and Lutheran mother hoped I would have a sense of humor.
If I don’t mention Timothy, I can pass as Jewish. I love Zabar’s, Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, and of course Katz’s Delicatessen (no relation). I attended a school where most members of my class had a bar or bat mitzvah (one of them at the Forest Hills Jewish Center presided over by the legendary Ben-Zion Bokser: same rabbi, same place as for my father thirty-five years earlier). And I read Biblical Hebrew.
Most of the time, I don’t think about not being Jewish. But as summer turns to fall, I invariably pay attention to the Ten Days of Repentance, which end with Yom Kippur, the rituals of which I find very moving. I don’t go to synagogue—I am, after all, a Christian—but I do cast my sins into the waters; resolve to be a better father, husband, son, friend, and person; and try to forgive those who have wronged me. I also have a ritual of my own of listening to the lovely Kol Nidrei of the Protestant composer Max Bruch, in the 1968 recording that Jacqueline Du Pré, who had recently converted to Judaism, made with her husband, Daniel Barenboim, and the Israel Philharmonic. It is said that Du Pré, who was arguably the greatest cellist of the last century, asked that this be played to her on her deathbed.
There are a lot of Joshua Katzes in the world. One was in college with me, though we overlapped by only one year, which was just as well since packages for the one of us kept being delivered to the other. Another wrote a delightful book on American English that I have actually used in classes—a great way to cause confusion. Yet another showed up two years ago at a small party where we all wore name tags—another great way to cause confusion. A fourth has a position at a different think tank in Washington. And so on. When I was little and there were hard-copy phone books, I used to comb through the Joshua Katzes in the Manhattan white pages, memorizing their addresses and wondering how often we were all passing one another on the streets. And wondering, too, whether any of them might also not be Jewish.
My newborn daughter’s first name is currently ranked in the high 500s and her middle name in the high 400s. Neither is coded as Jewish. But with two Ashkenazi grandfathers, she is ethnically half-Jewish and has a last name to match. Although she has been baptized and attends church services with my wife and me, my wishes for her include this: that, besides loving Zabar’s, she will grow up paying heed, at this time of the year especially, to the sacral traditions of both her father’s and her mother’s ancestors.
Joshua T. Katz is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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