Your Jewish name might be hazardous to your Job

3 Aug

Scene: Job interview.  I’m seated across my interviewer.  He taps his pencil on the desk.  The air-conditioning hums.

Location: Office in Galilee, Israel

Time: Mid-morning.

My interviewer, a bald man in his late 40s, pushes his glasses up his sweaty nose, scans my resume once again.  I sense he’s uncomfortable.  He’s dying to ask me “the question.”  It’s an itch he can’t resist.  The legs of his chair skid on the floor as he plants his elbows on his desk.  He asks in the most casual tone: “Tell me, Maurice, what’s your background?”

Map of Sephardic Jews Migration

Map of Sephardic Jews Migration

He couldn’t resist, the temptation too strong.  By “background” he means whether I’m Sephardi (Jews who trace their ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal – as well as all of North Africa to include Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia – as well as the Middle East to include Lebanon, Syria, and as far as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria) or whether I’m Ashkenazi (Jews who trace their roots to mostly Europe – Germany, England, Poland, Russia, and all the former Soviet Republics as well as all the Jews who’d originally lived in Europe but migrated to Argentina, Mexico and even Australia).  France and Italy had both Sephardic and Ashkenazi at different periods while Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, India are “lumped” with Sephardi.

By “background” he doesn’t want to know whether I come from a family of doctors, fishermen, lumberjacks, bricklayers, people with four ears, three legs, a tail, or a circumcised penis.  No, he wants to know where my parents were born.  He doesn’t use the no-no word “origin,” (Motzah, in Hebrew).  That would be overly direct; that would be a violation of my privacy rights, although employers here routinely cross the line by asking a person’s age, marital status, hometown.

"Lavi" - Lioness

“Lavi” – Lioness

Ashkenazi Migration in Europe

Ashkenazi Migration in Europe

I gaze confidently at my interviewer.  The resume in his hands baffles him.  He’s trying to figure out the “origin” of my last name: Lavi, in Hebrew.  It means Lioness.

Up until the 11th century, there were no Jewish last names to speak of.  Jews went by their birth order: “Joseph the son of Moshe,” for example.  Then last names began to pop up in Spain, France, Italy and North Africa.  They weren’t complex.  Heads of families were named after their profession: “Attar” (pharmacist), “Shohet” (ritual slaughterer), or how they were regarded in the community: “Haviv” (favorite), “Katan (small), “Bracha” (blessing), “Yerushalmi (from Jerusalem), in Sephardic countries.

Later, in Europe, for the purpose of taxation and census, Ashkenazi Jews in Poland, Germany adopted last names of their own: “Goldberg” (Gold Mountain), “Tishler” (carpenter), “Shneider” (tailor).  Last names that ended in “vich” – the son of – meant the family came from Romania or Poland.  Names ending in “Stein,” Man,” “Berg” came from Germany.  “Ski” endings came from Russia, Ukraine.

Could it be that my Lavi forefathers in North Africa were regarded as ferocious, courageous, worthy of the “Lioness” title?

“Lavi” is as genuine Israeli last name as they come.  It’s mentioned 7 times in the bible, mostly by prophets.  In the Book of Joel, chapter 1, it says: “For a great nation overran my land, immense and countless, its teeth those of lion, its jaws those of lioness.”

Kibbutzim, parks, and office complexes are named after “Lavi”.  It was also the name of the much-acclaimed Israeli fighter jet.

It’s no wonder many Jews who’d immigrated to Israel in the last 100 years wanted to shed their “Diaspora-sounding” names and to adopt a strong Hebrew name.  Lavi is common enough, but not overused.  And it’s “uni-origin” – It’s both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

Where did you say your family was from???

Photo of Maurice Labi (Lavi)
Where did you say your family was from???

And here lies the problem for my interviewer.  He can’t tell my “background” from my last name nor from my appearance.  I might just slide under the radar as an Ashkenazi.  I don’t have bushy eyebrows, my stubble, when not shaved, isn’t thick or dark, my complexion is “medium” — there are European, Ashkenazi Jews who are fair-skinned, and there are some who are quite dark.  I’m dressed professionally in slacks and a crisp white shirt, my shoes are polished.  That offers him no clues.  Nor do I carry an accent or dialect from “home” that might hint of my “country of origin.”  If anything, some of the words I use come across as “American-sounding.”

The interviewer scratches his head, taps the pencil again.  He wants to know if I’m part of his “team” or if I’m with the “others.”  If he can’t go after my last name, why not try the first: Maurice.  He pronounces it the same way I did when I first introduced myself, the “French” way.  That throws him off course.  I could very well be from France (Ashkenazi or Sephardi, remember?), or I, or my family, could be from the former French colony of Morocco, and therefore Sephardi.

Yes, but he’s still unsure because my resume shows my place of birth as England (Ashkenazi?), and educated in Israel and in the U.S. (Martian?  extraterrestrial?)

I lean forward slightly and repeat his question word for word: “You want to know my ‘background?'”

He senses he’s overstepped his boundaries and we move to talk about something else.

But why this quest to know the “origin?”  We’re all guilty, at one time or another, of wanting to compartmentalize and pigeon-hole things and people.  It creates order.  And in Israel, a country divided on so many fault lines: Orthodox Jews vs. secular Jews, the right vs. left, Jews vs. Arabs, the Haves vs. Have-nots, it’s only natural that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews don’t always agree on things.

But why don’t they get along?

Other than several thousand Sephardi Jews who’d always lived in the Holy Sites: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Sefad, the land of Palestine under the Ottoman Empire was largely inhabited by Arabs, Bedouins, nomads.  At the end of the 19th century, at the onset of the Zionist movement, thousands of Ashkenazi Jews flocked to Palestine to escape persecution.  They were the first to arrive; they purchased land, established kibbutim, tilled the soil, built Tel Aviv on the sand dunes.  They had a head start of about 50 years over the Sephardi Jews who, for the most part, came after Israel’s founding in 1948.  The Arab nations, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, now hostile toward their Jewish population, dispossessed them of their property, their money.  They kicked them out with whatever they could carry on their backs.

The Ashkenazi Jews, generally, were better established and better capitalized.  Naturally, they did business with their own kind.  During Israel’s first decades, they controlled banks, newspapers, TV, entertainment, universities, business, government posts.  They still do.  They grabbed the lion’s (lioness’?) share.  The Sephardic Jews arrived late to the party, were handed out scraps and bones.  They were sent off to remote border towns, far from the center of power, of money.

Sephardi Jews have been playing catch-up ever since.  They protest against discrimination, prejudice, cronyism.  Which is why, even today, each group looks out to help its own “members.”  Which is why my interviewer – I never asked him of his origin – wanted so desperately to know the Name of my Club.

I rise from my chair and shake his hand.  Whether he’s an Ashkenazi or Sephardi, I could only label him an idiot.  He’s still bound by Tell Me Where You’re From rather than Tell Me Where You’re Going.

Outside the office building the air feels good.  As Lavi, the lioness, I rush home to rejoin the pride.  I need to feed my cubs.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at


11 Responses to “Your Jewish name might be hazardous to your Job”

  1. Sandy Galfas August 4, 2013 at 12:48 am #

    Hi Maurice. Another inciteful blog post. I found your ironic reference to being “extraterrestrial” very funny. And I, too, thought the interviewer was an idiot. 🙂 Sandy

  2. Mark August 4, 2013 at 1:30 am #

    As if the issue of a Jewish name in America is not problem enough-where as a child-school mates made fun of my family name, Bernhard, calling me “heartburn”, or “burn easy”, but to have to undergo a not dissimilar degradation-in Israel-of where your great- great grandparents name originated is unbearable and demonstrates the height of chutzpah in the interviewer. In Israel, they may never call you a dirty Jew, they may just call you dirty. At least, in your blog, you left his office with a sense of comedy, and hopefully your dignity intact.

    • Maurice Labi August 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      Talk about timing? Just today an article appeared in Haaretz newspaper about a Sephardi (Mizrahi) who was rejected for a job due to his “background.” He later changed his name and re-submitted under an Ashkenazi, non-intrusive name and was accepted immediately. Courts grants the plaintiff 50,000 shekels in damages.

  3. Avi August 4, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Maurice, does a question about your background mean to probe your ethnical backround? I am not rejecting the possibility, but unless I’m missing something — how can you be so sure?

    • Mark August 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

      The Haaretz article stating the award of damages to the plaintiff makes it clear that the issue is over a person’s ethnic origin, Mizrahi/Sephardi vs. Ashkenazi. There is no ambiguity about the discriminatory practice.

  4. Meg McI August 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Would you really want to work in/for a company that would hire this kind of H/R person? I’d have double-thoughts about joining that corporate cultural wasteland.

    I always enjoy reading of your adventures but the “background” historical lesson here was more than a wee bit interesting. Keep roaring – & writing.
    Cheers Meg

  5. Laura August 6, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    Love this posting and the history lesson it contains. Will come back to check out the maps.

  6. Nezar September 15, 2013 at 1:08 am #

    The ending “vich” and “sky” are Russian, predominantly influenced to Slavic surnames, “ski” and “sky”. I don’t think Romanian surnames have some Slavic influences, please forgive me if I annoy you by correcting your mistakes.

    I experience the same situation, I am adopted to a Ashkenazi Georgian Jewish family in Moscow, their surname is Georgian (Mchedlishvili) and my surname is Armenian (Mkrtchyan). When they noticed my application that I ticked my religion “Jewish” and they look befuddled with Arabic name and Armenian surname.

    Shalom aleichem va g’mar chatimah tovah!
    Nezar Mkrtchyan, London.

    • Maurice Labi September 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

      Welcome to the tribe. Thanks for following me around.

  7. GP August 1, 2015 at 3:12 am #

    I bought a shofar from a Judaica site and was asked the origin of my name – I am not Jewish. It definitely left me pondering…

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