What’s in a (Really, Really Non-Jewish-Sounding) Name?

Where I grew up, Jews don’t hide. There’s no reason to. In the more-is-more ’80s, Jews in my neighborhood were rich and powerful and masters of, if not the universe, then of a small Judeo slice of Long Island. I did not grow up knowing the self-effacing Woody Allen Jew. I didn’t know it’s customary to chuckle when “Jewish” and “athlete” are used in the same sentence. Other than my parents, I didn’t even know liberal Jews. Jews where I lived had no inferiority complex. Why would we feel inferior when we fucking ruled?

If anything, I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had blue-gray eyes and dirty-blond hair. I had an Italian first name and a bad-ass last name of sketchy origin that people guessed was also Italian (no) or Japanese (really no). Family mythology had Sosenko as Russian, and I accepted this until I met other enko-ending peeps in college and was informed my name is actually Ukrainian.

Growing up, I longed to be Carly Silverman or Kara Sapperstein. I’m 100% Jew, three-quarters Ashkenazi and one-quarter Sephardic, with roots in every corner of the Diaspora from Russia to Turkey, Hungary to Egypt. Even Iraq. Yet somehow I still got those sidelong looks that said, “She must be half.”

I have little “proof” of my Jewishness. I went to Hebrew school until I was Bat Mitzvahed, but retained little more than the ability to read the language (with vowels.) I spent most of my time flirting, passing notes and getting kicked out of class. The non-Jewishness of my name only underscored what I considered a lack of entitlement to the badge of “Jew.” It’s what made me silently wonder along with the sidelong-glancers just how Jewish I really am and what that even means.

In college, I started getting used to being Carla Sosenko. Outside the confines of my hometown, I liked that my name sounded Italo–Eastern European movie star-ish. I’d never really identified with the whiteness that being a Carrie Susterman would entail anyway. I didn’t grow up in a house where we had bagels every Sunday (too fattening!) or where my parents sounded like Jackie Mason (they’re from the Bronx—they sound like the cast of Mob Wives). My family were reserved WASPy Jews on my dad’s side and judgmental Latina broads on my mom’s. I had a great-aunt named Fortuna who cooked rice with peas on Passover and ended every phone call with a Ladino mantra that loosely translated to pleas for her to see me a bride before her death. (The Ashkenazi do not have a monopoly on guilt.)

By my 20s, I had grown into my name, adored that it didn’t conjure images of whitefish salad and black hats. I didn’t even mind that its origin was a mystery, didn’t care about the inconsistency of Sosenko coming from my father while all my exotic characteristics came from my mother. I was no longer curious enough to delve into the mystery. And then, of course, I found out I wasn’t Carla Sosenko at all.

“Sosenko’s not our name,” my Aunt Rhoda told me one night. “Didn’t you know that?”

“Uh, no…”

Turns out my ancestors in Russia—the Cohens—had owned a brewery. (OMG, we were hipsters.) When the stupid Cossacks came in and said Jews couldn’t own businesses, my family simply took a non-Jewish name and never it let go.

My aunt had found out about the name change, when a distant cousin living in South Carolina emerged from nowhere armed with our family tree. My mother, being naturally suspicious, desired no connection with our new Southern kin, and so it had taken a while for the information to trickle down to us. Now here it was. Mazel to me.

“You’re Carla Cohen!” my mom squealed, teasing me, fully aware of the identity crisis I was now in the throes of, but I think she also understood me. She doesn’t look Jewish either. She has the kind of complexion that gets people flagged at airports. Saddam Hussein, who she thinks was “handsome,” looked like a member of our family.

“Just think of all the people from high school you could be related to!” she declared.

She was right; my adolescent years were lousy with Cohens. Adam Cohen, Stacey Cohen, Jordan Cohen—Only, as a vaguely hip Brooklynite who’d gratefully left behind the memory of Jappy suburban life in the five Towns ages ago, I didn’t long to be related to them anymore.

Ain’t timing a bitch?

As a single 35-year-old city dweller, I naturally gravitate toward the messy middle. I’m a dilettante, a dabbler, a toe-in-the-water-er. I am as much a Libra as I am a Jew. It’s why after dating for what feels like a fucking eternity, I cannot begin to tell you what I’m looking for in a guy. I can’t tell you for certain whether I want kids. I am a commitmentphobe to the core. My relationship to Judaism is no exception. Sosenkos—my sect of them, anyway—we’re all gypsies, all surface dwellers. It’s how we’re comfortable. That Jews are by nature wanderers adds a meta-complication I can’t even begin to unpack. Maybe it means we’re the Jewiest of them all.

In a way, the bipolarity of being a Cohen-Sosenko makes sense. Why shouldn’t my identity struggle extend to my Jewishness? The Cohen is the part that worries about my place in the Book of Life when I sneak coffee on Yom Kippur, the part with overprotective parents who made sure I succeeded in life and never wanted for anything they could provide. The Sosenko is everything else, the part that lives in Brooklyn (Boerum Hill, not Borough Park) and goes to therapy trying to hash out all the years stuck with those other Cohens and everything else that’s come since. Cohen is Jdate. Sosenko is OkCupid. (And Jesus Christ, can I please get the fuck off both?) I don’t know if I’ll ever feel truly rooted in either place, but I still feel intrinsically connected to both—and uneasy when too identified with either.

What do you think?

About The Author

Carla Sosenko

Carla Sosenko's work has appeared in Marie Claire, Jezebel, The Hairpin, Self magazine, Laughspin, Jewcy and various other publications. Her first play, Headcase, was produced in the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival, and her short story “Clutter” was a semifinalist in the Nimrod Literary Awards. Follow her on Twitter @carlasosenko, and check out her website, carlasosenko.com.

14 Responses

  1. Aziz

    As a half Jew with an Arabic name, you can probably guess I have had some problems cultivating a Jewish identity. But members of the tribe always recognise me for what I am. The Jewiness always shines through.

    Reply
  2. Goodjew22

    Dear Ms. Sosenko Cohen
    That all may be true and good about your history and apparently life struggles finding a suitable mate, but what’s really crazy is this Richard Simmons fellow. I hear he’s lost 50 pounds, Again.. And it’s not even summer. Is Oprah a jew because she sweats to the oldies?Idont know, I seems like discourse for a learned rabbi. But what’s really vexing, is why matzah is so darn messy. Try eating it in a taxi without crumb-staining your shirt. Impossible!
    Signed,
    The good jew

    Reply
  3. SheSingsJew

    You know, sometimes those of us who are Sapperstein would love to be a jewish Smith so we can form our OWN jewish identity instead of automatically inheriting whatever worked for ALL the Sapperstein’s before.

    Reply
  4. DirkJohanson

    Carla,

    I hate to tell you, but unless you’ve had a lot of work done since the picture at the link, you certainly look like a Jew: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://abcnews.go.com/images/Health/ht_carla_sosenko_090519_main.jpg&imgrefurl=http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story%3Fid%3D7627639&h=310&w=413&sz=18&tbnid=_BvhaK6cOeOLDM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=120&zoom=1&docid=sb5GTxNDAcTkdM&sa=X&ei=-Bt-T4bZBouy8QTXiOipDg&ved=0CEYQ9QEwBA&dur=316

    Anyway, I’ll tell you what you are looking for in a guy: someone whose combination of height and wealth attributes is substantially in excess of that of anyone who would actually want to marry you, unless they were over 50. Otherwise, you’d be married by now.

    Zai g’zint, and good luck with being looked for. Maybe you can be the next Jewish woman from New York that catches a Paul McCartney.

    PS I’m a Jew, with a name that isn’t Jewish, either.

    Reply
  5. M

    I’m from Sydney, Australia. Every second Jewish girl is called Carla (they make it Carly though) here. I never new it was an Italian name. Sostenko also sounds pretty Jewish to me. I think if you were born here you would have very different thoughts about the same name.

    Reply
  6. Gary Sosenko

    Carla,
    I wonder if we are related in some way. Growing up in Ohio I heard from my father a similar story of the Cohen – Sosenko story.

    – Gary Sosenko from Cleveland, Ohio

    Reply
  7. Julie X.

    I had the opposite — grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where my very un-Jewish sounding name sounded Jewish to the locals, because we were the only Jews they knew. I went to school with kids named Schwartz, Garfinkel and Klein, all Catholic. There was also a kid whose last name was Putz, and no one thought there was anything funny about it. Now, In NYC, with my midwestern accent and hard-to-place name, people mistake me for Irish or Greek. I like that people can’t pigeonhole me strictly on the basis of name.
    BTW, don’t let that bitter commenter Dirk the Jerk get you down. There’s no point in settling down unless you’re really ready. And until then, enjoy playing the field!

    Reply
  8. Gary Sosenko

    Carla,
    Is your Dad, Alan Sosenko? If so we are second cousins. Your Grandfather (Sam) was my Uncle. My dad (his Brother) was Paul Sosenko, who moved to Los Angeles just before I was born. I’ve heard the story about the name change, but have never seen any documentation.

    Gary H. Sosenko from Orange, California – not to be confused with the one from Ohio-whom I’ve met but could find no common relation.

    Reply
  9. Trudi Goodman

    My name is Trudi Goodman. Goodman is the Smith of Jewish names it’s so generic. None of that matters. What matters is how you feel about being a Jewish and if you want to be living your life as a Jew. By the way, my Dad’s family’s name was originally Buonommo and Guzman. They fled Spain, Italy and Portugal because of the Inquisition. It all means Goodman anyways.

    Reply
  10. Inge

    Just found this site after searching my mothers name-“Heeb”
    Loved the story and comments of others.

    Reply

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