When the Jewish comedy songwriter/singer Allan Sherman burst onto the pop music charts in 1963 with his smash hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” I could hardly have imagined that his music would soon become a source of embarrassment for me.
Like millions of others, I loved his humorous ditty about a kid at Camp Granada who in a missive to his parents rolls off a litany of reasons why after one whole day of summer camp he hates it and wants to come home – until it stops raining and suddenly “guys are sailing, playing baseball.”
The success of that song brought to attention another Sherman recording, called “Harvey and Sheila” (to the melody of “Hava Nagila”), that often made my face turn as red as a beet because I was in sixth grade at the time and there was a girl in the class named Sheila and other kids would relentlessly tease us by singing the song in our faces.
Growing up, I was conscious of my name because it was different from others.
On the one hand, it was an old-fashioned sort of, kind of, Jewish name, and for a kid in the public-school system it stood out.
On the other hand, just by virtue of the fact that it stood out I felt different, albeit in a good way. I wasn’t just somebody who had the same name as many others; I was someone who usually was the only one with that name in class.
Of course, Harvey is a name I always took notice of when it made the news, and that could be for good or bad. After Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, I felt self-conscious every time I heard the assassin’s name come up in conversation. But then there were good Harveys, like the Jewish actors Korman and Keitel, and that made me feel better about the name.
As the years went on I no longer give my name much thought – until just recently when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and East Texas with such fury that newspaper headlines screamed out the name on the front pages like it was a menace (which it was) to civilization.
This started to make me feel self-conscious about the name again, and I began to wonder who had the nerve to deface my now-beloved name by hanging it on a hurricane. I was anxious for the devastated areas to recover, and the hurricane’s appellation to fade from the news, so that I would no longer see my name smeared on the front pages of newspapers like a pariah of society.
But then, just as news of the hurricane’s destruction diminished, the name Harvey spiraled into ignominy again when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was accused of abuse and worse by numerous women. As victim after victim came forward, the name Harvey dominated the headlines again in the most negative manner and I could feel another wretched stain on my name.
Weinstein tarnished more than just the name Harvey, however. His last name is very Jewish-sounding, and make no mistake: non-Jews take note of miscreants who have Jewish-sounding names.
Jews, like any other people, commit all sorts of crimes. But Jewish crime comes with a stigma that implicitly says “Jew” because in the minds of some, the fact that a Jew committed the crime stands out more than the individual who committed it.
Jewish crime has the unfortunate side effect of fomenting anti-Semitism. We live in a world where an egregious deed committed by a person of any minority ethnic or religious group draws unwanted negative attention to that entire group.
For Jews, such illicit deeds may exacerbate or resurrect virulent stereotypes that have beset them for centuries.
Jewish crime is often associated with unlawful activities related to finance or business and it feeds into the malicious stereotype of Jews being greedy cheats or swindlers. Media reports usually don’t divulge a suspect’s religion unless it has relevance to the crime but most people know a Jewish-sounding name when they hear one.
One doesn’t even have to be Jewish to provoke anti-Semitic responses – just having a Jewish-sounding name is enough to stir the crucible of ill will.
Which brings us back to my name. “Harvey” has been getting a bad rap in the media lately, but it doesn’t bother me because I know wiser minds look at the person behind the name rather than the name itself.
I only wish I’d realized this as a sensitive 12 year old when kids were taunting me with the song “Harvey and Sheila.” More importantly now, I wish people who have negative stereotypes about Jews would realize this whenever they see or hear Jewish names in the news.