Nine Movie Stars’ Original Jewish Names

Nathan Birnbaum

Happy New Year! I'm not Jewish, but in honor of Rosh Hashanah, which begins today, I'm writing a slightly on-topic list. It's no controversy to say that a lot people of Jewish heritage have made their mark in Hollywood over the years. Yet despite their prominence in this industry, several actors have chosen to gentilize their Jewish names because of a perceived need to appeal to the mostly non-Jewish American public. Folks like Ben Stiller and Rachel Weisz never felt that need, but the following nine players did:

  1. Theodosia Goodman. One of the silver screen's first stars, she embodied the word "vamp". You know her as Theda Bara.
  2. Nathan Birnbaum. This fellow became the famed centenarian George Burns.
  3. Emanuel Goldenberg. Tough guy actor (and art collector) Edward G. Robinson.
  4. Issue Danielovitch Demsky. By the time this guy came to Hollywood, he had already rechristened (no pun intended) himself Kirk Douglas.
  5. Betty Perske. This daughter of Eastern European immigrants took her mother's maiden name – Bacal – when her parents divorced, then added another "l" to it. Years later, in Hollywood, Howard Hawks told her to change her first name as well, and she became Lauren Bacall.
  6. Jacob Cohen. Can a name get any more generically Jewish? Sorry; I mean no disrespect towards comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
  7. Bernard Schwartz. Better known as Tony Curtis.
  8. Winona Horowitz. Younger stars have not felt the pressure to abandon their Jewish names as strongly as their forebears (to wit: Seth Rogen, Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan), but it does happen. As you might have guessed by now, Ms. Horowitz's professional moniker is Winona Ryder.
  9. Natalie Hershlag. I don't know why this Israeli-born A-lister changed her surname. Did she deem it unattractive? Or was she trying to protect her privacy? No matter. Whatever your reasons, Natalie Portman, your secret is safe with us.