The Jewfish and Me

The recent controversy over the Civil War Battle Flag of the Army of Virginia highlights the importance and complexity of symbols in modern day life. To some, the flag represents their heritage and sacrifices, some mortal, made by their ancestors. To others, it is rightly a symbol of the oppression of their ancestors and even themselves, highlighting the diverse meanings of cultural icons. The long-standing debate and recent action to halt display of the Battle Flag reminded me of a similar although less widespread and virulent issue that I was personally involved with, the name change of a large Caribbean fish from Jewfish to Goliath Grouper.

To understand this issue one must first understand some precepts of Judaism and my personal journey through my religion. One of the ancient and primary precepts of Judaism is Tikkun Olam, or “repair the world” which provides a foundation for the Jewish obligation of making the world a more just and hospitable place. Tikkun Olam is the central concept behind the Jewish belief that God works directly through our actions; hence, if we are passive bystanders that chose not to perform mitzvot we are not obeying God’s charge.

As a child of the 60’s I experienced the infusion of Tikkun Olam into popular culture as we faced challenges such as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the economic downturn of the 70’s. Although I was raised in a fairly secular Jewish family, Tikkun Olam was a well taught concept. After all, my family had suffered directly from the failure of both individuals and societies to stand against evil and injustice via the Eastern European pogroms that had brought my grandparents to the US and the villainies of the Nazis and Stalinists who “disappeared” many of our European relatives. As a teenager I discovered two adages that have served me throughout life: first, Edmund Burke’s apocryphal quote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”; and second, Martin Niemöller’s testimony “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” In these days of political polarization it may be difficult to imagine the impact the social issues of the 50’s — 70’s had on America’s youth, especially those of a liberal bent.

At university, my strong social conscience clashed at times with my interests in ecology and natural resource management, especially when the tear gas canisters flew during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Nonetheless, after three years I switched my major from Pre-Law to Conservation of Natural Resources in order to pursue a career that nourished my life-long passion for natural environments and their inhabitants. I finished my degree at the University of California Berkeley and headed off to graduate school, ultimately completing a PhD in Ecology at UC Davis. My dream job was a faculty position at a research university which would allow me to both teach and conduct research and perform Tikkun Olam through scholarship and teaching.

Like many academics, the dedication and concentration necessary for completion of a doctoral degree, and the almost indigent graduate-school lifestyle, made it easy for my interest in formal Judaism to lapse; a pattern that continued until my own daughters were born. But the philosophy and practice of Tikkun Olam were essential components of my life practice; synagogue member or not. Without retracing my early professional voyage, a tale that bores even my own family — suffice it to say that a by the early 90’s I was a tenured Full Professor at the University of Georgia, and an author of half a hundred scientific papers on the ecology of fishes.

Business leaders join Rotary and the Kiwanis Club and university researchers join scientific societies; consequently, while doing my undergraduate senior research internship at Berkeley I joined the American Fisheries Society. One of the roles of this society, in concert with the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, is to determine official common and scientific names of fishes, via a joint committee called the “Names of Fishes Committee”. These names are listed in a volume entitled Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada and Mexico first published in 1948 and revised about once a decade.

It is not surprising that animals have many different common names varying from region to region, which is why biologists use a unique Latin name for each species called a “scientific name” or “binomial”. These names are based on Linnean nomenclature, a system that classifies all forms of life; devised by the 18th century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. Scientific names are useful because they are precise and avoid conflicts such as when my Russian-born grandmother insisted that Sander vitreus is a yellow pike but I replied “no, it’s a walleye”. Not surprisingly, the more widespread a species, the more common names it typically has; a highly confusing situation for everyone. Although most common names reflect some feature of the animal — bluegill really do have blue-green gill covers — some common names are based on other factors such as aboriginal usage i.e., wapiti for elk, or even prejudicial stereotypes, which brings us to the former common name of Epinephelus itajara a large (up to 800 lbs) member of the grouper family, found in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Southern Atlantic Oceans — yes, the Jewfish.

How in the world did a fish come to be called Jewfish? After all there is no Protestant fish, no Episcopalian fish, no Islam fish, but not only was there a Jewfish from the South Atlantic, but one off southern California, and multiple species in Australia. Although no one has completed a thorough inventory, apparently there are over 40 fish species that bear “Jew” as part of their name. The primary, and perhaps only, scholarly account of how the epithet Jewfish came to be applied to these species is a 1996 article in Tropical Fish Hobbyist entitled “The trouble with Jewfish or what’s in a name?” by Richard Gould and James Atz. Although I do not know Gould’s background, Jim Atz (deceased) was a well respected ichthyologist and Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Gould and Atz reviewed the Jewfish literature from William Dampier’s first usage of the name for Epinephelus itajara in 1697 through modern times. Although Dampier, an English privateer, claimed the Jewfish name was based on the fish’s large size, high palatability, and kosher status, such a claim bears close scrutiny. Certainly it seems odd that local inhabitants would name a desirable food fish after the Jews, especially when Jews were viewed with suspicion and prejudice by many local residents of European origin including the British. Typical attitudes were reflected in Edward Long’s 1774 History of Jamaica “The rascally tricks, for which both ancient and modern Jews have always been distinguished, may have served not a little to embitter the popular hatred against them.”. And then there is the quote by Sir John Richardson, who named the Western Australia Jewfish in 1845 — “In some English possessions, fish of small estimation are termed Jew-fish.” Given that Jews made up a very small percentage of the Caribbean population in the 18th century and years prior, combined with the common anti-Semitism of the time, the claim that Epinephelus itajara was named Jewfish because it was “a great fish representing a great people” has little factual support.

This claim also makes no sense from a dietary perspective because many other kosher fishes were much more common and easier to catch in the region than the Jewfish — yet none of these highly palatable fishes were named Jewfish. In reality, non-kosher marine fish are the exception rather than the rule, regardless of the region. Indeed, the kashrut argument also is negated by the fact that trayf fishes such as the hammerhead shark also were called Jewfish in both the ancient language of Southern France (Occitan) and Old Sicilian, apparently based on the resemblance of their head to a ceremonial headdress worn by medieval Jews.

Gould and Atz did a splendid job sorting historical fact from fable and their conclusion is “Why is it that people all over the world have chosen to call fishes of such different kinds by the name jewfish? The descriptions of jewfish by Ogilby and Jordan quoted above make it obvious to us. The physical and behavioral characteristics mentioned by them are ones that many jewfishes share: large size, stout body, ugly head with a large mouth, dull color, and sedentary behavior, yet with voracious feeding habits. Such characteristics — natural in animals, but undesirable in human beings — are mainstay caricatures of anti-Semitic beliefs.”. Gould and Atz’s conclusion has yet to be challenged in any scholarly manner.

Given the anti-Semitic origin of the name, why was the American Fisheries Society still endorsing Jewfish as the scientifically accepted common name for Epinephelus itajara? This was particularly curious because of Atz’s strong scientific credentials. Although for many years the Jewfish name had bothered me as a fisheries professional, it was only after: 1) the birth of my daughters, 2) twenty years of life in a relatively small Southern town with few Jews, and 3) membership in our local reform synagogue, that I realized I might be able to do something about the name. Certainly, I did not want my daughters growing up asking why there was a fish named after our religion but no fish named after others. Curious as it was, I found myself at the nexus of a Jewish issue involving both Tikkun Olam and fisheries.

Nonetheless, I was not the first scientist to try and get the Jewfish name changed. Rumor had it that previous efforts had occurred, but were unsuccessful; and the issue had become somewhat politically charged within the American Fisheries Society. Having served as an editorial board member for several scientific journals in fisheries or ichthyology and also having a strong research and publication record, perhaps I had a strategic advantage in pursuing this issue, especially because I was also both professional and personal acquaintances of several scientists on the Names Committee. Regardless, it was clear this would have to be a group effort, so I sent a petition to senior fisheries scientists that quickly garnered over forty names in support of changing the Jewfish name to something less defamatory. This petition was sent to the Names Committee and by May 2001 official notice was issued that the accepted common name for Epinephelus itajara was now Goliath grouper. I was not enthralled by the new name, but pragmatically it was much better than Jewfish.

So my colleagues and I accomplished a small bit of ichthyological Tikkun Olam and children, Jewish or otherwise, would not be subjected to aquarium signs saying “Jewfish exhibit” nor market placards reading “Jewfish $8.98 lb”. And thanks to the Names Committee, the American Fisheries Society changed an accepted common name for only the second time in half a century (the first was the renaming of the squawfish to pike-minnow). Although, it was clear there would be resistance to the name change, especially from Florida sportsmen who had used Jewfish for many years, I was surprised by the intensity of their reactions. Like the Battle Flag, the Jewfish represented a symbol to many fishers against interference from a scientific organization many of whose members were federal employees, and political correctness in general. Then there were some fisherman of Jewish heritage who said the name made them proud. Of course neither of these groups bothered to investigate the origin of the name. But the similarity to the Battle Flag issue remains, to a small group of fishers we were denying them the right to keep an historical fish name (their heritage) and to others like myself, the derogatory and anti-Semitic nature of the original naming should not be perpetuated.

The story was picked up by a number of major newspapers who tended to focus on the negative responses, especially those charging “oversensitivity”. Many of the comments, even from Jews, were of the “it doesn’t bother me why should it bother you” ilk, but of course these comments take a self-centered view of the universe and show little understanding or empathy for others. Clearly words and associations have tremendous power as numerous sociological studies have shown. To associate Jews with a large, aggressive, ugly fish leads to extending those undesirable characteristics to members of the religion. Our religious forbearers certainly recognized that negative terms and associations have substantial power to harm, as reflected by a variety of prayers including the Ten Commandments, which describe multiple sins involving speech and false witness. On a local level, my rabbi and fellow congregants were very supportive and invited me to speak to our congregation about the name change.

Although I received multiple angry and potentially violent phone threats, what surprised me were the responses to the press of some Jewish spokespersons. For example, a representative of the Florida Anti-Defamation League was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying “There are more important issues, like peace in the Middle East”, and a rabbi from the Central Agency for Jewish Education stated “… to the point that we are worrying about the language we use — part of me is saying, congratulations, we’ve come so far.”. A Florida rabbi from Fort Myers gave the Chicago Tribune the following quote “I tell you, in the universe of things that need to change, the name of a big grouper is low on the list… I appreciate their political correctness, but people should think about getting migrant laborers a few more pennies for their tomatoes, do something good for the world. And you got that from the rabbi’s mouth”. Finally, there was the column by Philologos in the Yiddish newspaper, the Forward, which closed by quoting the Fort Myers rabbi, and also argued for the “kosher and tasty” perspective because of the supposed abundance and widespread distribution of very large (“13 feet”) non-kosher catfish in the Southern United States. Unfortunately, whoever Philologos actually is, they know little about ichthyology, because the largest catfish in North America grows to a maximum length of about half that size, and its native range does not extend to most of the Southeastern United Stated nor to Caribbean or South Atlantic islands.

Although I cannot claim to have read every relevant newspaper column, I was both saddened and piqued that so few Jewish leaders commented favorably on the removal of a blatantly anti-Semitic name from scientific and popular usage. Thus we return full circle to Tikkun Olam. Of course these leaders are right — changing the name of the Jewfish is not a deed that ranks with solutions to the problems of the Middle East or economic exploitation, and given the choice I would have solved these greater problems first. But such was not to be, and small deed though it was, I am still content to have been part of an effort to strike an anti-Semitic name from official usage. And really, how often do Judaism and ichthyology cross paths! Our exhortation from our religion is to do good deeds and in that context I view the Jewfish episode as an example of “think globally, act locally”.


I am grateful to several colleagues for constructive comments on the manuscript including: Joy Weinberg, Rabbi Erik Linder, Douglas Anderson, and Barbara Grossman. Drs. Lloyd Findlay and Carter Gilbert provided recollections of the debate within the Names Committee.