A Fish By Any Other Name

Dear Friends,

Given the personal and political rancor sweeping the nation, I thought this column, written well over a decade ago, would be of interest. It tells the story of a scientist who suddenly finds himself in the middle of something totally outside his field.


Behold the lowly Jewfish, denizen of the deep, rarely seen, who recently had its 15 minutes of fame and then some. Now known as the Goliath Grouper, which actually is what it is, the Jewfish has been the subject of some pretty fishy news tales of late. And all because the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (AFS) decided a name change was in order. The devil, as they say, is in the details and a little research shows this to be a lot more devilish an issue than it first seemed.

I daresay those familiar with the Jewfish, or even that there was such a thing, were few and far between before its fame came a-knockin’. For those still shut out of that corner of Davey Jones’ locker, here’s what is really a pretty interesting tale.

Being Jewish I thought for sure I could easily find someone who knew why this fish was deemed a Semite and if it was anti-Semitism that brought upon it its ignoble name. I was wrong. This monster of the reefs had swum for centuries below the Jewish community’s radar. I turned then to Dr. Joe Nelson, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada where they know a thing or two about fish. Dr. Nelson chairs the society that names fish. He had “the rest of the story.”

The Jewfish got its name from the natives in Jamaica in the 17th century. The first story was quite benign. A world traveler named Dampier in 1697 said the fish was favored by Jamaica’s Jews for its kosher qualities. This theory held sway until someone woke up, some 300 years later, and realized Dampier wouldn’t have had a clue what kosher was no less what laws governed it. Basically, if any fish has scales and swims instead of bottom-feeds, it’s kosher.

In 1774 along came Edward Long, no fan of Jews was he. He held in low regard this tiny minority on the King’s property. The Jews ate the fish salted. This was different enough from the norm that Long decided it called for a separate name—Jewfish (or fish eaten like the Jews). But it got worse. Doc Nelson shared with me that there are some 40 species that have carried the name Jewfish opining the reason to be perhaps because their visages looked like the age-old derogatory cartoons of Jews, not invented by, but made famous by, the Nazis. Some morphed into the name from the species called Jawfish. Some have said Jewfish to have once been Dewfish or Junefish. But Jewfish stuck, following if you will the religious dictum that if you’re born of a Jewish mother, you’re Jewish.

The bottom line here is the odds heavily favor the name to have been derogatory.

The response has been “whatever!” Some said, “So what?” Some said, “Who cares?” Some said, “Who knew and why know now?” The world at and above sea level is going to pot. How important is this? I posed that question to the good professor out there in the cold and decidedly non-Jewish climes of Alberta. Here is his right-hearted and heartfelt response.

“Yes, I’ve heard the arguments, that we should be worrying about migrant workers or getting on with basic research. Quite frankly I do not understand these arguments that we can not and should not do both. Does it mean that if I feel helpless to address the biggest problem of prejudice that I should do nothing? Does not showing sensitivity to problems that I can effectively deal with and do something about sending a message to those showing hateful prejudice have its own importance?”

No one is born hating. You have to be taught. Ironically it took broadway to raise that point. A solid and sure way to change attitudes is to start to start changing one’s own and then expand the attitudinal change to one’s own circle of colleagues, family, and friends. They then do the same. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Yes the world faces great threats including global warming, which could make such discussions about fish academic for many of them.

But Dr. Nelson asked, “Can’t we do both?” Rabbi Hillel answered centuries before the question was asked. He said, “If I am only for myself, what am I ?” “If not now, when?” (It’s very Jewish to answer a question with a question!)

Dr. Nelson, you’re one of the “good guys” and my final answer then to your question is decidedly “yes!”—at least from my perspective.


Bill Gralnick writes of fish, ships, tacks, sealwax and many other things. He does it on Sundays, all from his perspective. For more information about Bill, his blog, and his books hit his website http//:www.atleastfrommyperspective.net

Oh yes, and read. It’s good for both of us.


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