Kirsten Fermaglich

 

On her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America

Cover Interview of June 12, 2019

In a nutshell

Despite the prevalence of name changing in American Jewish culture, few historians have studied the actual practice of name changing in the United States. A Rosenberg by Any Other Name – the first book to explore the phenomenon – relies on research into thousands of previously unexplored name change petitions submitted to the New York City Civil Court throughout the twentieth century. Using these petitions, I argue that name changing was a distinctive American Jewish practice in the middle of the century. Although many New Yorkers of different backgrounds changed their names, Jews did so at rates that were far disproportionate to their numbers in the city. They also changed their names together with family members in ways that historians have not considered before.

Jews’ middle-class status helps to explain these high rates of family name changing, as does the rising antisemitism of the era. Jews reached the middle class in the United States earlier than other immigrant groups in the early twentieth century, and they sought to maintain that status through education and white-collar work. By the 1920s, however, universities and employers were developing application forms, specifically, to weed out Jewish candidates by asking questions about birthplace, religion, and, importantly, name-changing. This institutionalized antisemitism formed the context for Jewish name changing in the first half of the twentieth century. Petitioners sought to erase the names that marked them as Jewish and thus exposed their families to discrimination.

The growth of the state during World War II further shaped the context within which Jews changed their names. As the government penetrated individuals’ daily lives to a greater extent, more Jews found it necessary to change their names officially to avoid discrimination and participate in the war effort.

During the war, Jewish communal groups understood name changing as a response to antisemitism, but after the war, the Jewish community became sharply divided over the phenomenon. Some Jewish leaders accused name changers of being “self-hating Jews” who were abandoning the community. A closer look at name change petitions, as well as contemporary literature, however, suggests that the majority of name changers remained members of the Jewish community, using their new names only to make it easier to work in the non-Jewish world. Jewish civil rights organizations understood this complicated balance, and defended name changers’ right to change their names as part of civil rights legislation in the 1940s.

Jews stopped changing their names in large numbers by the 1970s, and just as they did, negative representations of name changing flourished in popular culture. Misleading images of Jewish men betraying their families by changing their names or Ellis Island officials changing immigrant names circulated widely in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And since 2001, new ethnic groups have been changing their names in Civil Court for very different reasons than did Jews 75 years ago. Our culture has mostly forgotten the history of Jewish name changing in the United States. My book attempts to reconstruct that story.