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

The wide angle

The most important reality that my book interrogates is American antisemitism. American Jewish historians have traditionally downplayed the significance of antisemitism in the United States. They have tended to highlight Jews’ economic, social, and cultural successes, and treated antisemitism as a private, contained phenomenon that had little impact on Jews’ ultimate upward trajectory. The fact that American Jews did not face the same violence as African Americans or Native Americans or European Jews, and that Jews were, for the most part, accepted as white citizens throughout their history in the United States, has led American Jewish historians to minimize the existence of antisemitism in the US.

In the wake of the current resurgence of American antisemitism, however, many scholars, myself included, have begun to challenge this progressive narrative. (Indeed, many began challenging that narrative before 2016, as I did when I began my research in 2007!) For one thing, scholars have questioned the construction and the contingency of Jews’ whiteness. Recently, they have also begun to problematize the private/public division that has made American antisemitism appear so harmless. They have explored, for example, Jews’ efforts to respond to hate speech through legislation. They have probed Jewish responses to Nazi propaganda through cooperation with the state. In my own work, I look at the interrelationship between the state processes of name changing, and the mostly private systems of employment and educational discrimination. Now that white nationalists are shouting on the street “Jews will not replace us,” and even the tiniest of synagogues are installing security systems to prevent another Pittsburgh shooting, our contemporary society badly needs historians to do a closer accounting of the history of American antisemitism, to understand the context of today’s reality.

My professional path was not directed by these immediate political concerns, however. Instead, I came to the subject of name changing through my interest in secular Jews. My first book, American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares, looked at American Jewish social scientists like Stanley Milgram, who compared contemporary American politics with Nazi concentration camps in order to make liberal arguments.

I was particularly interested in these social scientists as Jews unaffiliated with the larger Jewish community. In what ways did their analogies reflect a Jewish identity, and in what ways did their views differ from the larger Jewish community? Much Jewish history is organizational history, and because it is, it frequently does not record the experiences of the large numbers of Jews who are not affiliated with a Jewish organization. Name change petitions gave me access to a broader sample of the American Jewish population—many of them might not affiliate with a synagogue but might still identify as Jewish. Name changing also gave me access to arguments within the Jewish community over boundaries: are name changers seeking to escape the community? Should the community cast name changers out of its midst? Does a “Jewish name” define you as a Jew? These issues of boundaries are crucial to understanding American Jewish life.