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

A close-up

Page 55 contains some of the most interesting visual evidence that my book offers, with both methodological and historical significance. On this page, readers will find the “Distinctive Jewish Names,” or DJN list, a list developed by an American Jewish social scientist, Samuel Calmin Kohs, to count Jews for social welfare purposes. To create the list, Kohs asked a group of Jews and non-Jews to identify the names that they saw as exclusively Jewish; the agreed-upon 106 names on this list then became a part of Kohs’ counting methodology.

I find this list compelling for many reasons. For one thing, the names themselves—which include Goldberg, Epstein, Rosenberg—are just fascinating to look at. Individually, many of these names have been used as jokes or synecdoches for Jewishness. Brought together on one list, they offer a fascinating portrait of what it means to be a Jew: how Jews are perceived and understood through the linguistic signals of their names. One of the key points I hope to make in my book is that Jewish names do not have inherent Jewish meaning, but they were historically turned into racial markers of Jewish identity, markers that identified Jews and enabled their exclusion.

In addition to illuminating how Jewish names have determined and marked Jewish identity, the DJN list is a fascinating historical document of its moment, the early 1940s. Although Kohs initially constructed the list to help provide social services for Jews, he first used the list to help the National Jewish Welfare Board count the Jews fighting in World War II, in order to defend Jews against the claim that they evaded service. The list is thus a testament to the antisemitism of the era, while it also clearly notes how crucial Jewish names were for Jewish identity at this time.

Finally, the DJN list offers valuable methodological possibilities. If name change petitioners possessed one of these names, I counted them as Jews. (If they possessed other Jewish-sounding names, I used a host of other clues to determine if they were Jewish). As noted before, American Jewish historians have had difficulty studying secular Jews unaffiliated with the Jewish community. The distinctive Jewish names list—used judiciously, with appropriate qualifiers—can help historians to go beyond organizational records to consider secular Jews in America.

Certainly, using the DJN list throws a harsh light on the antisemitism that my research uncovered: using Kohs’ methodology, only about 3.75 percent of the New York population should have had a distinctive Jewish name found on the list. Yet roughly 30 percent of petitioners for a name change in New York City Civil Court had one of these 106 “distinctive Jewish names.” This disproportionality points to the stigma that Jewish names possessed during the 1940s, while it also offers insight into Jewish responses to that stigma.