What’s in a name?
For Romanian-born Academy Award-winning actor Edward G. Robinson, his real name, Emanuel Goldenberg, seemed “too foreign” and, he suspected, “too Jewish” for him to find success in the film industry in the early part of the 20th century.
His story is one that resonated for thousands of Goldsteins, Schwartzes and Kleins as they moved up the economic ladder in an American society where anti-Semitism closed doors to business and education.
Name-changing in the last century among American Jews was fraught with guilt and recrimination within the Jewish community, where name-changers were often accused of “passing,” and abandoning their Jewish identity.
Most who dropped obviously Jewish names did so to become “invisible” and not draw attention to themselves, according to Dr. Kirsten Fermaglich, whose groundbreaking book on the subject, “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America,” won the 2019 American Jewish Historical Society’s Saul Viener Book Prize in 2019.
“Name-changing is really an important part of American-Jewish culture and really just American culture more broadly,” said Fermaglich, a New Jersey native who spoke virtually on January 14 at the Raoul Wallenberg Annual Program of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. The program is funded by Leon and Toby Cooperman.
Indeed, Bildner Center Academic Director Nancy Sinkoff, who moderated the program, said Jewish name-changing is as “old as the hills,” and noted that Joseph was given the name Zaphenath Paneah as he entered the upper echelons of Egyptian society.
Fermaglich’s book, the first to explore the phenomena of name-changing, focuses on 1887 through the 20th century. It is the result of 12 years of sifting through name-change petitions filed in New York City over the decades, and to a lesser extent, going through the files of Jewish organizations.
Her research debunked some myths held by the Jewish community about the origin of Americanized surnames, particularly the widely held belief that many were assigned at Ellis Island.
Using an historical photo of an immigration employee looking down at a ship’s manifest showing a set of check marks to the left of a long list of names while new emigres waited patiently in line for their turn, Fermaglich noted, “They called your name off the ship’s manifest and checked you off. You did not leave Ellis Island with any paperwork. In fact, Ellis Island rules specifically stated they could not tamper with people’s names … There really is no evidence of mass name-changing at Ellis Island.”
In reality, most who changed their names did so voluntarily and overwhelmingly they were American-born white-collar Ashkenazi Jews, said Fermaglich. A Max Greenberger in 1932 petitioned the court to change his and the names of two of his four children to Greene, writing that his was “a foreign-sounding name and is not conducive to securing good employment as a musician” (the profession of his daughter) or to finding employment as a hospital intern, his son’s profession.
Starting in the early part of the 20th century, colleges and universities began placing quotas on Jewish admissions. As it became clear Jewish identities were being hidden with nondescript names, the length of admission applications suddenly increased “from half a page to 10 pages and included such telltale questions as, ‘What was your mother’s maiden name?’ to root out Jews.”
A 1927 survey of New York companies found that 89% preferred to hire Christians. Fermaglich noted that in a 1937 court petition stenographer and typist Doris Sarietsky said her name proved “to be a handicap in seeking work.” After trying unsuccessfully for years, the now-Doris Watson immediately found a job.
Name-changing was often a family affair as women and children took the new moniker of husbands, fathers and brothers, and from the 1930s to the 1980s Jews were “overwhelmingly and disproportionately” represented in name-change applications as a means of “class-building,” said Fermaglich.
“Max Greenberger was not a young Jewish man or a hapless immigrant, but rather was a middle-aged father seeking to improve the economic status of his family,” said Fermaglich.
The zenith of Jews seeking to change their names peaked from 1917 to 1945 when numbers as much as quadrupled as legal names were needed for such things as the military, defense industry jobs and welfare. An “astounding” 50% of all applications to city courts were filed by Jews motivated both by upper mobility and anti-Semitism.
Fermaglich said the increase also reflected the fact that Jews had attained middle-class status in larger numbers than other immigrant groups, since it cost money to hire a lawyer, file the court petition and take out legal ads to complete a name change. Working-class people at the time also generally did not need paperwork to attain employment, so could hide their identity.
The rush to change names continued after World War II but by that time, many Jewish leaders were calling name-changers “traitors,” claiming they were “passing out of the Jewish community,” said Fermaglich, and images of self-hating, name-changing Jews began to appear in literature, plays and movies.
Those who had changed their names to gain entry into business and social circles were now placed in the uncomfortable position of defending their Jewishness, explained Fermaglich.
“It is important to note Jews who changed their names made it clear they were not abandoning the Jewish community,” she said, with many remaining active in Jewish and synagogue life while maintaining a different professional persona.
However, the issue became moot by the 1960s. As Jews became active in the civil rights movement, continued their upward social mobility and moved to the suburbs, their petitions to the city courts dwindled. So much so, said Fermaglich, that between 1987 and 1997, there wasn’t a single request for a Jewish name change.
By Debra Rubin