Jewish name-branding: What happened to ‘Jacob’?

Jewish name-branding: What happened to ‘Jacob’?

My husband and I named our children after their ancestors, according to Jewish tradition. As a first-generation American Jew, I continually try to instill in both of my children a sense of Jewish identity and heritage. I have shared with them the stories, the legacies both my parents have shared with me. By learning about the origins of their names, children gain a respect for their Jewish identity. By learning how their grandparents miraculously survived in Europe during the Holocaust, my children should appreciate how good they have it here, even in the worst of times.

Jack Bienstock holds his great-grandson Jacob Reiffe. The photograph was taken during a Chanukah party. Photo by Berverly B. Margolies

My mother, Marie, was born in Elberfeld, Germany and my father, Jack, was born in Paris, France, in the early 19’0s. My son’s first and middle names, Robert and Seth, are in memory of my Grandma Rosa and my Grandpa Shmul, my mother’s parents. Rosa and Shmul emigrated from Poland for a better life in Germany. Shmul built himself a successful tailoring business and factory with close to ‘0 employees. By July 1933 the Nazis had taken over Germany and Shmul and Rosa knew they were in imminent danger.

My mom was only 8 years old when she and her family hastily fled, in the dark, through miles of forest, to Belgium. By September of 1933 they had settled in Paris, where they learned a new language and started a new life. That’s where my mom met my dad in 1939.

My dad’s name is not really Jack. His parents had named him Jacob Joseph. They had wanted to instill in him a sense of Jewish pride and identity. With anti-Semitism rampant in Paris during that time, the names Jacob and Joseph were too revealing to the world around him. As the only Jew at his school, my dad learned quickly to fight back when he was teased. To avoid these confrontations he began calling himself Jacques.

The name Jacob branded him as a Jew almost as much as wearing the star of David did in June of 194′. As part of the German occupation of Paris, all Jews were commanded to sew a yellow star on the outside of their clothes. Being branded by that yellow fabric, and his hatred for being branded, is what actually saved my dad’s life. My dad hated wearing the star of David for everyone to see. As a French citizen, he felt betrayed, humiliated: branded like an animal. As a Jew he was singled out, targeted. He instinctively knew he had to leave Paris.

Aided by his closest friend and neighbor, Ren?, and a sympathetic French railroad worker, my dad escaped to the farm in France where he had spent his summers, to be free from the German occupation. And miraculously my dad and this heroic railroad worker orchestrated the escape routes for each member of his family and my mother and her family, out of Paris. Nine family members were smuggled out separately by truck, by railroad car, and by foot through Vierzon, the Nazi-run railroad city on the border to the Free Zone.

Somehow they each reinvented their lives and adapted to an entirely different lifestyle as farmers on the most primitive of farmlands. For more than two years, they persevered in the remote countryside of Ceyroux-Les Brisseaux, leaving behind toilets, electrical appliances, and other comforts of their city life. Ceyroux became their oasis in a country consumed by evil and hatred.

When Paris was liberated, my parents married and started a family there. When my brother and sister were born they were given the neutral French names Claude and Simone. My dad chose names that would not publicly identify them as Jews. In March 1951 my parents reinvented themselves again by coming to this country. My dad officially changed his name from Jacob to Jacques (Jack). He gained a new name, a new country, and a new sense of pride as an American Jew. In February, my dad, now 85 years old, became a great-grandfather. His new great-grandson, my great-nephew, is named Jacob.

When my daughter Brenda was only 6, she believed that I had given her the Hebrew name Bracha because it meant "broccoli," and her brother, Robbie, was named Efraim, which meant "French fries." In Hebrew school she learned the true meaning of her name: Bracha means blessing. Her middle name is Joy, which makes her truly a joy and a blessing.

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