Naming names

Naming names

A look at luminaries who have - or have not - changed theirs

Have you noticed? These days, many Jewish Americans in the public eye have kept their identifiably Jewish names instead of changing them. Especially comedians.

Think of Sarah Silverman, she of the potty mouth. Sacha Baron Cohen. Jerry Seinfeld. Adam Sandler. Gilbert Gottfried.

Unlike so many Jewish or part Jewish comedians of bygone days, such as Jack Benny (Kubelsky), Red Buttons (Aaron Chwatt), Joey Bishop (Joseph Gottlieb), Mel Brooks (Melvyn Kaminsky), Milton Berle (Mendel Berlinger), Jack Carter (Jack Chakrin), Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman), Jackie Mason (Yakov Mosher Maza), Don Adams (William Yarmey), Joey Adams (Abromowitz), Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker), Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), Danny Kaye (Kaminski), Victor Borge (Borge Rosenbaum), Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), Joan Rivers (Molinsky). And so on and so forth.

By the way, this overflow of Jewish comedians has been explained by psychologist Samuel Janus: For Jews, he told a meeting of the American Psychological Association in the 1970s, “comedy is a defense mechanism to ward off the aggression and hostility of others.” (While 3 percent of the U.S. population was Jewish then, he reported, Jews constituted 80 percent of professional comics. They probably constitute less today, what with the influx of comedians from other minorities.)

Old-time Jewish comedians (and Jewish entertainers in general) who changed their names seem to have had twin motives:

“¢ As “camouflage,” to protect themselves against people biased against Jews in general. The names they adopted were typically Anglo-Saxon.

“¢ To adopt “stage” or “screen” names – simpler, easier to remember, perhaps more pleasing to the ear. Kirk Douglas had been Issur Danielovitch, June Allyson (not Jewish) was once Ella Geisman, Paulette Goddard (with some Jewish ancestry) had been Marion Pauline Levy, Edward G. Robinson was Emanuel Goldenberg, Bob Dylan was Robert Zimmerman.

Possibly actor Bernie Schwartz changed his name to Tony Curtis for both reasons. (When I.A.L. Diamond, the noted screenwriter, met Tony Curtis’s father, he asked him, “Mr. Curtis, why did you change your name to Schwartz?”)

The camouflage motive may have been warranted. In the 1940s, when medical schools discriminated against Jewish applicants, a friend of my family’s named Irving Solomon changed his name to something like Gerald Taylor, hoping to bolster his chances of getting accepted into a medical school.

Later, he told us, unhappily, that new medical school applications had begun asking, Have you changed your name? What was your name before you changed it?

Of course, non-Jews may change their names as camouflage, too. During World War II, there was a radio news commentator who went by the name of H.V. Kaltenborn. Few knew that the initials stood for Hans von.

Non-Jews with foreign-sounding names may have changed them for similar reasons – to escape any prejudice against foreigners (Charles Bronson was Buchinsky), or just to make their names more mellifluous (Sophia Loren was Sofia Scicolow, Rita Hayworth was Margarita Carmen Cansini).

One of the most propitious name changes occurred in the 1920s, when a Russian composer named Vladimir Dukelsky (not Jewish) met the great George Gershwin (Jacob Gershowitz). Gershwin urged the Russian to change his name – and he did. To Vernon Duke. And he went on to write such classic songs as “April in Paris” and “Taking a Chance on Love.”

A young woman once told me that when she was a child, she dreamed up what she considered the most beautiful name in the world – and vowed that when she came of age, she would adopt that name. She did. Crescent Dragonwagon. She’s now a well-known children’s and cookbook author.

Back in the early 20th century, Americans tended to be suspicious of the foreign-born, considering them anarchists or worse – hence the wholesale changing of non-Anglo-Saxon names. Today, it’s clear that Americans have become more accepting of otherness in our midst. We are about to have our first partly black American president (despite his middle name of Hussein) or our first female vice president. (We did have a presidential candidate with Jewish genes once, in Barry Goldwater, whose father was Jewish, though he himself was raised Protestant. Harry Golden, the Jewish journalist and humorist, once said that he knew that the first Jewish presidential candidate would be Episcopalian.)

More evidence: Polls have shown that Americans today are far, far more likely to vote for a Jewish president than they were back in the benighted 1930s. Then 47 percent wouldn’t. Today, less than 10 percent wouldn’t.

It wasn’t only Jewish entertainers who changed their names. So did Jewish businessmen and prominent Jews in general. Sumner Redstone was born Rothstein. Samuel Goldwyn was Gelbfish. Benjamin Graham, teacher of Warren Buffett, was born Grossbaum. Ralph Lauren was once Ralph Lifshitz, George Soros was Gyorgy Schwartz.

In the operatic world, Jews also seem to have been generously represented – and, again, many changed their names. Robert Merrill was Morris Miller (originally Milstein), Richard Tucker was Rubin Ticker, Roberta Peters was Peterman, George London was Burnstein, Alma Gluck was Reba Feinstein (then Glick), Jan Peerce was Jacob Pincus Perelmuth, Leonard Warren was Leonard Varranoff, Beverly Sills was Belle Silverman, Rosa Raisa was Raitza Burchstein, Lotte Schoene was Charlotte Bodenstein. One Jewish opera singer who didn’t change her name: Regina Resnick.

But in the operatic world, name changes were common. Often singers changed their names to Italian names because Italians dominated the operatic stage. An exception was Rosa Ponselle, an Italian whose original name was considered infra dig: Rose Ponzilli.

People concoct their new names from anywhere. Whoopie Goldberg apparently sought attention when she changed her name from Caryn Elaine Johnson. Her own explanation: She had a Goldberg in her ancestry. (I like to ask people what her name was before she changed it. My answer: Whoopie Cohen.)

Actor Michael Caine (not Jewish) was born Maurice Micklewhite. He chose the name Caine because, just when he wanted to concoct a new name, he saw a movie marquee advertising “The Caine Mutiny.” “Had I looked the other direction,” he would later say, “I’d be known as Michael the One Hundred and One Dalmatians.”

Today’s generation, as mentioned, doesn’t seem to mind carrying clearly ethnic names. Irving Wallace, the novelist, was once Wallechinsky. His son, David, a sportswriter, became upset when he learned what the family name had been, so he changed it back to Wallechinsky.

Naturally, there have always been exceptions. Those wonderful old comedians, the Marx brothers, didn’t change their last names – only their first names (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo). Leonard Cohen, the singer, obviously kept his name. Jon Stewart Lieberman, the satirical newscaster, did change his name. So did actress Natalie Portman (Hershlag). Paul Stanley of KISS, the rock band, was born Paul Stanley Eisen; his bandmate, Gene Simmons, was born Chaim Witz in Israel. Lou Reed, another well-known Jewish rocker, was born Lou Reed, but his father had changed the name from Rabinowitz.

Nate Bloom, an authority on name changes (see page 5 in the print edition) who has been very helpful with this article, tells me that it was in the 1970s that prominent people with non-Anglo-Saxon names began using their real names. Paul Michael Glaser and Dustin Hoffman were pathfinders among Jewish actors, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel among Jewish entertainers, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino among Italian actors.

The widespread curiosity about who’s Jewish (again, see page 5) stems, of course, mainly from pride: We kvell in seeing that America’s heroes are members of the tribe. But there’s also our pleasant surprise in discovering that, say, actress Anouk Aimee’s real name was Francois Savya Dreyfus.

At the same time, it’s a trifle disappointing to learn that sometimes people we were sure were kinfolk weren’t. I had mistakenly thought that actress Dorothy Lamour was Jewish. And June Allyson. And Ringo Starr. And Charlie Chaplin. (I really miss June Allyson.)

The “keeping Jewish names” phenomenon is clearly a sign that American society has become more accepting of other ethnic groups. It’s not a cause for widespread celebrations with feasts and fireworks, but it’s a small step for mankind (and womankind). I suspect that TV programs featuring Jews – remember “The Goldbergs”? – had something to do with it.

In any case, some non-Jews will no doubt be pleased at this trend for Jews to keep their Jewish-sounding names. Years ago, in Boston, a Jewish family – Kabotsky? – tried to change their name to Cabot, and a Cabot family sued to block them.

A versifier of the time proceeded to write a variation on a familiar ditty:

Hail Boston!

Home of the bean and the cod

Where the Lowells don’t speak to the Cabots

Because the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God!


In the interest of full disclosure, my own name was originally Boruchsohn, which apparently my paternal grandfather changed – something I discovered fairly recently, and which astonished all of my Boroson relatives.

A good Website for pseudonyms:

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