What’s in a name?
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What’s in a name?

Scholar will talk about Roses and Rosenbergs for Rutgers

Dr. Kirsten Fermaglich
Dr. Kirsten Fermaglich

Some subjects — sometimes even academic subjects — inevitably are personal.

Everyone has a name. Many of us Jews have proudly ethnic names, but many of us do not, and most Jews who do have ethnic names have relatives or friends with deracinated, hard-to-place, bland, or at times wildly WASPy ones.

For example, Greenberger to Greene

Sarietzky to Watson

Levy to Leslie

Lipschitz to Lipson

Lefkowitz to Lynford

Polotsky to Palmer

Historian Kirsten Fermaglich — who uncovered all those name changes except the last one — that’s mine — and who will discuss her book for Rutgers on Zoom on January 14 (see box) laughs when she answers the inevitable question about why she wrote “A Rosenberg By Any Other Name” — although certainly a reason she does not give but could is that the title is too delicious to resist, even if you have to do 12 years of research and then write a book to get to use it — with what she says is her stock answer. (In fact, it’s in her book, practically word for word as she recited it in her interview.) “How could I not write this book, with a name like mine?” she said.

She’s a serious academic, though — an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Michigan State University, where she specializes in studies that “center around the historical meanings and problematic nature of ethnic identity in the United States.” The history of name changing in the United States is inherently fascinating, but beyond that, it maps the story of Jewish assimilation, anti-Semitism, and the changing understanding of the position of Jews in American life.

When Dr. Fermaglich — who is from Mountain Lakes, married to a man from Harrington Park — decided to study name-changing, she found herself in an enviable position. She was discovering a new field; instead of agreeing with earlier historians but refining their views, disagreeing with them, or synthesizing them, she was creating something new. That held its own challenges; instead of going “to an archive, which most historians do, to look at material that has been deposited, I went to the civil court and stood on line.” She did most of her research in downtown Manhattan, studying 20th century name-change petitions in New York County.

“For some reason — probably because there isn’t any money for it — none of these records have been digitized,” she said. “They are not designed for historical research.” So “initially I stood on line with people who were changing their names,” although eventually she was able to bypass those lines. But for part of that time, “I did research literally standing out in the vestibule, and I got to listen to people who were changing their names.

“It was very unusual.”

What she found was “there was a growth in name changing during the 1920s and ’30s, and then an explosion during and after World War II, from 1942 to 1946; it still was high in the ’50s and ’60s.” Those name-change requests were not only from Jews, but “a disproportionate number of them were.” She had not begun her research intending to focus only on Jews. “I guessed that there would be many Jews in those records, but there was a disproportionate number of Jews.” The next-most-represented group was Italians, but the numbers were not at all close.

Because the field was new, “I went into it not really knowing what to expect, other than having ideas about name-changing that came from popular culture — books, movies, jokes. It’s usually a negative view, about somebody, a man, leaving the community, abandoning the Jewish community. Abandoning the Jews. About not wanting to be Jewish anymore.

“That’s not what I found, though. I found men and women and children changing their names together.”

Dr. Fermaglich’s research showed that as Jews tried to get the kinds of jobs that would allow them to move into and then up through the middle class, “they didn’t want to be identified as Jewish to the outside world.” Most name-changers, though, retained their connections to the Jewish world, identifying themselves as Jewish internally.

“My argument is that this is very much about Jewish life in the middle of the 20th century,” she continued. “Name-changing was both shaped by the desire for middle-class success and also by anti-Semitism. People who are looking to change their names are looking for middle-class jobs; they’re also looking for names that are presentable on applications for schools.” Increasingly, anti-Semitism became more covert; instead of signs saying that no Jews were allowed, applications ferreted out Jewish names.

“In the ‘30s and ‘40s, when name changing became a phenomenon, there was not a lot of opprobrium leveled at name-changers,” she said. “There was not a lot of communal conversation about it. But that changed after the war.”

In 1945, she said, “there were more than 1,000 of them, just in Manhattan alone.

As the trend grew, so did the reaction to it, both internal and external. “It’s an interesting dynamic — you see not only in Jewish magazines, but in general interest ones as well — in the Atlantic, in Reader’s Digest — you see Jews attacking Jews for changing their names. There were responses to those attacks, letters to the editor, anonymous essays, saying ‘I am still Jewish. I am president of my synagogue! But I want to avoid anti-Semitism, and I didn’t want my name to hold me back.’”

Most of the time, “they changed to anodyne names,” Dr. Fermaglich said. “They are looking for names that will not mark them. Names that allow them to be as invisible as possible. They are looking to be treated like other white people. On a practical level, what it means to be white is that you don’t get called out for your race. They wanted that level of invisibility in the public world.”

Both men and women changed their names. Often they did so as a family, but sometimes women changed their names on their own. Although young women assumed they’d change them again once they married, they wanted to be able to get jobs — as secretaries, as bookkeepers — before then. “There was a cultural expectation that Jewish women are more engaged in the economy than, say, Italian women,” Dr. Fermaglich said. “There are more cultural taboos in Italian culture against women working. Jewish women took a lot of pink-collar jobs.” She found many records of Jewish women, like Jewish men changing their names “because they see it as important for their children’s mobility.”

As for her name, Fermaglich is a spelling-challenged relative’s version of a similarly formidable Polish Jewish name. Kirsten is because “My parents were very ‘70s, and they didn’t want to be tied down by organized religions,” their daughter said. They thought it was a nice name, so they used it.

“I haven’t ever thought about changing my name,” Dr. Fermaglich said. “It’s my name. But because of it I am very fascinated by names. I loved the people I wrote about. I was sad to end the project. I do think that growing up with such an unusual name sensitized me to the subject of names.”

Just as scientists can now tell not only a tree’s age but the changes to its environment by looking at the rings in its core, social scientists and historians can tell much about a person and their environment by considering the name. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but its look and sound — that’s nectar and ambrosia for a historian.


Who: Dr. Kirsten Fermaglich

What: Will talk about the history of Jewish name-changing in the United States

When: On Thursday, January 14, at 7 p.m.

Where: On Zoom

Under whose auspices: The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University. It is the center’s Raoul Wallenberg Annual Program, funded by Leon and Toby Cooperman.

For whom: It’s free and open to the public

How: Advance registration is necessary. Go to the Bildner Center’s website, BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu, and click on the link for Public Events on the top.

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