“A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America” by Kirsten Fermaglich— What’s In a Name?

Fermaglich, Kirsten. “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America”,  NYU Press, 2018

What’s In a Name?

Amos Lassen

“A Rosenberg by Another Name” is Kristen Fermaglich’s history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century, showcasing just how much is in a name and it is a fascinating and enlightening read. We have many stories about name changes from those of ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or Ellis Island officials who changed immigrants’ names for them. However, we learn here that the real story is much more profound. Fermaglich examines previously unexplored name change petitions to upend the clichés that we have heard all of our lives and we see that in twentieth-century New York City, Jewish name changing was actually a broad-based and voluntary behavior: thousands of ordinary Jewish men, women, and children legally changed their names in order to respond to anti-Semitism. They were not trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community. While name changing allowed Jewish families to avoid anti-Semitism and even achieve white middle-class status, the practice also created pain within families and became a stigmatized, forgotten aspect of American Jewish culture. 

This first history of name changing in the United States says something about American Jewish life throughout the twentieth century. We see here “how historical debates about immigration, anti-Semitism and race, class mobility, gender and family, the boundaries of the Jewish community, and the power of government are reshaped when name changing becomes part of the conversation.” 

Fermaglich went through court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature and convincingly maintains that name changing has had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Ordinary Jews were forced to consider changing their names as they saw their friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors doing so. Jewish communal leaders and civil rights activists needed to consider name changers as part of the Jewish community, making name changing a pivotal part of early civil rights legislation. Jewish artists created critical portraits of name changers that lasted for decades in American Jewish culture. The book ends with the quite disturbing realization that the prosperity Jews found by changing their names is not as accessible for the Chinese, Latino, and Muslim immigrants who wish to exercise that right today. 

We gain a new appreciation for the levels of complexity that Jewish identity was forced to take on in post-war America. This is a powerful story about “anti-Semitism, adaptation, markers of identity, and the kinds of choices and sacrifices that people must make in the name of access, privilege, and commitments to their communities.”

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