A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America.
In her highly readable book, Kirsten Fermaglich builds a myth-busting case for the significance of name changing for twentieth-century American Jewish history. Populated by both ordinary New Yorkers and influential cultural figures, the book breathes life into the bureaucratic paperwork filed in the New York City Civil Court between World War I and our post-9/11 world. By reading her sources in the context of political, cultural, and social changes, Fermaglich demonstrates that name changing played a significant role in American Jews' class mobility, racial status, relationship to the government, and cultural life.
Only a small number of New York Jews officially changed their names--about 300 per year in the 1930s and averaging more than 800 per year in the peak period of the 1940s. But Fermaglich argues that name changers' importance was much greater than their absolute numbers. First, between about the First World War and the mid-1960s, Jews filed a significantly disproportionate share of name change petitions relative to their representation in New York City's population. Second, official petitions were only the tip of the iceberg, with many more Jews informally changing their names. Third, name changing was recognized and debated both within the Jewish community and in the wider popular culture as a particularly Jewish strategy. And finally, name changing was part of the broad historical processes that shaped American Jews' class mobility and racial status in the United States.
The chronological arc of name changing traced the shapes of both antisemitism and opportunity. As antisemitism increased around World War II, so did name changing; as opportunities for upward mobility opened up in the 1940s through the 1960s, Jews sought name changes to evade antisemitism and secure their place in the white middle class. Name changing was a strategy for managing stigma; Jews "covered" their Jewishness so as to ease their way in the non-Jewish world, even as they continued to live as Jews in the Jewish community.
The state facilitated Jews' efforts both to evade and to challenge antisemitism. The state appears in various guises in the book. It was, of course, the site through which Jews changed their names in order to evade private institutions' measures designed to identify and exclude Jews. The expanding state bureaucracy during World War II inspired a spike in name changing among Jews who sought to ease their relations with non-Jewish coworkers in defense industries and the military. In the post-war period, fears of antisemitism and a desire to evade it continued to motivate name changers, but civil rights activists also used the state to directly challenge private organizations' antisemitic practices. They targeted the insidious ways that employers, educational institutions, and social clubs sought to identify Jews. In these ways, the state was an ally in Jews' success in becoming part of the white middle-class--in both their upward mobility and their identity as white Americans.
Application forms were a tool in the racialization of Jews, argues Fermaglich. She details the kind of information solicited--including name changes, religion, photograph, extracurricular activities, father's name, birthplace, and occupation--to identify and exclude Jews into the early 1960s. The elimination of investigations into the racial identity of applicants was part of the process by which Jews became white. Jews thus benefited from a "color blind" civil rights strategy (perhaps contributing to the resistance of some to affirmative action). Like other white Americans, they could escape racialization and identify as "ethnic" when and where they chose. Sociologists have identified "this ability both to hide and to deploy ethnic identity" as the "essence of whiteness." Building on this observation, Fermaglich argues that "by the 1960s and 1970s, Jewishness and whiteness went hand in hand, rather than opposing each other" (184). Nineteen eighty-two was the last year when middle class Jews were overrepresented among New York name changers; thereafter petitioners were more likely to be poor and working-class people of color seeking to correct their names in documents. With the lowering of fees and the increase in bureaucratic paperwork, poor people needed their names on various forms to match in order to meet government and employers' requirements. In the post-9/11 context, increased scrutiny of identities has made matching paperwork essential to navigating the suspicions of the heightened surveillance state. Recent name changers face hardened racial class structures that disallow the kind of racial reconstruction and upward mobility that Jews pursued in mid-century.
By the end of the twentieth century, the history of Jewish name changing and the antisemitism that shaped it had been largely forgotten. Myths about Ellis Island officials callously changing names obscured the helpful role of the state. Forgotten were the families who changed their names together, as well as the single women seeking secretarial positions; they were replaced in the cultural imagination by patriarchs inflicting ethnic injury on future generations. Fermaglich shows that criticism of name changers was not new at the end of the century, but it took different forms over time. Mid-century movies portrayed name changers as "self-haters" who separated themselves from other Jews. As Jewish name changing declined in the mid-1960s and the white ethnic revival developed in the 1970s and 1980s, name changers became associated with the inauthenticity, decadence, and corruption of American middleclass culture. By correcting the record, Fermaglich restores respect and agency to American Jewish name changers, allowing readers of her essential book to remember both their pain and their hope.
Anna R. Igra