Interview with Kirsten Fermaglich, author of A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America.

Name-changing is a significant part of the history of the shaping of American identity. But, as Kirsten Fermaglich details in her book, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name A History of Jewish Name Changing in America, name-changing takes on a special significance for the history of Jews in America. Relying on information unearthed from court documents, oral histories, archival records, and even contemporary literature, Dr. Fermaglich reveals some of the complex reasons why Jews might have changed their names in 20th century America. What her book demonstrates is that far from simply being a matter of “passing,” Jewish name changing becomes a nexus for looking at not just the history of religion in America, but also histories of immigration, antisemitism and race, class mobility, gender and family, and government. This past November, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Dr. Fermaglich via email about her book. -- Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor and Special Projects Coordinator


KB: What brought you to write this book? How did you become interested in researching Jewish name-changing?

KF: My glib answer to this question is that my name is Kirsten Fermaglich—of course I’m interested in name changing! But in fact, I’ve never really seriously considered changing my name. It’s really my intellectual interests that drew me to this work. I have always been fascinated by the subject of Jews and boundaries: what puts a Jew outside the boundaries of the community? Who establishes those boundaries, and how do they shift? Are the boundaries permeable? Jewish names are one of those boundaries that function both for Jews and non-Jews, but they are imprecise and highly permeable, and thus highly contested. In other words, they are excellent subjects of study. 

I actually intended to make name-changing part of a larger study of Jews and passing, which would have also incorporated a consideration of Unitarian church membership and nose jobs. But in the end, I decided to focus solely on names—not only because it allowed me to complete this book after only 12 years, instead of 30, but also because, once I started my research, I was shocked to realize that names have been such an underexamined subject in American history. I wanted to reclaim American Jewish names and name changing from the fields of humor and folklore, where they have mostly been treated, and instead make them central subjects for historical consideration. 

KB: Why would a Jewish person in the US want to change his or her name? And, what is the context within which this was happening?

KF: So it’s important to note here that it was not just Jews who changed their names in America; people of many different ethnic backgrounds did so, especially using unofficial processes. That is, millions of immigrants and their children changed their names whenever they felt like it; American name change law is very flexible and does not require an official change. My research focuses on second generation Jews because I looked at name change petitions—official efforts to change names through legal petitions. Jews in New York City filled out these petitions in numbers far disproportionate to their residence in the city. 

And the reasons for these disproportionate changes are twofold. On the one hand, Jews reached the middle class much earlier than other white immigrant groups. That middle class status gave them the means to change their names officially (it was an expensive process), but it also gave them the motivation to change their names officially. While working-class New Yorkers found their jobs mostly by word of mouth or by an appraisal of their bodies, members of the middle class were required to fill out application forms, which appraised other, more bureaucratic facets of their identities, including their names. If your name was liable to be scrutinized as you sought a job or other form of advancement, a name change would be an economic advantage.

And that leads us to the second reason that Jews were disproportionately represented in the name change files. As Jews moved into middle class jobs and sought higher education in larger numbers, white Protestant elites came more and more to see them as a threat. By the 1920s, universities, employers, and professional associations were developing application forms specifically to identify and weed out Jewish candidates by asking questions about birthplace, religion, and, importantly, name-changing. Indeed, discrimination against Jewish candidates was the purpose of the modern application form pioneered by Columbia University in 1917 and adapted by schools throughout the nation in the next decade. 

This institutionalized antisemitism—as well as the rise of antisemitic hate speech and groups in the 1920s and 1930s—formed the context for Jewish name changing in the first half of the 20th century. Petitioners sought to erase the names that marked them as Jewish and thus exposed them to ridicule, discrimination, and hatred.

KB: In what ways is the history you explore here also a story about race in America? How did race factor into not only why an American Jew would change his or her name but also whether that name change was successful?

KF: This history is absolutely about race (indeed, “race” was initially in the subtitle, but the press took it out!) in several different ways. 

One of my central arguments is that Jewish names (as well as name changing) were markers of Jewish racial identity. Application forms actually racialized Jews by asking questions about names and identity, turning Jewishness into a separate category to be excluded. These bureaucratic questions became involuntary markers with which Jews were forced to struggle as they sought jobs and higher education throughout their lives. Jewish activists and lawyers who were crucial participants in the early civil rights movement were well aware of the bureaucratic questions that marked Jews as different, and much of the 1940s struggle to design and implement civil rights legislation in New York was actually centered around the subject of racist application forms for this reason.

At the same time, as these civil rights activists successfully eliminated racial markers from application forms, they helped to construct Jews as white Americans. Without the questions that marked their Jewish identity as problematic, Jews were more free to enter the middle class as undifferentiated white people whose difference was invisible to others, unless they voluntarily shared their ethnic background. These privileges of invisibility and ethnic options have long been noted by sociologists as key privileges of whiteness. It is important to note that Jewish civil rights activists did not at all imagine that they were fighting for white privilege for Jews: they hoped to eliminate racism against all minority and oppressed groups. However, the unintended consequence of their civil rights activism was indeed a new bureaucratic regime that incorporated Jews as white people.

Finally, I take my study up through 2012, and it is worth noting that Jewish name changing from the 1930s and 1940s is very different from the name changing of today. Today there are many more poor and working class people of color who change their names, and with fewer opportunities for economic advancement and upward mobility available to poor black and Latino New Yorkers, name changing is no longer about upward mobility. Instead, people of color today change their names either to stabilize their families, or to survive a surveillance state that denies them access to jobs, money, and healthcare if their identities display any inconsistencies on different documents. The opportunities for upward mobility that name changing permitted for Jews in the middle of the 20th century are much less possible for people of color today.

KB: What impact did this phenomenon of name-changing among American Jews have on American Jewish culture?

KF: Name changing had tremendous impact upon American Jewish culture throughout the 20th century. By the end of World War II, Jews who changed their names faced serious scrutiny and even censure from friends, neighbors, and community members. Jewish community leaders, religious leaders, and artists frequently assumed that Jews who changed their names were abandoning the Jewish community. And although that was not typically the case, nonetheless the perception of name changers as self-hating traitors emerged in American Jewish literature, film, and theater in the 1940s and 1950s, and blossomed throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, even as the sociological phenomenon of Jewish name changing faded from reality.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to the study of Judaism in America?

KF: First, it considers the complicated ways that American Jews have used names as boundaries to determine and define Jewish identity. Studies of Jews in America have typically relied upon institutional records, such as synagogues or defense organizations to understand the Jewish community. They have also used categories of religious practice to understand Jewish difference. By using state records to consider the Jewish identities of those who may not have joined Jewish institutions or participated in Jewish ritual, and who may have interpreted their Jewishness in very different ways, I hope to direct more historical attention to unaffiliated and secular Jews.

Second, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name treats antisemitism as a more important component of Jewish life in America than have many recent books. Studies of Jews in America typically celebrate Jewish success and treat antisemitism as an aberration that had only minor impact on Jews’s upwardly mobile trajectory. With my book, I hope to direct more serious scholarly attention both to the processes that isolated Jews as racial “others,” and to the impact of that isolation on ordinary men and women.

Finally, this book reconsiders understandings of “self-hatred” that have been influential in Jewish communal leadership in the past, and have not disappeared from Jewish life. Rather than understanding name changing as a behavior that propelled “self-hating” Jews outof the Jewish community, I would like readers to consider the impact of name changing within the Jewish community, since most name changers probably remained Jewish. A Rosenberg by Any Other Name addresses the pain and tension that name changing sometimes caused in individual, family, and communal life: it was a lasting decision that had impact upon families—and indeed upon the Jewish community—for generations. 

KB: What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?

KF: In addition to everything I’ve said above, I hope that people take away from this book the importance of names. Names can sometimes be seen as a minor or insignificant part of our identity, not a crucial civil right; name changing is typically seen as a source of humor, rather than a significant social behavior worthy of study.

I want readers to think about the ways that our names are deeply meaningful, not only in constructing our personal identity and self-understanding, but also in developing our relationships with family, with community, and with the state. 

Jews who changed their names should not be celebrated with jokes, nor dismissed as traitors. Instead, I want readers to understand Jewish name changing as a product of economic political, and social forces of the 20th century—and to understand its lasting impact in both Jewish and American life in the 21st century.