Kirsten Fermaglich’s 2018 book, “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America,” complicates the story of Ellis Island name changes.

There is a story typically told about the manner in which Jewish names and naming practices developed in the United States, especially as it regards surnames.

Unscrupulous Ellis Island immigration agents, the conventional wisdom goes, saw a jumbled mass of unpronounceable Jewish surnames and, with the stroke of a pen, made sure that the names never made the journey with their bearers. Names that ended in -wicz became -witz, -ski became -sky, Meir became Meyer. Ethnic specificity, wiped out in the name of enforced assimilation.

According to Kirsten Fermaglich, one of the few scholars in the world to devote serious study to American Jewish naming practices, the real yarn is quite a bit knottier, and quite a bit longer. Just for starters, she challenges the timeline of that commonly told story.

“It’s important to me not to see name changing as completely a product of the immigration process,” Fermaglich said. “Because actually, for a lot of Jews, it happens as a product of American anti-Semitism, rather than as a product of natural immigration and whatever people think of as Americanization.”

Even her own name, Fermaglich recently told The Jewish Standard, is a rebuke to the Ellis Island story — “Fermaglich” represents a relative’s own adjustment to an even more unwieldy Polish Jewish name.

Fermaglich is a historian of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, where she’s taught since 2001. In 2018, Fermaglich published “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America,” seeking to complicate the typical conception of American Jewish naming practices.

For starters, Fermaglich noted, the surnames that Jews changed as they came to America from Europe were often fairly new — most Jews didn’t start using last names until the 19th century, when the development of modern states began to require the practice. And though some countries were fairly permissive in allowing Jews to choose their own surnames, restrictions were quickly applied in order to mark certain names as Jewish. So the precious surnames of the Ellis Island story may not have been held so preciously or for so long.

Some of those names, like Cohen and Levy, predate the widespread use of surnames, as they served a religious function, but your Feinsteins, Goldbergs and Horowitzs, for example, are likely to be of a much more recent vintage.

What Fermaglich found in her research was that it was frequently Jews themselves who, uncoerced, chose to adopt surnames that sanded down the sharper, more obviously Jewish edges into softer American nubs.

Entry into the marketplace and higher education could be made easier for Jewish men and women without a name so obviously Semitic. And entering into the social circles of non-Jewish Americans could be a much smoother exercise, many Jewish immigrants and their descendants found, by adopting their names. In this way, name changes became a route to middle-class respectability for Jews who desperately sought it.

One doesn’t need to be a scholar of American Jewry to infer that this practice was not without controversy among American Jews, who argued bitterly about how much was too much when it came to pragmatic assimilation. Fermaglich, according to The Jewish Standard, unearthed letters to the editor in both general and Jewish magazines that featured fiery back-and-forth between American Jews on the subject.

Though Fermaglich’s research is focused on the development of American Jewish surnames, she’s also able to shed some light on their first names. Many (though not all) American Jews have a separate Hebrew name, one that might only be used within the walls of a synagogue or some other religious context. Though this may appear to be another development of American assimilation, Fermaglich said, the practice of maintaining a second name for religious purposes predates American Jewry. What changed in the U.S., she noted, was that the mutating role of women in religious contexts sparked questions about the utility of having a Hebrew name. 

But secular, English first names, like surnames, were often chosen as another manner of assimilation, Fermaglich said. Mendel, Menachem and Lev became Milton, Morris and Louis over a few generations. What happened, however, was that the speed of anti-Semitism was such that these seemingly innocuous names soon became marked as Jewish names, imperiling their originally designated purpose. What was meant to be the absence of ethnicity instead became a clear sign of it. JN

Jesse Bernstein is a staff writer for Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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