My partner and I have been talking about marriage lately, especially since President Obama made his long-awaited announcement in support of same-sex marriage. I’ve been with Tony for 15 years, and we’ve talked about the possibility before—what kind of ceremony we’d have, who we’d invite (and not invite), where we’d take our honeymoon. But recently, as we walked our dog around Greenwich Village, Tony brought up something we’d never discussed: He wanted to know if I’d be interested in changing my name if we got married.
I know that I’m expected to be flexible as I think about the compromises that marriage entails. But when it comes to changing my name, the answer is no. Tony’s last name is very nice, but it’s not me. I’m not an Acosta.
I’m a Nishball. And I’ll always be a Nishball. Although I once resented everything about it, my name and I have been through a lot together, and I’m not about to let it go.
Growing up in Connecticut as a shy, awkward kid who manifested OCD symptoms as a way to deal with unresolved anger issues, I was bullied a lot. After all, I was Jewish, gay (though not out yet), not particularly athletic (a punishable offense on its own), and a Nishball (kerosene for the fire). My name was the bright red target that accompanied me everywhere. The taunting would often start with a derisively hissed, “Nish-baaaall,” or “Matzo-ball,” or the oh-so-creative “Jew-ball” and escalate from there. When we later moved 30 minutes away, I began telling the kids at my new school that I was Catholic, in the hope of removing at least one of my offenses from the list. But my bar mitzvah a year later made that one difficult to keep pulling off.
When I became an adult, scrunched-faced strangers would condescendingly ask, “What kind of name is that?” as if I should be horrified to be stuck with such a thing. I once received an impromptu marriage proposal from a very odd telemarketer who fell in love with the name and wanted it for her own. But she was a rare exception.
Although it’s completely phonetic, my name has always confounded people. I generally have to spell it slowly, as if it were a new word they were learning on Sesame Street. Yet, with every spelling came the same realization and joy of discovery: “Oh, just like it sounds!” When I lived in Italy, the locals were so befuddled that I temporarily Italian-ized it, and for two years I was Jeff Ballo, and occasionally Goffredo Ballo. The upside is that people almost always remember me. Well, maybe not exactly me, but my name. “Oh, right, we’ve met before, I remember your name.”
The surname Nishball didn’t even exist prior to my great grandfather’s emigration from Austria in the early 1890s. The story has gotten muddled over the years, but the name was supposedly born of a combination of the Austrian town of Kitzbühel, from which the family emigrated, their lack of English, and a confused and indifferent immigration officer at Ellis Island—thus, the name Knitzbol came into existence.
Apparently, being a Knitzbol just wasn’t acceptable, so the family began playing around with the spelling. It morphed from Knitzbol to Knishbol before arriving at the current spelling around 1915. The creation of this quirky, utterly unique last name has produced a club with very few members: After four generations, there are fewer than 40 Nishballs, all related to me.
My mother, though she loved my father enough to take his name in 1959, was an unwilling Nishball. She briefly lobbied for a change to Nelson or Newton shortly after they were married. (She didn’t win, but she found a way around it—deciding that she could not abide being called Mrs. Nishball, she told all my friends to call her by her first name, Marcia.) So, of course, from the moment I was born, she had been expecting the inevitable day when I, too, would demand a less objectionable surname. One afternoon, when I was 7, I defiantly marched over to her and announced, “I want to change my name.”
She readied herself for battle over why I could not be a Newton or a Nelson. “OK … what do you want to change it to?” she asked.
“Zeke!” I blurted out. I wanted to be Zeke Nishball.
I then refused to acknowledge anyone who didn’t call me Zeke. I thought it was cool and would give Nishball a much-needed hip factor. (It had never occurred to me to change my last name—I assumed that was etched in stone—and if I was going to be an oddball, I was at least going to be one with a cool first name.) But I was wrong. After five months, I went back to Jeff and accepted my future as the nerdy Jew with the funny name, and my fate as a regular dodgeball target.
When I was 12, I wrote a letter to the comedian Totie Fields, whom I had enjoyed for years on game shows and celebrity roasts. She was Jewish, rich, and famous, even with her crazy name. When I heard she was in the hospital having her leg amputated after a bout of phlebitis, I decided to send her a letter. I took out the blue-and-brown notepaper I had picked out at Klein’s Stationery. (Didn’t every 12-year-old boy have his own correspondence stationery?) I told her how sorry I was to hear about her health problems, that I hoped she’d get better soon, and that I thought she was very funny. I then concluded with a job query: By the way, I want to be an actor, so if you know of anyone looking for a precocious 12-year-old to star in their next show, please tell them to call me.
Nine months later, Totie was on Merv Griffin in her first post-surgery TV appearance. Ten minutes into the interview, Merv said, “You must have received a lot of letters and well-wishes while you were in the hospital.”
“Ohhhhh, yes, I certainly did, Merv,” she said with her trademark nasal, raspy voice.
“Are there any that stand out?”
“Well …” And with that, she went into her purse. “There is one letter that is my absolute favorite that I read to all my friends. I even recited it recently at a party. I’ve read it so many times, I can practically quote the entire thing from memory.”
She lifted her arm to display a tattered piece of paper.
“Hey, that looks just like Jeff’s stationery,” said my mother, who was needlepointing while watching the program with my father and me.
In Totie’s hand was my unmistakable blue-and-brown paper. “It’s from this 12-year-old boy in Connecticut who says he wants to be an actor.”
She proceeded to read the letter aloud to the entire nation—well, to those who were home on a Friday night at 8 p.m. and watched Merv Griffin.
“And it’s signed …”
She paused for dramatic effect.
“… get this, Merv … it’s signed … Jeff … Nishball.”
With theatrical flair, she spread her arms out, as if she were Mama Rose in Gypsy envisioning a Broadway marquee. Then with a playful, throaty laugh, she bellowed, “Can you see the name Jeff Nishball up in lights?”
Merv enthusiastically jumped in: “Well, with a name like Jeff Nishball, I’d certainly go see him.”
Totie looked out into the audience and instructed, “Remember that name, Jeff Nishball.”
Our local newspaper interviewed me and I became a minor celebrity at school. I loved all three days of it. After that, I began standing up for myself more and not taking crap from people who made fun of me. “Yeah, I’m a Jew, so what?”
A little over a year later, I heard that Totie Fields was slated to come to the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Ct., to do her stand-up act. My parents bought tickets, and I contacted her. She invited me to come backstage afterward and said she was looking forward to finally meeting me. Sadly, several weeks prior to her scheduled appearance, she died of a heart attack. I was devastated at never getting to meet the woman who told the world to remember my name.
Even though I eventually changed my career trajectory, and the Nishball name has not appeared in lights—yet—my name stopped being an embarrassment, and I eventually came out as a proud Nishball. (My gay coming out, unfortunately, took a bit longer; it didn’t happen until I was 31.)
What I once viewed as a negative has become a strong positive. Like many things in life, once I stopped fighting it and apologizing for it, and stopped trying to fit in, everything fell into place. I’ve finally accepted who I am—all of it. And I now love when friends opt for calling me Nishball or Nishy. Now my name is part of my identity.
And that’s why, even if Tony and I decide to walk down the aisle, I’m keeping my name. I even suggested that Tony take my name, but he didn’t go for it. I understood. He’s got a good name. But it’s not Nishball.
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