Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Why I’m Keeping My Name

I’ve been teased about it my whole life, but my name is a part of me. Getting married won’t change that.

Print Email
(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock)

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.)

Tony (left) and Jeff. (Courtesy of the author)

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.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
marjorie ingall says:

ROCK ON, NISHBALL. Great piece.

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Good on you Jeff! Can’t help but think what fate would have bestowed on you had you attended a Jewish school, matzah ball is as far as the goyim could go with their limited knowledge of Yiddish cuisine. Since you may have lost out on some good nosh, here’s Ms. Roden for you: Enjoy, what could become a signature recipe. Knock ‘em out!

Mazel tov to you! And your intended! Great piece!

Nishball for the win! Tony is lucky to have you.

Um, these are homosexuals. Does this really have a place on a Jewish website?

I am completely sick and tired of the homosexual agenda trying to equate the marriage of a man and woman to single gender marriage. Why do the majority of normal Americans have to be expected to openly and willingly accept this societal aberration? Last I checked, what you do in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom, not be forced upon all unsuspecting and disapproving peoples. Enough already. Do you really have no other identity than that of what gender you have relations with? Is the homosexual community that narrow and uninteresting? Just live your life and leave the social agenda alone.

For whatever it is worth I support gay marriage. However, as the 2 comments above show this site may be a Jew’s only exposure to homosexual life. Knowing that you might reconsider publishing articles of this type. All it seems to do is portray gay people as shallow, superficial, and narcissistic.

William Winkler says:

Will Winkler
Very funny and very interesting !
Coming from Austria and still having family in Kitz (Kitzbuehel). I proudly
share a family tree going back 400 years.There is also some Yiddish in my gene pool,
but lucky for me ; my Dad was able to produce his baptism papers as a Catholic.
The Third Reich literally went over the population with a fine comb 74 years ago.
While I hardly met any jewish folks during my first 21 years in the country of my birth,
I was able to make up for it in the seventies here in Toronto, known as Hollywood North.
As a Tech I worked for 14 years in the Motion Picture and Television Industry , mingling
with many jewish actors , directors and producers. It was an entertaining time , a people with a golden heart and a great sense of humor.
Shalom to Mr. Jeff Nishball.

R F Scherma says:

Hey Zeke!

What fun! This is a rollicking pieces of humor that had me smiling all the way through. The Totie Fields reference is a riot and I’m with you, the name Nishball is a winner! We need to read more of your work. Write on!

whoffman says:

It’s interesting that anyone would read this piece – which never
mentions bedrooms or any kind of bedroom-related activity – and have this kind
of response. It’s the homophobes who can’t stop thinking about sex, equating
every minute of gay life with sex. Gay people, like straight people, spend most
of our time outside the bedroom, working at our jobs, creating our families, and
building our communities (including the Jewish community). The so-called “homosexual
agenda,” as reflected in this piece, would seem to involve such nefarious
things as watching Merv Griffin, writing letters to Totie Fields, and making
lifetime commitments to our loving partners – all while maintaining a healthy
sense of humor in the face of blind, uninformed hatred. A tremendous threat to
the fabric of American society.

Gay people in the state of New York, where the author lives,
are finally free to marry their longtime partners. The overwhelming majority of
New Yorkers support this move, and those who don’t probably won’t be invited to
Jeff’s wedding anyway. But for those who think that being married is only about
what happens in the bedroom, I can only say this: You clearly don’t know much
about marriage.

jamiesin says:

Wonderful! And, Nishy is a natural.

I just loved reading that you wanted to change your name to Zeke Nishball.

When I was about 11 years old, even though I went to a Hebrew Day School, I decided that I wanted to change my obviously Jewish name from Yaakov Cohn to…Jacob Quinn.

My late father, a Orthodox Rabbi, could be quite stern, But on this occasion, he listened, thought for a moment and said, “If you still want to do that when you’re 15, I’ll support you.”

He was a wise man.
Yaakov Cohn

May you and Tony have a long and happy marriage!

I feel your pain and revel in your acceptance. My nice Jewish last name is Streiff. “As in ‘trouble and,’ I learned to say to help people pronounce it. My father was 10 when WWII ended, and he still can’t accept that our last name is obviously German. He claims it’s Swiss. (The grandparents came here from places like Romania, Russia, and Riga, Latvia. We have no idea where we got a German name.)

So I grew up with a name no one could spell, no one could pronounce, detached from history and nearly unique. We were always the only Streiffs we knew. Even my Uncle (the one who married my aunt who grew up Streiff!) teased us about the damn name.

But when I married my sweetheart — a convert named Fraser — I could no more give up Streiff than I could have the wedding somewhere other than a synagogue. So we compromised and hyphenated.

And about 6 years later, when he confessed that he loathed having a hyphenated name, I said we could drop Fraser but I wouldn’t drop Streiff. (Hyphenation is a pain for anyone at this point in history, but it was worse for a man, because no one could seem to understand that a *man* actually HAD one.)

So now we’re both just Streiff. And so are both our younger kids. One of these days we will get around to legally changing our oldest’s last name.

So like I said, I revel in your acceptance. A weird name can be a curse, but it can also be a blessing. Everyone I went to school with can still find me on facebook, after all!

My grandfather changed our family name from Hirschburg to Burgh in 1944 when my father (of blessed memory) entered the army. Now I live as Mark David Burgh, a name that sounds like a Scots barrister. A mixed blessing, I guess. But Jewish names are pliable, many imposed on us by Austrian bureaucrats to demean us. These surnames have no real credibility. Founding Israelis understood this, freely taking Hebrew names to replace older, more degrading names.

I had been looking forward to jettisoning Epstein for so long. . .it always felt clumsy to me and there has always been the Epst-een or Epst-ine question. . .and there there was the immediately-identifiable-as-Jewish issue in my younger, identity issues days. . .but when I married my husband I just couldn’t become a vanilla Johnson, (no offense, Hubby), so plain, so gentile, (not that there’s anything wrong with that). For so long I had wanted something simple, easy to pronounce and write, short and elegant like Johnson, so naturally Epstein-Johnson was the way to go.

what a wonderful piece, I got sucked in as I usually do by the author’s stories.. I grew up with a terrible last name, which I know was changed through Ellis Island, and couldn’t wait to get rid of it! You go Jeff, and keep that Nishball rolling!

Deb says:

As someone who also grew up wanting a “fabulous” last name I found this essay to be a funny and poignant tale of acceptance and growth. A delightful account of the road to internal freedom!

Bobby says:

A wonderful essay on the trials of adolescence morphing into adult acceptance. Poignant, humorous, and truthful leaving the reader wanting more. Let’s have more,
Jeff Nishball.

Beth says:

I thoroughly enjoyed your account of “Growing Up Nishball!” Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to reading, “Flamingos in My Garden (Great title!!)”

Beth says:

I thoroughly enjoyed your account of “Growing Up Nishball!” Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to reading, “Flamingos in My Garden (Great title!!)”

Mazel tov to you both. Remember: Virtually all American surnames are patronymic so your choice of last name matters little whether it remains Nishball or becomes Acosta. But ZEKE is a great first name. Please publish your visions as the Prophet Ezekiel published his.

Mazel tov to you both. Remember: Virtually all American surnames are patronymic so your choice of last name matters little whether it remains Nishball or becomes Acosta. But ZEKE is a great first name. Please publish your visions as the Prophet Ezekiel published his.

Shari says:

That was a very enjoyable read, Im sure you touched many readers on different levels.
I look forward to reading more of your articles and…seeing Jeff Nishball in lights.
Great picture of you and Tony, you look like a very sweet couple. All the best

You didn’t mention in your article how you lied about having a degree from Northwestern when you lived in Italy.

Funny, you talk about getting married in your article and I was at your wedding ceremony years ago in Manhattan. What else did you make up in the article?

Saw your article in today’s NYTimes and googled you to read more about/by you. I think your grandmother (great grandmother??) was one of my grandmother’s best friend in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And my grandmother had a “challenging” name, too. Anna Garbelnick. Try spelling that!

Myles Lenaught says:

My friend’s last name is Cummings… it could have been a lot worse for you.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Why I’m Keeping My Name

I’ve been teased about it my whole life, but my name is a part of me. Getting married won’t change that.

More on Tablet:

The Road to the New Jerusalem, Part 2

By Sonja Sharp — If Israel and the Holocaust are most Jews’ points of identification, which holidays are really the High Holidays?