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‘My Name Proved to Be a Great Handicap’

Why American Jews changed their family names during the interwar years

Kirsten Fermaglich
October 23, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

In 1932, a man named Max Greenberger petitioned the City Court of the City of New York to allow himself, as well as two of his four children, to change their last name to Greene. One of Greenberger’s reasons was that “the name Greenberger is a foreign sounding name and is not conducive to securing good employment as a musician”—the desired profession of his daughter, Augusta. Another ground was that “the name Greenberger . . . is not helpful towards securing an appointment as interne in a hospital”—the desired profession of his son, Irving.

Max Greenberger was not a young, single man seeking to escape his Jewish past—one of the classic images of name changers in American film and fiction. He was instead a middle-aged father seeking to improve his family’s economic status. And his petition was not unusual: The court houses hundreds of other petitions from mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, all of whom submitted petitions together to abandon Jewish-sounding names during the 1920s and 1930s. The years between World War I and World War II saw Jewish families pioneering a new strategy to find jobs and get an education in the face of growing anti-Semitism. Ironically, this strategy illustrated Jews’ economic comfort in the United States—the Greenberger children were not searching for manual labor—as much as it illustrated Jewish weakness: An identifiable Jewish name was “not conducive to securing good employment” in an era of rampant and growing anti-Semitism. Ultimately, name changing permitted Jewish families to attain and strengthen their position in the American middle class, but the practice carried with it psychological and communal cost.

Before World War I, official name changing was a minor and fairly limited activity in New York, with roughly 100 people each year changing their names in City Court. Beginning in World War I, however, the numbers of name-change petitioners more than doubled, so that over 250 petitions were submitted for name change in 1917. And those higher numbers remained steady throughout the interwar years: in the 1920s and 1930s, between 200 and 300 name-change petitions were submitted each year. After World War I, then, name changing became a much more broad-based activity, not limited to a handful of relatively well-off individuals.

As filing a name-change petition became a more common behavior in New York after World War I, the reasons that individuals gave for changing their names concentrated on the “foreignness” of their names. Since the beginning of the City Court records, New Yorkers had changed their names for a number of different reasons, and eliminating an ethnic-sounding name was only one of those reasons. Throughout the 20th century, for example, some people were responding to family discontent or dissolution: Deaths, abandonment, and divorce all prompted individuals to change their names. By the 1930s, however, the vast majority of name changers—between 75 and 85 percent—wanted to abandon “foreign” names that were “difficult to pronounce and spell” and to adopt instead more “American” names. These individuals were hoping to shed the ethnic markers that disadvantaged them in American society by taking on unmarked, ordinary names that would go unnoticed.

Although New Yorkers of many different ethnic backgrounds—including those with Italian-, Slavic-, Armenian-, Greek-, and German- sounding names—petitioned to replace their ethnic names between 1917 and 1942, Jewish-sounding names predominated in the City Court files, far out of proportion to Jews’ actual numbers in the city. In 1932, for example, roughly 65 percent of the total pool of petitioners had Jewish-sounding names. By way of comparison, during that same year, the number of petitioners with Italian-sounding surnames (the next largest ethnic group in the petitions during these years) represented roughly 11 percent of the petitioners. The large number of Jewish name-change petitioners cannot be explained by the large presence of Jews in New York City. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish population in New York City was roughly 26 to 29 percent. The Italian population at the same time was roughly 14 to 16 percent. Given those numbers, one might expect Jews to change their names at roughly double the rate of Italians (that is, 29:16), not six times the rate of Italians, as was actually reflected in the petitions (that is, 65:11).

New York state law in the middle of the 20th century—just like today—made clear that one did not have to file legal papers in order to change one’s name: All one had to do was use a new name consistently and without any intent to commit fraud, and one’s new name was legal. The decision to file an official petition signaled concern that someone would be or had been scrutinizing one’s name on paper.

And that was primarily a middle-class concern. For one thing, it was expensive to change a name officially: It cost money to file a petition, to hire a lawyer, and to put an announcement in a newspaper advertising the change (a requirement of the law). More subtly and more significantly, in the first half of the 20th century, it was primarily white-collar workers and businessmen who worried that someone might be scrutinizing their names. Working-class jobs, such as domestic service or loading cargo, were more typically given to individuals on the basis of recommendations of family members or appraisals of their bodies, rather than a valuation of their names on job applications. There were, to be sure, a few blue-collar workers who petitioned for official name changes—a handful of bakers, building superintendents, and chauffeurs—but most working-class men and women who sought to change their names probably did so unofficially. It was white-collar workers—students seeking to get into professional school, businessmen hoping to impress clients, and secretaries applying to employment agencies—who sought to make their name changes official. Jews’ unusual position among immigrants, having moved in large numbers from blue-collar to white-collar work by the time of the Depression, made them the immigrant group with the most money available for filing name-change petitions and, more importantly, the most concerned about their names’ official appearance on paper.

While Jewish middle-class strength was reflected in name-change petitions, however, the fact that roughly 65 percent of name-change petitioners had Jewish-sounding names in the 1930s also reflects the rise of institutionalized anti-Semitism during the interwar years, a rise that had its origins in the late 19th century. The entry into the country of nearly 3 million Jews from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, at a time when racial science was in its heyday, impelled new constructions of racial thought about Jews in the United States. Although anti-Semitism had existed in the United States before this era, it had not been a significant feature of American institutional, social, or political life, and Jews had been classified as “white” for legal purposes. In an era of exploding racial categories and fears at the turn of the century, however, Jewish difference became a far more important part of American society.

Anti-Semitism soared in American life by the 1920s and 1930s, infecting popular discourse, shaping public policy, and affecting Jews’ economic and social possibilities. During this era, negative images of Jews circulated widely in literature and journalism, while discrimination became institutionalized among employers, in higher education, and in the professions. In 1936, Fortune magazine, for example, reported that 50 percent of applications to medical school were from Jewish candidates, while only 17 percent of those admitted were Jewish. According to a 1937 report, 89 percent of large New York companies declared that they “preferred Christians” as employees. And employment advertisements throughout the 1920s and 1930s increasingly noted that employers were “Christian” or “Anglo-Saxon.”

Names were an important part of this anti-Jewish discrimination. The corrosive humor in Puck and Judge regularly relied on monikers such as Rosenberg and Moses. Colleges and employers screened names in their efforts to avoid selecting Jewish applicants: “Names such as Aaronson, Weinberg, Lipshutz, Levinsky, or Cohen fall more harshly upon the ears of employers than Schmidt, Wise, Meyer, and Schwab,” reported Heywood Broun and George Britt in their 1931 exposé of anti-Semitism, Christians Only. “By the same token, German-descended gentiles who have names such as Schmidt, Wise, Meyer, and Schwab tell of being kept waiting until they establish that . . . they are free from Jewish association.” Although certainly not the only badges of Jewishness or the only means of excluding Jews from employment or education, names played a crucial role in identifying and discriminating against Jews as members of a distinct racial group.

Petition after petition lodged at the City Court darkly hinted at the forces of anti-Semitism that limited petitioners’ livelihoods. Dora Sarietzky, a stenographer and typist, testified, “My name proved to be a great handicap in securing a position. . . . In order to facilitate securing work, I assumed the name Doris Watson.” Bertram Levy, the president of a mail-chute corporation, found that “his name [had] been a hindrance to him in his efforts to gain an entrance to various firms and to secure business from them.” He sought permission from the court to adopt “an American name”: Bertram Leslie. And the traveling salesman Lawrence Lipschitz sought to change his name to Lipson, explaining that “people out west find it hard to pronounce as well as spell petitioner’s name and petitioner is at times subject to ridicule and embarrassment.”

A few of the petitions spoke openly of the anti-Semitism of the era. An engineer named Julius Kaminsky petitioned the court to allow him to change his name to George Joseph Kaley because, he said, although he was a Hungarian Roman Catholic, employers consistently assumed he was a Jew, making it hard for him to keep a job. “While petitioner has the highest of respect for people of the Jewish race, he finds that other people in the City of New York have not that respect and that a good many employers under whom he has worked have discriminated against the Jewish race.” Another Roman Catholic man, Leo Goldkopf, claimed that his friends and family members had urged him to file a petition to change his name to Leo Dawson because of his difficulties in finding jobs: “I have had many opportunities of obtaining employment in organizations where Christians were preferred, but my name precluded favorable consideration of my application. Upon occasion friends of mine declined to give me a written recommendation solely on the ground that my name would make it impossible to obtain the position in question.” Kaminsky’s and Goldkopf ’s petitions shed a powerful light on the veil of anti-Semitism that shrouded many Jews’ efforts to find jobs in the 1920s and 1930s.

That anti-Semitism also affected the language used in name-change petitions. Most petitioners used obscure legal language that evaded any discussion of anti-Semitism or discrimination. In contrast with the avowed Roman Catholic petitioners just described, most petitioners with Jewish names typically used vague legal language that downplayed any discrimination they faced. Many simply used formulaic reasons such as “employers found my name difficult to pronounce, spell and remember,” even when the name was pronounced and spelled phonetically. In Rose Lefkowitz’s petition to change her name to Rose Lynford, for example, the housewife and widow testified that her name “is difficult to pronounce.” Others, such as Max Greenberger, called their names “foreign-sounding” or asked the court to grant them permission to use an “American” name. The physician Belle Sheinberg did explain that she had unofficially changed her name to Isabel Beaumont because of the virulent anti-Semitism she experienced while a student in France and Austria; she said nothing, however, about American anti-Semitism. For the most part, petitioners with Jewish-sounding names never referred to their names as Jewish and never openly described anti-Semitism on American soil. To be sure, this veiled language was probably constructed by lawyers, rather than individual petitioners, and it was designed to appeal to judges’ standards. Much of the language on name-change petitions was too formulaic and repetitive to have emerged naturally from petitioners’ personal experiences alone. Nonetheless, the fact that large numbers of men and women with Jewish-sounding names used the vague terminology of “foreign” or “difficult to pronounce,” while Catholic men were much more willing to describe prejudice, suggests that Jews were uncomfortable talking about anti-Semitism and may have even been ashamed of their experiences with discrimination.

Excerpted from A Rosenberg by Any Other Name by Kirsten Fermaglich. Copyright © 2018 by New York University Press. Excerpted by permission of New York University Press. All rights reserved.


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Kirsten Fermaglich is Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and the author of A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America (NYU Press, 2018).

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