There’s a photograph in a box somewhere; my mom wears a bandanna around her head and holds me, an infant, close to her chest, while a man stands next to her, his arm around her, all of us a little faded in ’70s sepia. Above our heads, a handmade wooden sign hangs on the front of the house, reading, simply, The Schreibmans. But the Schreibmans were not the happy little family in that picture for long. The lanky man in the photo with his arm around my mother is Paul Schreibman, my birth father, who died suddenly when I was 2-and-a-half; I have no memory of him.
But I had his last name—a sort of memory that would become more important as I grew up.
My Jewish mom raised me alone until she met a wonderful (non-Jewish) man named Steve; and he became my father. Soon into their courtship, we moved from our home in Florida to England, where he lived, and my mother and I began a new life with him. At 9, I was, at long last, a member of a nuclear family: something I’d always longed for. Before too long, we moved from London to a non-Jewish swath of London’s commuter belt, my mother and Steve were married, and my brother came along shortly after. My mom became Joyce Walter, taking Steve’s last name, and my brother David was a Walter, too.
At the time, it didn’t bother me that I had a different last name from everyone else in the family. My mother was making a living as a freelance journalist and her writing name remained Joyce Schreibman, so I often saw my last name in print next to my mother’s picture. She hadn’t completely given up that part of her life, in name, at least.
My paternal grandfather, still living in Florida, also had my last name. We exchanged letters and visits regularly. He’d survived the loss of both of his sons and his wife and I was his only grandchild. He often reminded me that I was one of “the only Schreibmans left.” Unconsciously, even before I was in double digits, I felt the weight of this, and the unspoken but somehow deeply felt responsibility to be a Schreibman for him.
Though I’d grown up in South Florida, the adopted homeland for so many New York Jews, Schreibman was a name that never seemed to be easy for other people. My name was misspelled, mispronounced, and misconstrued many times in the nine years I lived there. When you have a difficult-to-say last name, you spend a lot of time spelling it out for other people or explaining how to pronounce it. It’s exhausting. As a child, I sometimes longed for a simple name, something like Smith. I was too young to feel a connection with a name as a part of my Jewish identity; I just felt that there surely had to be names that were easier to live with. At times it felt like I was enduring Schreibman rather than claiming it.
In England, starting school in grade five with the name Amy Schreibman brought me a unique status in a non-Jewish community. My name was a talking point. It, as well as my American accent, rendered me different from my very English friends, even my new English family. So I was different. I felt different. I found myself drawn to Jewish kids and teenagers that I’d meet by chance or on vacations back in Florida, to others who had names similar to mine—just as difficult to pronounce, just as Jewish: part of my tribe.
My grandfather Joe died when I was 13, and he was the last Schreibman I knew of, until I was about 15, when my mother and I were visited at home by a long lost cousin by the name of Susan Schreibman. A professor living in Ireland, Susan was a very real link to a family that I didn’t know too much about, and we began to keep in touch. Whenever she’d visit London, we’d meet up. She looked like family. From her accent to her skin color to her thick dark curly hair, she felt familiar.
But as a teenager I wanted to share a name with the other members of my household. The idea of a double-barrel or hyphenated last name wasn’t appealing to me at that point in my life; it felt like it would have been more explaining, more spelling it out, more exasperating phone calls with people trying to make my long name of 10 letters fit in their little box.
The day my name changed, I was 17. My stepfather, Steve, was adopting me, and we were becoming in legality what we’d been in life for the last seven years: family, by law, and by name. Yet Amy Schreibman had been my name and so much a part of my identity, for all of my years. I was attached to my name the way people tend to become attached to what’s been theirs since birth: intimately, complicatedly. I wasn’t yet fully aware of what might be gained by having a new name, nor of what could be lost when giving up my name and identity as a Schreibman.
I didn’t appreciate the gravity of what had transpired in the courtroom until a clerk issued me a new birth certificate and told me that the one I’d had since birth was no longer legally valid, and that I should dispose of it. Amy Walter, the certificate read in black and white. Father: Stephen Walter. This document represented something real; Steve was very much my father and had been for many years. I was in so many ways a Walter. But there was something thoughtless about the clerk’s announcement. My mom whispered in my ear that of course we would keep both certificates. She wouldn’t dream of throwing the first one away. Neither, I realized, would I.
I was in my last year of high school, so changing my name from Amy Schreibman to Amy Walter, with just a few months left of the school year didn’t make much sense. I decided that I would be Amy Walter at college. So I started college in England and I was Amy Walter from day one: It felt good to me, and it was far easier. No more mispronunciations or endless questions about the origins of my name. I was Amy Walter, and that was that.
In my first year of college, Susan Schreibman put me in touch with my grandpa’s sisters, Miriam and Ida, who were living in Manhattan. And at age 19, I flew to New York and stayed with them, in their late 70s, in the heart of Greenwich Village in characterful rent-controlled apartments, one upstairs from the other. I’d met them a few times in my early childhood, even shared a trip to Disney World together when I was 6, but this was the first time I’d seen them in over a decade.
I fell in love with the city, and I fell a bit in love with them, too. They told me stories about the Schreibman family, and I learned that we are a family of writers. Schreib means “write” in German and they shared with me anecdotes of Schreibman family members throughout decades gone by: writers, artists, fashionistas. They gave me photo albums filled with Schreibmans, family members resembling me with their long legs and dark features. I felt then what I had always known: that I was, inescapably, at my core, a Schreibman. But I realized something lovely—that I could be a Walter at the same time, that really, I always was both.
Walter had been a name that made it easy for me to assimilate where I lived in the U.K. among so many non-Jews, and, in contrast, Schreibman was a name that helped me feel very much in touch with my New York roots. In New York City, Schreibman seemed easier for people—to say, to spell; there were Schreibers everywhere, it seemed, and Schreibman was a close relation.
I moved to New York to teach at 25, and my relationship with Ida and Miriam grew. I spent many Friday night dinners with them; they were my teachers. Having known my father well (he was, after all, their nephew) they saw some of him in me and they seemed grateful for my presence in their lives. My New York years with Ida and Miriam were some of the most meaningful of my life, as I discovered more about my paternal family and learned about being a Schreibman.
In New York, my family suddenly grew. Invited to the apartments of Schreibman family members I’d never previously known about—in Manhattan, New Jersey, and beyond—I learned that the Schreibman crew was a little bigger than I’d always thought. The Schreibmans existed, and it wasn’t just a name anymore; it was a whole family, with a fascinating history and distinctive Eastern European roots.
Aged 30, I returned to the U.K. for a teaching job and to be closer to the Walter family. As I began to write poetry, stories, and articles, I used the byline of Amy Walter, but increasingly I was feeling a draw to bring Schreibman back. My writing became more prolific as I reached my mid-30s, and soon I realized that I really wanted to be Amy Schreibman Walter—not just in my writing, but also in life. I changed my name on Facebook, on my email, and in every area of my life. In my. teaching career I remained “Miss Walter” but outside school I became known as Amy Schreibman Walter. To me, my name represents my truth. And it fits; I have two family names because I’m a part of two families: the Walters and the Schreibmans.
At my wedding in 2015, Susan was the only other Schreibman in attendance: a special honor. She sat at the family table along with my mom and stepfather, representing something important: my heritage. Last summer, I traveled to Ireland to visit her; a tradition I hope to make an annual event. Her parents are Schreibmans, of course, and whenever I’m in New York I make sure to visit them, too. It is through the very small family of Schreibmans that I learn more about my father and the other part of me.
When I married in my late 30s, I took on my husband’s (Jewish) last name, but I kept the name Amy Schreibman Walter for my writing career. Now that I’m divorced, I’m glad I didn’t let that name fall by the wayside altogether. Amy Schreibman Walter is who I was before I met my husband, and it’s who I still am now. Names don’t define us, but they are identifiers and they hold meaning and weight. They are, to be sure, a part of how we see ourselves and see each other. Schreibman as a name matters to me, and I’m glad it’s mine.
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Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter