Author: Kirsten Firmaglich ISBN: 978-1-4798-6720-2 New York University Press
Many Americans have or know someone who has an ancestor that came through Ellis Island. A popular but apocryphal tale is that of an official that assigns a family a new name that they have to use in the United States. That didn’t actually happen, but there is a history of people with ethnic names changing them to better fit into white America. A Rosenberg by Any Other Name explores trends in official name change petitions among the Jewish community in New York.
Firmaglich makes sure to differentiate official and unofficial name changing for her book. Many Jews adopted “American” names to avoid antisemitism in the workplace or the classroom. A Greenberg may go by Green or an Epstein would go by Edwards. These individuals didn’t necessarily go through the courts to get a legal name change, but just used the names. This was legal in New York in the early 20th century as long as the person didn’t intend to use their alias for fraud. Later on in the 20th century, legal petitions for name changes became more common than de facto name changes.
Early on the book, Firmaglich outlines the methodology behind her analysis. She looked at name change petitions and determined how likely they came from a Jewish individual or family. From the late 19th to early 20th centuries, official name changes were relatively rare. However, in 1942, during the second World War, they skyrocketed and stayed high until anti-discrimination laws took hold.
While Firmaglich’s analysis is useful in looking at this cultural phenomenon, her way of gathering data could have been better. She looked for distinctive Jewish names and used her judgement to determine the petitioner’s background. It’s an imperfect way to sort the petitions, and Firmaglich doesn’t try to pretend that it’s perfect. Just because someone wanted to change their name and that name happens to sound Jewish, that doesn’t mean that the individual was Jewish and directly suffered antisemitism. In fact, Firmaglich discusses a few examples of Christians with Jewish-sounding names who changed their names because they were being mistaken for jews. Therefore it’s hard to say if everybody that she categorized as jewish actually was. Then again, since bigotry hardly stays true to reality, it’s reasonable to say that most of these people still had some experience with antisemitism. It’s interresting to note that gentiles were more likely to cite antisemitism in their petitions than jews.
In the later part of the book, Firmaglich discusses modern reasons for changing names. The majority of name changes in the modern day are the result of beaurocratic errors or marriages. These individuals use a certain name in their day-to-day lives, and face difficulty when their legal names do not match the name they use. This reflects the de fact name changes that Firmaglitch earler discussed, though complicated by the stricter government control over individual lives and identities after 9/11. This sets up a clear parallel between the pressure to escape antisemitism through name changing and the pressure to escape islamophobia through the same. However, the two groups have a different ability to selectively “pass” and “come out” as jewish or muslim. I think it’s interesting that Firmaglitch uses the phrase “come out” but doesn’t talk about modern name changing within the transgender community. Many trans individuals deal with not only mismatched names from their social lives and their government documentation, but a discrepency between their gender and the marker on their documents. I know that this book wasn’t about the trans community, but it seems like an oversight in a discussion of the modern motives for legal name changes.
A Rosenberg By Any Other Name was a well-researched and informative book, but was honestly a bit dry. It felt a little repetitive at times and it struggled to get its footing. It’s an interesting read, but you really have to want it.