Changing from a Jewish name to a non Jewish name

            October 2013    
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L'Dor V'Dor: From One Generation to the Next

By Walter D. Levy

"Is it Leh-VEE, LEE-VEE, or LEE-vye?" my classmate asked. "Walter," I replied.

I must admit, over the years, I've occasionally thought about changing my last name. Like those movie stars: Tony Curtis (Bernie Schwartz), Jill St. John (Jill Oppenheim), Lauren Becall (Betty Joan Perske) and Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg).

However, I've quickly dismissed that notion. My last name - Levy - is my heritage. It's the surname that has been part of my father's side of the family for generations. It was my Zayde's last name, my father's last name, my last name, my son and his son's last name.

Yet, I know several land'smen who have changed or Anglicized their Jewish surnames. I understand the thinking that led up to their decision. In some cases, that decision was made for them.

Well, as I think back over several decades, there are three name-changing instances that stand out. The first involved a name that was changed shortly after birth; the second involved a last name was changed by immigration authorities; and the third involved a last name that was changed for professional purposes.

The first name-changing instance would come to light in the early 1950s. I was then playing baseball in one of Boston's Little League programs. I recall that that I had made friends with a teammate named Dave Robbins.

Well, as it turns out, both Dave and I were both good enough to make our Little League all-star team. That meant we would play another town in post-season competition. That year, we played a team from nearby Milton, MA.

When we arrived at Milton's baseball field on the day of the game, our team was asked to sit on a bench. We were then told that a league official would be calling out our names. We were subsequently informed that when we heard our name called we needed to raise our hand. The person who would be reading our names would be looking at our birth certificates.

As I remember, the league official began to call out our names: "Gill...Holland...O'Toole...Dixon...Siegel..." One by one, as we heard our name called, we raised our hand. Just then, the man who was reading the names called out a last name that I had never heard before: "Rubinstein". I immediately did a double-take. I thought to myself, "I don't know anyone on our team named Rubinstein." The only "Rubinstein" I knew was on the label of a can of salmon that my mother kept up in the cupboard.

Well, just then, a man whom I recognized from being at many of our games stepped forward. It was Dave Robbins' dad. I recall that Mr. Robbins said, "Excuse me, I'm Dave Robbins' father." He went on to say, "Many years ago, shortly after Dave was born, we changed our family's last name from Rubinstein to Robbins." So that explained it.

A few years later, when I was in high school, I became aware of another name-changing instance. Only this one was not done by the family, but for the family.

During the mid-to-late 1950s I would become friendly with a classmate named Howie Foster. When Howie and I first met, I wasn't even sure he was Jewish; his last name didn't sound Jewish. Well, one day, Howie and I happened to be talking about our family trees. I began by telling Howie how my own grandfather had emigrated to America from Russia in the early 1900s. It was then that Howie informed me that his original last name had been changed. Howie would then go on to mention his father's side-of-the-family's original last name. Yet, frankly, as soon as I heard it, I had trouble remembering it, let alone pronouncing it. All I can recall is that it sounded like a polysyllabic Slavic surname.

Well, Howie would continue by saying that when his grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, immigration authorities told his zayde that Americans wouldn't be able to pronounce his last name; so, arbitrarily, they changed his difficult-to-pronounce surname to Foster. Howie would also tell me that unless he mentioned it, or he were asked, most people took him as as a person whose family roots had European Christian origins. He would say that, occasionally, people would, in his presence - not suspecting he was Jewish - speak crudely about Jews. They obviously didn't realize, just judging from his last name, that his mother and father were both pious Jews who kept a kosher home.

Years later, a third name-changing revelation would come to light. This one took place when I ran into a college buddy named Joe Bartofsky. During the early 1960s, when we were both in college, Joe and I would become good friends.. After we had both graduated, we would go our separate ways. Joe would enroll in law school; I would begin a teaching career. Well, quite by chance, about four years later, Joe and I would run into each other at a party. As soon as I spotted Joe, I called out from across the room, "Joe, Joe Bartofsky, how are you? It's been a long time," I added. Joe, who immediately recognized me, quickly pulled me aside and, in a hushed tone, said, "Walter, Yes I'm Joe Bartofsky, but I'm not." I remember, at that very moment, looking quizzically at Joe. It was then that Joe told me that "for professional purposes" he had changed his name from Joe Bartofsky to Joe Bart, Esq.

Yes, over the years, especially after someone had made a hurtful or snide remark about my last name, I too would contemplate a name change. No more: "Is it Leh-VEE, LEE-VEE, or LEE-vye?" But no. A thousand times no! I could never do it. I'm proud of my last name.

Furthermore, it's all about remembering and honoring those who came before me. I could never turn my back on my Zayde, Barnet Levy, a man whom I never knew. He died in 1943, one year after I was born. He had served as sandek at my bris. Nor, could I ever forget my own dear father, Jack Levy.

Yes, as it is written in our siddurim when we recite the Amidah, and also when the chazzan chants The Kedushah: "L'dor, v'dor..." ["From generation to generation..."] Oh, by the way, where I was born, Syracuse, NY, it was always been LEE-VEE; yet, in and around the Boston area where I've lived most of my life, it's Leh-VEE.


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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