Our thinking about Jewish name changing tends to focus on clichés: ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or insensitive Ellis Island officials who changed immigrants’ names for them but according to history, in twentieth-century New York City, Jewish name changing was actually a broad-based and voluntary behavior.
Thousands of ordinary Jewish men, women, and children legally changed their names in order to respond to an upsurge of antisemitism. Rather than trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community. While name changing allowed Jewish families to avoid antisemitism and achieve white middle-class status, the practice also created pain within families and became a stigmatized, forgotten aspect of American Jewish culture. Join author Kirsten Fermaglich as she explores the groundbreaking history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century, showcasing just how much is in a name.