But as Kirsten Fermaglich will describe, the real story is much more profound. Scratching below the surface, Fermaglich examines previously unexplored name change petitions to upend the clichés, revealing that 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.
Using court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature, Fermaglich argues that name changing had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Ordinary Jews were forced to consider changing their names as they saw their friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors do so. Jewish communal leaders and civil rights activists needed to consider name changers as part of the Jewish community, making name changing a pivotal part of early civil rights legislation. And Jewish artists created critical portraits of name changers that lasted for decades in American Jewish culture. The talk ends with the disturbing realization that the prosperity Jews found by changing their names is not as accessible for the Chinese, Latino, and Muslim immigrants who wish to exercise that right today.
This program is possible through the generous support of the William M. Lowenstein Genealogical Research Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation.
“A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” is a collaboration between the Jewish Genealogy Society of Pittsburgh and the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. Please register online. The program is free for JGS-Pittsburgh members and $5 for the general public. To become a member of the JGS-Pittsburgh and receive a free membership code, please visit its website at https://www.pghjgs.org/membership.
Kirsten Fermaglich is Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Michigan State University. Her most recent book, A Rosenberg By Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America (NYU, 2018) was awarded the Saul Viener Book Prize by the American Jewish Historical Society in June 2019. Fermaglich is also the author of American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965 (Brandeis University Press, 2006) and the co-editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (2013), with Lisa Fine.