Thursday, August 19, 2010

Nothing But Our Version of The Facts

I often wondered how someone could look at a precious litlle new born baby and saddle that child with an old woman's name, like Gertrude.  So now  that I am working on the family history I think I know.

There is something interesting about Jewish lines – a lot of people have four names. They had their birth names, their Hebrew names, their Yiddish names (which were terms of endearments) and finally their Americanized names. And I'm not even talking about surnames.

Now my mother’s family is pretty easy – from 1600 to about 1965, nearly all the males were named Isaac, William, Abraham or John. To end this confusion, they received colloquial nicknames based on where they lived. So you could have three Abraham’s, all first cousins, but you know them by their nicknames – Abe of the Plains, Mud Pike Abe and Wildcat Pike Abe, and so on.

With the Jewish families, it’s a bit trickier – you have to know a little Yiddish So my grandfather Max was also known as Mottel. Max, Mottel, easy? Right?

Then you stir in the Americanization of names and you end up with the closest US sounding name, in most cases. So Moses becomes Maurice, but only after the other Maurice, who is going by Morris is dead. Then Moses can become Maurice.


Because Ashkenazi Jews – which is, as my mother would say “Your Father's People” follow a naming convention that makes it bad luck to name a baby after a living person. This is why there are not a lot of men of Eastern European Jewish heritage running around with “Jr.” after their names.

Instead you name the baby a name that begins with the first letter of a dearly departed in their honor. Through that child, the memory of that person will live, so it is said.

This is how my father ended with an “M” first name – in honor of Mosihe, who went by Maurice, but had a son named Morris who had a nephew named Moses, who took the name Maurice after Morris died, leaving my grandmother with Moishe and my father with the name of Marvin. Got it? Good.

And the excuse for this?

"The people in immigration would dream up these names for people," my father tried to believe.  "They would see thousands of people in a day and they would look at someone who's name was Yahuda and he would become John. A woman named Gittle would become Gertrude.  Happened all the time."

Is this true, I asked my mother, the gentile.

"To a certain extent I think your father is correct, not "right", but correct.  A lot of people had there names rearranged."  She added "Just thank God that father wasn't a Mel, or worse, Mordecai.  And lets not forget your Aunt Nan - if she had her way everyone would be changing their names like people should change their underwear."

About Nan my mother was dead serious. Our Aunt Nan started renaming everyone, whether it made sense or not. Somehow Esther became Evelyn and later in life denied that she was ever Evelyn - "I've always been Lynn," she stated one day "Where do you get Evelyn?"  That had been her name the last time she visited. But in our family you go with the flow or you get swept away in it.  Nan also made it possible for my uncle Sanford Osher to become Stanford Owen, which was shortened to "Taffy". Taffy? Your guess is as good as mine.

Nan herself made merry the task of renaming herself, picking and choosing name like she was trying on sweaters at Halle Brothers. She started out as Anna, then Annie, then Ann, then Nan, Nancy, back to Nan and finally became Nanette in the span of 80 years or so. But Aunt Nanette? No, no.

I had always wanted to ask my father how Aunt Nan got away with it - the name changes and all, but his blood pressure would have gone sky high.  "You Aunt lives for drama," is all he would have said.

Then there was our great uncle, born Chiam, but who lived the American dream as "Hyman", which was bad, or "Hymie", which was worse.  I have taken to referring to him as Uncle Chiam again because "Hyman" is a woman's body part, and "Hymie" just reminds me of Jesse Jackson making a racist remark.

The most recent one that I discovered was my cousin – who’s middle name was Ellen, was really given the name “Eleanor” at birth. She didn't come over on the boat, she was brought home from the hospital in a Packard.  “I didn’t know that,” said her son, my cousin. “And I knew her my whole life!”

The downside all of  this is – what ever became of Uncle Josef, or Uncle Joseph? And what could Shiena could have been Americanized into, Shirley?  Was her husband’s last name Blackmon, or Blackman? And what was his first name?

I hope I discover these secrets before they fade and can keep them straight in my head before I lose my mind…


  1. oy, i'm a bissell dizzy from all this. go bring me a glass tea while i sit and drimmell a minute.

  2. I'm spinning like a dreidl.

  3. I wonder what would happen if my name was Lance?

  4. hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

  5. Oddly, I finally got the answer as to why my half-Jewish friend constantly changes her name! Thank you: my first visit to SH was B'seder.