An exploration of how, during times of social stress and rampant anti-Semitism, large numbers of Jews in America formally applied to change their names to less ethnically identifiable ones.
Fermaglich (History and Jewish Studies/Michigan State Univ.; American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965, 2006, etc.) looks at the applications for name changes in New York City from the 1920s to the present. She notes that the “institutionalized” anti-Semitism in the country following World War I prompted many to register for a name change; sometimes, entire families did so. The changers usually felt that their patently Jewish names were hurting them regarding employment, residence, college applications, and other areas. As the author notes, sometimes these changes created conflict in families—and among the general Jewish population, who occasionally found such changes to be evidence of self-loathing and of disrespect for cultural history. But as Fermaglich demonstrates, the trend has diminished: Non-Jewish Americans have become less openly biased against Jews, and colleges have removed application questions designed to identify Jews. In NYC today, Jews no longer dominate the requests for name changes. The author clearly spent hours poring through official records in the city (she provides some charts and other illustrations), and she offers summaries of similar research done elsewhere in the country and shows us how the name-changing practice appeared in the popular culture throughout the decades. Some familiar names pop up in her discussions—e.g., Arthur Miller, Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. The text is academic in tone and presentation (40 pages of endnotes follow), and the virtual absence of subheadings and breaks of other sorts renders the volume not entirely reader-friendly. However, the rewards for resolute readers are considerable.
Fermaglich’s thorough research and bright insights produce a provocative account of a seldom-explored cultural phenomenon.