Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

The Impermanence of Immigrant Names

I spent a good part of last weekend watching two DVDs my father sent me documenting a group conversation that took place a year ago among all but one of his "surviving cousins" on his father's side. There are ten surviving cousins, including my father, if you don't count the possibility of any of the children of the brother who never made it out of Russia still being alive. The occasion of the conversation was my father's cousin Hal's 70th birthday, and the point of the conversation was to provide a sort of oral history of my grandfather's family, although it was clear only minutes into the conversation that it's probably a generation too late for such a thing, as more questions than answers seemed to arise. Still, there were many stories exchanged and what was most interesting to me was not getting the specific family history -- as I said, there really wasn't as much of it as you might have wanted -- but getting a sense of my father's cousins, most of whom I don't know well at all and all of whom are quite personable.

One of the things I did get to musing about was the issue of names, and how for the immigrant generation of the early part of the 20th century names were more of a mutable phenomenon than they are for me -- in large part by necessity, as you needed an American name when you got to this country, but there seems to be more to it than that. I think there's great significance in names, and the notion of having to change your name (and how and to what) must carry great significance as well. You really are starting over in a new land in a new life with a new language when you take on your new name. I think the name change must create a different sense of self. And it gets complicated.

Most Jews of my generation and acquaintance have a separate Hebrew name in addition to their English name. I myself have a Hebrew name that differs from my English name, and there have been very limited situations in my life when this was actually used -- in Hebrew school, when I went to a Hebrew camp, when I was in Israel one summer. I imagine that had I continued involvement in any of that culture my Hebrew name would still be used, and certainly if I could still speak any Hebrew that's the name I'd use in that language. So I do have a sense of a different name having a different context, and while perhaps I'm not a different person when I am Shimon there are certainly different associations. I suppose it's no different for family nicknames.

But imagine changing everything associated with your name poof in a second when the immigration official at Ellis Island writes something down on a form.

Still, as I say, it's complicated.

My father's mother was named Fanya. She was always Fanya, she was definitely a Fanya, if you knew her you couldn't imagine her being named anything less dramatic than Fanya. I was already an adult when my grandparents sent me a check as a gift and I saw for the first time that my grandmother's name, at least on the check, was Frances. Frances? I don't think anybody could have called her Frances without choking. And then there was her brother, whom I grew up knowing as "Uncle Abe" but whom my father now refers to as his "Uncle Abrasha", which I'm sure is what Fanya must have called him. A few years before Uncle Abe died I went to visit him and I learned that his wife called him Abner. He was Abner the way his sister was Frances. Imagine losing the dashing flamboyance of being Fanya or Abrasha and having to plod through your American life as Frances or Abner. Fanya simply ignored the American necessity. Abrasha apparently went by Abner at least in part.

Many Jewish families I know tell stories of how their family names were mangled or otherwise changed on immigration. My mother's mother's family was named Smith. Smith? A Russian Jewish immigrant family named Smith? The story (which I'm starting to question at this point, but it was always the story) is that the immigration official couldn't pronounce or even hear the Russian name so he just wrote down Smith. To make this even more culturally confusing, all the siblings took on what were extremely popular American names as their first names. I don't even know what their Hebrew or Russian or Yiddish names were. But the nine children were: Mary, Nathan, Joe, Harry, Gene, Simon, May (my grandmother), Reba, and Al. How 1920s American can you get? I had a great uncle named Al Smith, and one named Harry Smith. I had a great aunt named Mary Smith. Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants.

Oh yeah, and then there's the sub-legal maneuverings that also changed names. My maternal grandfather Morris (born Menachem Mendel, which he did sometimes use and I have a tie clip with that as part of his monogram) was a Spector, as was my mother and as is my aunt. But his birth name was something like Coltinyetz. I think the story is that he (and his siblings) entered this country as part of a different family, which was named Spector.

What does any of this do to your sense of self and your sense of identity? Does it matter at that point, when absolutely everything is so dramatically different?

Which brings us to the cousins tape. You see, my grandfather was Benjamin Levine. One of his brothers was Robert Levine. The other brothers were Israel Levin, Harry Levin, and Eli Levin. Plus the youngest Gedalia who was conscripted into the Russian army and couldn't leave the country (and thus doesn't have an American name), but who knows what his last name was. There was one sister, who I think was a Levin, but she used a married name and had no surviving children so I don't know for sure. How did this happen? Nobody seems to know. One of my father's cousins said she grew up thinking that the "Levines with an e" were the rich brothers. My father suspects that his father took Levine because he stayed with his brother Robert (Levine-with-an-e) when he first arrived. But again, nobody knows.

A few years ago my father, in researching the family tree, was able to trace down a copy of the ship manifest for the boat my grandfather sailed on to come to the US. I'm not sure how he knew the name of the ship, come to think of it. On that manifest, my grandfather Benjamin Levine is listed as -- get this -- Beryl Lewin. Which almost seems like a punch line to a long joke, at this point. It seems that he was traveling as a member of a different unrelated family named Lewin, so that might have been part of an immigration ruse, who knows?

So my question is: Are these just names, surface things of convenience, or are there deeper aspects to the name changing and the name differences among brothers and cousins? I don't know.
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