Winner, 2019 Saul Viener Book Prize, given by the American Jewish Historical Society
A groundbreaking history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century, showcasing just how much is in a name
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 as Kirsten Fermaglich elegantly reveals, 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.
This first history of name changing in the United States offers a previously unexplored window into American Jewish life throughout the twentieth century. A Rosenberg by Any Other Name demonstrates how historical debates about immigration, antisemitism and race, class mobility, gender and family, the boundaries of the Jewish community, and the power of government are reshaped when name changing becomes part of the conversation.
Mining court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature, Fermaglich argues convincingly 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. This book 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.
"The real history behind Jewish name changing in the US . . . a worthy accomplishment. One doesn't have to be a . . . historian to appreciate A Rosenberg by Any Other Name . . . anyone with an interest in the subject matter [can] enjoy it." ~Foreword Reviews
"Contesting longstanding stereotypes, Fermaglich (history and Jewish studies, Michigan State Univ.) creatively examines name changing by Jews in the US, focusing on New York City Jews. From the onset of her study, Fermaglich refutes the notion that name changing was an individual or isolated act, asserting that it dramatically impacted American Jewish culture." ~CHOICE
"Fascinating . . . A fine contribution to an important, previously underexplored area of American Jewish identity and social history." ~Publishers Weekly
"Fermaglichs thoroughly researched book delves into many implications of changing ones name and examines the way that Jewish culture was shaped overall by the practice." ~Jewish Exponent
"An important history . . . Well-written and thoroughly documented . . . demonstrates the struggle that individuals underwent to become fully realized as Jewish Americans. Highly recommended." ~STARRED Library Journal
"Kirsten Fermaglich’s insightful book explores the seemingly ordinary phenomenon of Jewish name changing to shed light on broad themes of racial and ethnic identity, and the complicated ways that Americans—and particularly American Jews—negotiated the markers of distinctiveness and racial “otherness” with the goals of integration and access... While only a minority of Jews petitioned to change their names, the phenomenon proves to be an instructive window for examining the changing boundaries of race and ethnicity in America." ~The Journal of American History
"Both entertaining and enlightening, A Rosenberg By Any Other Name comes up smelling, well, like a rose." ~Canadian Jewish News
"Fermaglich's thorough research and bright insights produce a provocative account of a seldom-explored cultural phenomenon." ~Kirkus Reviews
"The beauty of A Rosenberg by Any Other Name lies in its choice of a site so rife with potential and yet, one that seems so utterly banal. Fermaglich offers us new appreciation for the levels of complexity that Jewish identity was forced to take on in post-war America. It is a powerful story about anti-semitism, adaptation, markers of identity, and the kinds of choices and sacrifices that people must make in the name of access, privilege, and commitments to their communities." ~Deborah Dash Moore,author of Jewish New York: The Remarkable Story of a City and a People