Growing into a Name, Grateful for Safety by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By What's in a Name

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Hirsch, my last name, means stag or deer.

It grew on me

To me, Marian always seemed like a name for old ladies .... My surname, Hirsch, has a convoluted history.

To me, Marian always seemed like a name for old ladies. Now that I am older, I guess it’s appropriate. I have no idea why my parents chose Marian, except that Arlene was second choice. My Hebrew name, Malka, honors my maternal grandfather Morris, Hebrew name Moshe. Marian doesn’t lend itself well to nicknames, and because I don’t have a middle name, I just stuck with Marian.

As a child, I didn’t like my name, but I did appreciate that it was different from all the Debbies, Barbaras, and Susans in my elementary school classes. I didn’t encounter another Marian all through high school, except for some confusion when I played the mayor’s wife in The Music Man, and both the lead and I responded when the director called out “Marian.”

People stumble over its pronunciation and spelling, to the point that I long ago gave up using Marian when making reservations. I always say “Mary.” However, early on I became resigned to use either “Maid Marian” or “Marian the Librarian” to help people remember my name. To my consternation, when I took a career aptitude and preference test in my early 20s, I scored very highly as a librarian, but I could never envision myself in that career because of my name!

Mom’s misnomer

My mother’s first name, Henrietta, was the unforeseen consequence of an overzealous kindergarten teacher and my grandmother not speaking English. Originally, my mother’s name was intended to be Chana Yetta, but when she was enrolled in kindergarten, the teacher thought it was an unacceptable foreign name and picked the closest English phonetic equivalent, Henrietta. My grandmother couldn’t read and didn’t understand what was going on, so Henrietta my mother became, although family members called her Yetti. Much later everyone learned about the abominable snowman.

Like many of us with eastern European Jewish backgrounds, my surname, Hirsch, has a convoluted history. We can trace it back to the 1860s, to a man named Hersh, in Botosani, Romania (Jews had only first names then). In the next generation in Romania, the name became Hershcovici (son of Hersh), and then was transliterated in the late 1890s when my great grandparents came to America, ending up as Hershkowitz and then Hirschkowitz. The name remained that way until sometime between 1922 and 1926, when my grandfather Max changed it, for both economic and safety reasons.

Shorter and safer

My grandfather had been working as an executive secretary, a man’s job at the time, to the partners in a hosiery sales rep firm. With his outgoing and fun personality, he wanted to do better financially by becoming a traveling sales rep for this German/Irish-owned firm. The partners liked my grandfather but hesitated because they thought, with a name like Hirschkowitz, that customers in the south would hesitate to do business with him, and it might not even be safe there.

My grandfather suggested changing the name to Hirsch, and with his blue eyes and light brown hair, he could pass for German. This was done, and my grandfather was very successful in sales. My uncle’s birth certificate in 1922 lists Hirschkowitz as the surname, and my father’s, from 1926, lists Hirsch.

My paternal relatives’ current surnames vary depending on when and where they emigrated from Romania, along with personal preferences. Besides Hirsch, I have relatives with the last names Hersh, Hersch, Hershkowitz, Hirschkowitz, and even Harris, adding another dimension to the challenges of Jewish geneology.

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I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    The Music Man is back on Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman, Mare – not too shabby. I was in it in 12th grade. The director said I wasn’t tall enough to play the lead, so I was one of “Chick-a-biddy” ladies. Sigh. Now you have a nickname!

    So many names got mis-translated at Ellis Island, or, as in your mother’s case, when she encountered English-speakers in school. So interesting how your family surname changed and morphed throughout the years and branches of the family. We were talking about director Marshall Herschkovitz over dinner last night (he was a classmate of my husband’s at Brandeis). Perhaps he is a distant relative.

    • Marian says:

      Betsy, my close friend from high school, who is just 4’10”, did one of the little ladies and was adorable. I played the mayor’s wife because I can’t sing and it didn’t matter that much. Marshall Herschkovitz could be a relative. I’ve run into people at random over the years, even finding a previously unknown third cousin at a professional conference. I identify mostly men because many women changed their names upon marriage.

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, Mare, and now you DO have a nickname, as a direct result of our Nicknames prompt two years ago. Who says Retrospect doesn’t change lives?! I always loved the story of Robin Hood as a child, and read the book multiple times, so would have been happy to be called Maid Marian. Funny about the confusion when you were in a production of The Music Man! Malka is my daughter Molly’s Hebrew name, and I think it is so pretty, I wanted to give it to her as her English name too, but my mother had a fit, saying “that’s a shtetl name!”

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy, and I do understand the reaction of our mothers’ generation to names that sounded “ethnic” in their ears. A lot of antisemitism at the time. My mother didn’t want me to get my ears pierced because I’d look like I’d just “come off the boat” according to her.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    A sad and recurring theme of people’s name changes, not just because of some immigration official’s whim, but for safety reasons. That was ancient history (ha ha not funny). In any case, the first Marian that occurred to me was Marian Anderson, and then the Marianne of French revolutionary myth, and then Miriam Makeba—so lots of other great role models besides the librarian. And could do worse than share the name of a noble deer. All good.

    • Marian says:

      The first (other) Marian I’d heard of also was Marian Anderson, Khati. I admired her, and I think it helped me stick with the name rather than try to change it. Yes, we could always do worse!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    Three great stories of your family names, Marian. And, as you will see, both Suzy and I touched upon the changing of Jewish surnames for professional purposes.

    As for your name, I can think of no other Marians I know — though Marian Anderson is a pretty cool namesake. And yes, I also immediately think of “Music Man” when I hear the name — and start singing the obvious tune.

    Oddly, I do have one good female friend named “Marion” and I keep meaning to ask her how she ended up with the “boy’s” name. I know she has had to explain it a million times, especially when dealing with other lawyers who think they are communicating with a male lawyer. Reminds me the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.”

    • Marian says:

      I met a woman named Marion at my college, John, and I don’t remember her explanation about the spelling. During that time, it might have been an advantage professionally to be mistaken for a man. When we were seniors at Mills, a few of us with gender-ambiguous names such as Tripp and Carter got offers to sign up for credit cards, and the rest of us didn’t. The discrimination was really obvious.

  5. Thanx Mare for this history of family Hirsch!
    And altho you don’t mention it in this story, I’ve gathered from others that Mare is now your nickname. In fact it’s also what I call my friend Mary!

    As for last name changes, I remember a friend who years ago was hoping to go into advertising. He last name was Needleman and after being advised that his name was too obviously Jewish, he changed it to Taylor.

  6. Good story, Marian. I guess folks tend to accept their assigned first names, out of deference to their parents’ choice if nothing else; even when off the popular name grid, even when hard to make a reservation with. And the reasons for changing the last name to Hirsch reminded me of how tenuous and recent Jewish comfort in American culture has been. And I don’t feel especially comfortable today.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Jon. I’m with you, I don’t feel nearly as comfortable as a Jew than I once did, despite not looking stereotypically Jewish. Occasionally on Saturdays I’d go to synagogue services and, when I left, forget to remove my kipah and go into town for shopping. Never gave it a thought here in diverse California. These days I always remember to remove it and not wear hamsas and stars of David in public.

  7. I can certainly relate, Marian. Do you remember “big name ” buttons? (There was even a hit song about it.) They were popular in the ’50’s and I could never find my name on any of the racks and racks of selections.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    Fascinating stories, Mare. I love the one about your mother’s name change in kindergarten, although it’s sad that a teacher robbed her of her real name. The ones of your ancestors who all had variations in spelling of their last name were also common in my family. Of course, shortening and Americanizing surnames also happened for many of us.

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