Hidden in Names and Eyes by
100
(127 Stories)

Prompted By Inequality

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Author’s note: inequality exists at levels as trivial as microaggression and as horrific as genocide. With this in mind, here is a tiny slice of inequality.

The 1930 census had my aunt's name as Ruchel and my mother's name as Henayeta. Huh?

What’s in a name

My great grandfather and family started out as Hershcovici, a difficult Romanian name for Americans. By some miracle, it wasn’t changed before boarding the ship to the US. At some point, they anglicized the name to Hirschkowitz. Then, in the late 1920s, my grandfather, who was  working for a sales rep firm as a stenographer, had an opportunity to go into sales with the company. One problem: the name, because Jews couldn’t be in that position. If he shortened it to Hirsch, he might “pass” for German, especially since he had green eyes, and so he did. That year, my father was born legally as Henry Hirsch.

In my extended family, more alterations in the name followed, so by the second world war, there were Hirsch’s, Hersch’s, Herschkowitz’s, and even Harris’s. To my knowledge, they changed their surnames voluntarily. This has made genealogical research interesting and challenging.

My mother’s family was not so fortunate with their first names. The 1930 census had my aunt’s name as Ruchel and my mother’s name as Henayeta. Huh? Likely my grandmother, who spoke very little English, had a communication breakdown with the census taker, who certainly didn’t speak Yiddish. In school, Ruchel became my aunt Rachel, known in the family as Rayzel or Rayzie. My mother’s name actually was Chana Yetta, but her kindergarten teacher thought that was a terrible, un-American name. With my grandmother not understanding what was going on, my mother legally became Henrietta, although in the family she was often called Yetti.

Plausible deniability

The changed name didn’t help my father get a job after serving in the Navy during the war and graduating from engineering school. Most private firms didn’t hire Jews. He worked for the state for a while, until, with a stroke of luck, he interviewed with a small company whose president’s last name was Hirsch–a German Hirsch. Close enough, it gave the hiring manager plausible deniability.

Something similar happened to my mother, who wanted a design job in New York for a textile company headquartered in North Carolina. With medium brown hair and green eyes, her ethnicity wasn’t certain to the the person who substituted for the hiring manager, who was out sick the day of my mother’s interview. Based on her excellent portfolio, she was hired, to the distress of the original manager, but by then it was too late.

Growing up, I lived on a block in Verona, New Jersey, which was exclusively Jewish, with the exception of one Irish Catholic family. There were a few black people in town who lived in a very small quadrant near Bloomfield Avenue. I don’t recall an Asian face. At the time I didn’t think much of the situation, until, when I turned 12, my mother really wanted to move to a different town, North Caldwell. There was only one Jewish family in the entire town of North Caldwell, and the father had a PhD and a prestigious job at a pharmaceutical company, which I guess rendered the family “acceptable.”

The realtor my parents were using was very hesitant to show them homes in the town, murmuring excuses about us not really fitting in there. My parents pushed back, and the realtor, coloring slightly, said, “Well, at least your whole family has blue or green eyes, so it might be OK.” We did move to the town and I went to a regional high school, where there were about five Jewish kids in my class of over 200. Of course, in the summer we couldn’t go to certain swim clubs in the area, and I had an awkward time explaining to my friends that Jews were excluded. Fortunately there was a more liberal club where we all could go.

The privilege of passing

Being blond, blue-eyed, and relatively tall, I’ve been able either to be out as a Jew or “pass” if I wanted to, which I rarely did. Now I live in a neighborhood in northern California where there is no “majority” at all. There are white people, east Asians, south Asians, a few Latinx people, but no black people. I’ve had the privilege of choice about what I reveal about my identity. Many others don’t have that choice, because they can’t hide their skin color, or the color and shape of their eyes. And, although my ancestors changed their names, they knew what their original names were. Black people had their original names, something core to their identities, erased entirely. How can we, as a country, make reparations for that?

Maybe that is why I treasure, in synagogues or during Jewish rituals, hearing my Hebrew name. There is something timeless and authentic about it. Hello, my name is Malcha bat Zvi v’Chana. Glad to meet you.

 

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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: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Hello from Liba Sheva. I never had a Hebrew name, just Yiddish. I found your story fascinating, Marian. It always struck me that, when my grandparents came here, they had to give up everything they knew, including their names. For some, it happened at Ellis Island where people didn’t understand them or gave them the name of the person before them. One of my grandmothers, at age 15, went from Chaya Gittel to Ida Gertrude. I guess they thought that sounded more American. What’s in a name? A lot based on your story.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Shalom, Malcha bat Zvi v’Chana. I am named Elizabeth for my grandmother Lizzie Prensky, but she was actually Freya Leah. She was called Lizzie in this country. Her younger brother changed her family name to Prentis in 1925 when he became comptroller of General Motors (he had gone to work there in 1904, eventually rising to the rank of Treasurer). The auto industry is notoriously anti-Semitic (Henry Ford was the worst), so he wanted to assimilate. My mother, in the 1930s, was told she couldn’t be a librarian. That was not considered an acceptable job for a Jewish woman with a college degree.

    I understand your history and choices entirely.

  3. A wonderfully told tale, Marian. I have some understanding but from a slightly different perspective. Many people instinctively (?) assume, based on my surname, that my family is Jewish. We are not: my dad was a Presbyterian and my mom and Italian Catholic and my sisters and I were raised as Catholic. It was frustrating for me dealing with that pervasive assumption. Correcting the assumption felt like I was implicitly condemning Judaism. I took to responding to the Question, when it arose, “Unfortunately not” or “Not yet” just to throw people off. But my dad’s story is the most painful: when he was admitted to Cornell Medical School the dean called him in and suggested that he change his name: seems he was almost excluded by the quota system then rampant in many schools. He was “saved” by the fact that his uncle, who was Chief of Surgery at New York Hospital, which was affiliated with Cornell, set the dean straight. My dad, of course, refused to change our name.

    • Marian says:

      I can understand this complexity, Tom. Lots of irony in your father’s experience. We are familiar with quotas. My father went to Cooper Union. I am sure other schools had quotas. There were med school quotas for women in my day and I didn’t try for this path because I felt the barriers were too high.

  4. Yasher Koach, Malcha! I really enjoyed reading this. It made me think about numerous issues along the way. “Names” made a really wonderful starting point for a deeply illuminating essay.

  5. A very moving story, Malka!

    On a lighter note here’s another family name story. When my father’s cousin arrived at Ellis Island and was asked his name, he said JACOB BUKARESKY.

    The agent told it was too long and he should make it small. Thus our cousin became JACK SMALL!

  6. Suzy says:

    Beautiful story, Mare. I thought about going in this direction, but I’m glad I didn’t, because you did it so much better! My mother was Malka Esther (her English name was Mildred Esther), and I always heard it with a hard “k” sound, not a “ch” as you have written it. I wonder if that is a different name or just a different pronunciation. Before my daughter Molly was born, I told my mother I wanted to use Malka as her English name, and she was horrified. “That’s a shtetl name!” she said. That’s consistent with the idea of not revealing your identity.

    Signed, Shoshanah bat Moshe v’Malka Esther

    • Marian says:

      I think Malka is the Yiddish version, Suzy (which I like a lot). I believe that your mother said that about the name, given the attitudes of that generation. In my early teens I wanted to get my ears pierced (which I eventually did), and my mom was horrified because she thought I’d look like I’d just come off the boat.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    A fascinating and complicated story. And as a non-obervant Jew, it reminds me of how little I know of my own religion and how much I should learn. So I particularly appreciate the education you have provided me here.

    Also, apropos of Tom’s comment, my father was admitted to Northwestern Medical School in the 1930’s, being one of the 10% quota of Jews. He said he was torn about going there and thus being perceived as buying into the quota system (he had also been admitted to the University of Wisconsin’s medical school), but, for various and somewhat conflicting reasons, decided to go ahead there. Even years later, other doctors expressed surprise that he had gone to a “quota” med school. He said he never knew for sure whether it was meant as a compliment or an insult, but generally thought the Jews meant it in the latter way and non-Jews in the former.

    • Marian says:

      Your take on the compliment/insult issue sounds right to me, John. When I was thinking of med school, women who got in were considered exceptional (and that had an element of truth to it). Was that good or bad? By the time my partner’s daughter applied (she’s 10 years younger than I), the quotas for women were gone, and it was just starting to be less of a big deal. She went to Baylor because she thought the attitudes there were less entrenched than on the east coast.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    It still shocks me that a sentence like “because Jews couldn’t be in that position” was widely true in the US within living memory. I need to periodically remind myself that at least I grew up with the advantage that no one cared about my particular heritage. The advantage of being part of the background noise.

    I remember when my college roommate and I made plans to get a room together, which was in 1975. He asked me if it mattered to me that he was Jewish. The question floored me; why would it? Now, I am wise enough to know why he asked.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, this sort of thing definitely was within living memory, Dave. I remember having to do that “just checking” thing like your roommate because one never knew. There were laws on the books mid last century preventing Jews and Asians (they didn’t even bother mentioning blacks, that was assumed) from living in some northern California towns. I found out about this in the 1990s when my former husband, an architect, had to pull some city documents while remodeling a home. Although the laws were invalidated, no one bothered to remove them from the books. That really stung.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    I agree with Dave, it is still shocking to hear the stories of blatant exclusion of Jews, as well as other groups, all so recently. And still shocking that hate crimes occur so widely and regularly. You have wonderful stories and the history of the names in all the permutations resonates widely. Thanks.

    • Marian says:

      You’re welcome, Khati. Here in my community, an Asian woman was just pushed to the ground. This is more extreme than any verbal or policy assaults that I remember as a Jew. It’s so disturbing.

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