Whisper My Name by
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Prompted By What's in a Name

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Why did my parents give me the most popular girl’s name of the Fifties (as shown in this Word Cloud)? I guess they just liked it. They didn’t know there would be 5 Susans in my elementary school class and we would have to use our last initials all the time to differentiate us. Or that in my college class of 300 women, Susan would be, by my own actual count of everyone in the Freshman Register, the second most popular name, with 17 of us. And since I lumped Katherine (with all its different spellings, including starting with a C), and Kathleen (with K or C) together as all the same name, which they arguably are not, and there were 21 of them, Susan might technically have been the winner.

Why did my parents give me the most popular girl's name of the Fifties? I guess they just liked it.

As I stated in the first sentence of The Name Game, my 2020 story on the Nicknames prompt, “My name is Susan, but please don’t call me that.” I have rarely been called Susan, other than by elementary school teachers (when I got to a new school in 7th grade I started insisting on being called Suzy), or in my professional life as a lawyer (so judges and opposing counsel would take me seriously).

In the Jewish tradition, babies are named for ancestors who have died. However, my mother always decided on the name that she wanted to use first, and then found an ancestor to relate it to. Susan was said to be for my paternal grandfather Selig. He died when my father was seven years old, so my mother never met him, and my father didn’t even know him that well. But he provided the necessary S initial for my first name. My middle name is Patricia, which is for an ancestor named Fanya. How does that relate? Because a cousin, named after the same Fanya, had been given the name of Phyllis, which has the same beginning sound, even if made by a Ph instead of an F. Then the P at the beginning of Phyllis justified my name of Patricia. A tenuous connection, perhaps, but good enough to satisfy the naming traditionalists.

Another Jewish tradition, if an unspoken one, is changing one’s last name if it sounds too identifiably Jewish, because of anti-Semitism. My parents changed our family name around the time they moved from Indiana (where my father was stationed during the war) to New Jersey, in 1947 or thereabouts. That means that both of my sisters were born with the old name, and I was the only one who always had the new name. However, all the official documents – including my sisters’ birth certificates, my father’s medical license and diplomas, and my parents’ marriage certificate – were reissued with the new name, so there is no trace left of the old one.

People often ask me what our name used to be, and I say I don’t know. I do have some idea, because my father’s sister used a different surname, which was probably closer to what it was in the old country. But I don’t choose to tell people even that much. What’s the point of changing your name, if everyone knows what it used to be anyway? I had a roommate once who would introduce her boyfriend by saying “this is Bill _[WASPy name]_, but his last name used to be _[Jewish name]_.” I thought it was very annoying. I don’t know if it bothered him or not. But I wanted to be sure that never happened to me.

My family is in good company. Many Jewish entertainers have changed their names. Steve Lawrence (whose birthday was yesterday) was born Sidney Liebowitz. Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch. Could they have had successful careers if they had kept their birth names? Somehow, I doubt it.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Just a terrific analysis of your names, both first and last. And, yes, if you had asked me the most common female names in my college class and near-classes, I would have immediately thought of Susan and Katherine (in all its permutations). And probably my high school class, too — I dated a Susan and married a Katherine from it — though I’m too lazy to go through my yearbook and count.

    And you are so right about Jews, particularly entertainers, changing their last names. Here’s another one for you: Benny Kubelsky. He became Jack Benny. And my father admitted that he was tempted to change his last name to Sherman when he was applying to Northwestern Medical School. He didn’t and still got in, despite the fact that, like many medical schools, it had an unwritten 10% “quota” on Jewish students at the time (1930’s).

    Finally, I’m afraid I had to Google your song title title. Randy Travis is just not on my usual playlist, but its a great title for this story.

    p.s. I can also testify to the fact that I have never heard you referred to as Susan.

    • Suzy says:

      As you probably know from an earlier story, my father applied to medical schools for 10 years before he finally got in. He didn’t change his name then, but the 10th year he wrote Lutheran instead of Jewish where the application asked for religion.

      I had the Gordon Lightfoot song in mind, but now that you mention Randy Travis, I listened to his song and I like it better than Gordon’s. Tell me if you agree after listening to both of them.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this interesting history of the basis for your first and middle names, as well the change (long ago) to your surname and that of other Jews of note. You are correct, anti-Semitism was (is) so pervasive that it was often necessary to change one’s name in order to blend in and get the opportunity to advance.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I see that Elizabeth is on my ’50s word cloud too, but much smaller than Susan (and actually the same size as Patricia). I always thought Elizabeth was a wonderful name because there are so many different nicknames for it – even if there were 5 of them in your class, you could all be called by different names.

  3. Marian says:

    Plenty of Susans in my schools, as I mentioned in my story, Suzy. Marian wouldn’t even be a raindrop on the Word Cloud. Seems as if many of us now have surnames that were changed because of antisemitism. I agree that I wouldn’t like being introduced and then followed up with “name used to be,” although I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know relatives who have shared all the previous names.

    • Suzy says:

      I would have loved a name that wouldn’t even be a raindrop! A camp friend, also named Susan, started calling herself Misty, after the Johnny Mathis song, which I thought was cool. I didn’t keep in touch with her, so I don’t know if the name stuck or not.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    I have a sister Susan (actually Susan Elizabeth) and an aunt Susan, and Sally has a sister Susan and a sister Beth. Susan certainly memorialized in many songs of the day. I wonder when (if) it will come around again, like Emma and Hannah did at some point. There is a long history to the name. Meanwhile, continue to rock the Suzy.

  5. Fun read Suzy!

    I do know many, many Susans of our generation and in fact my middle name is Susan – named, my parents told me, for the flower black-eyed Susan. I like the name very much, probably because it’s never mispronounced, misspelled or taken for a boys name – all of which often happened to me!

    And I can see that a judge might take a lawyer more seriously if she were called Susan and not Suzy!

    • Suzy says:

      I’ve always liked the flower black-eyed Susan, although in my family we always called them brown-eyed Susans, which I now see is also an official name for the same flower.

  6. In your college count of Susans did you include the Suzannes, Suzettes, Sue Ellens, Soo Lins, Susannahs, and the boys named Sue, to push you over the top of the Cathies and Kathies? In my grammar school class every girl was named Susan.
    And how about that Suzy Creamcheese?
    I liked the introduction of the Bill fka character. I am interested in your own fka. Did your father have any second thoughts about the conversion? Do you? Do you sometimes wish you had more of an Old Testament last name? I wonder if there is a trend toward reclamation of ancestral names (ie, the name assigned by the Naming Officials at Ellis Island)?
    A very engaging story.
    Jon (aka Nate)

    • Suzy says:

      Can’t say if there were any boys named Sue, since I was only looking at the Radcliffe Register, not the Harvard one. But somehow I doubt there were. I have a very dashing visor that says Suzy Creamcheese on it, that I used to wear when driving my Alfa Romeo convertible with the top down. Alas, I no longer have the Alfa, and I’m not sure where the visor is.

      No, no second thoughts about the name change. (I have deleted the name from your comment, as I don’t use it here, in order to avoid being searchable.)

  7. I’m sure you were very fetching as a Susie Creamcheese, especially embedded within an Alfa Romeo.
    I think any memory of other Susans I might have have disappeared into the black and bleak hole created by the one Susan (well, Suzy) I asked to the Junior Prom even though we had never been out on a date (and never would again). But I have to say, I’ve never been done wrong by an Elizabeth or a Carol, or even a Charlie or a Bill.

  8. Risa Nye says:

    My sister’s middle name was officially Susan, but somewhere along the line got shortened to Sue. She was Susie to the family and her friends. She went by Natalie at school until she started at a new high school, then was Susie to everyone for the rest of her life. I’m not sure who she was named after for her middle name, but her first name was to honor my dad’s mother, who was called Nettie. I love these name stories!

    • Suzy says:

      How interesting that it was her middle name, and she chose it rather than Natalie. I would have preferred Natalie because (a) uncommon, and (b) Natalie Wood. But I’m sure your sister had her reasons!

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    I have wondered the same thing about all of the Jewish performers who changed their names. Sadly, I agree with you that their careers would not have been great using their given names. I think there is less of that happening these days. At least you chose a unique spelling for Suzy. I know several women named Susie but the “z” is a special touch.

    • Suzy says:

      As you may recall from my Nicknames story, the spelling was a tribute to Suzy Parker, the glamorous actress-model. Although even before that, I used a “z” when I spelled it Suzie and then Suzi before settling on Suzy.

  10. Oh Suzy! How I longed for a name like yours. . .Susan or Suzy, both were so popular in my day. . . “Wake Up Little Suzy” was so cool. . . Saras never worried their parents about late night shenanigans.

    But what I like best about your name is that it’s a more serious name as Susan and a fun name like Suzy. Right from the start you could change your name to fit your circumstances.

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