Jewish Ancestry: Assimilation and Name Change Confusion

Grandmother Esther3b - Copy
My grandmother from Russia. Her brother’s name changed no less than 4 times!

By: D.M. Miller

When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Long before the new interpretation of multiculturalism, that old adage applied not only to traveling but to immigrants resettling in their adopted countries. Assimilation.

America was the melting pot, and the multiculturalism of today seems to lack that cohesive quality and shared patriotism our ancestors cherished. In these past generations, the old cultures and traditions were preserved only around the dinner table because the immigrants couldn’t wait to become American. Upon arrival, they would wash off the dust from the old land, learn English, work as hard as they could to make a new, successful life for themselves and for their children in the land of opportunity, and in many cases would change their names or at least give their children names they considered to be “American.”

Personally, I’ve been on an ancestry journey, researching my own family. My focus has been my Jewish side, since I already know quite a bit about my European relatives.

With so little to go on, I feel like an investigator solving  a mystery and slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Census records are available online up through the year 1940 thus far. I would imagine the 1950 Census will eventually be made available as well, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Since my family came over in the early 1900s, I have a few Census reports at my disposal, which provide invaluable information. The problem is that the “facts” change from one to the next as record-keeping back then was not anything like it is today. A person would go around neighborhoods knocking on doors and hand-writing the information given. In many cases, mistakes were made, and the writing is often illegible.

Still, I came across a relative whose constant name change really left me scratching my head.

My grandmother’s youngest brother, the only sibling born in America, went from Isadore in 1920, to Issac in 1930, to Irving in 1940, and finally to Irvin on his father’s death certificate in 1957. All “I” names, but I had to wonder what the deal was with this guy!

And then came the answer: assimilation.

Tracey Rich runs a fantastic website called, “Judaism 101.” She (or he?) wrote about researching Jewish ancestry and the confusing name changes. Apparently this was a common practice for our relatives to change their names both before and after immigrating. This was true not only of their first but also their last names. She mentions a grandmother who went from Lee Moldow to Lena Moldofsky to Bluma Moldansky. My grandmother also changed her last name.

But this was the part that really floored me: Tracey’s grandmother’s brother “shows up as Irving, Isidore and Isak.” Just like my relative! And coincidentally, he is also my grandmother’s brother. Talk about bizarre, but at least I know this was normal. It was all about that desperation to fit in.

Not everyone agrees with assimilation, and many criticize how it’s led to intermarriage (case in point, my parents), and a weakening of religiosity among American Jews. People now, however, are getting back to their roots, and when Jews make Aliyah to Israel, back to Hebrew they go. From the old Jewish names we had in Europe, to the Americanized version in the New World, all to return full circle to our Jewish names back where we started in our ancestral homeland.

When in Rome.


Related:

#Ancestry DNA Test Results: As It Turns out, I Am…

#Ancestry: We’re All Related Somehow!


Check out my book, The Religion of the Heart, available on Amazon.

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5 thoughts on “Jewish Ancestry: Assimilation and Name Change Confusion

  1. The joke goes that Yankel meets his old friend with whom he came over on the boat some five years ago and greets him, “So Chaim-Moshe Rabinowitz, how are you?” and the reply was “I had my name changed. So, please, from now on I’m Howard Maurice Raab, okay?”. They exchange pleasantries and separate. Ten years later, again the accidentally meet up and Yankel calls out, “Hey, Herman Maurice Raab, how are you?”. His friend pulls him aside and informs him that yet again he has changed his name. This time to Harlow Martin Rees-Nixon. Yankel is astounded and asks, “why did you do that?”. Rees-Nixon lowers his voice and tells him “every time I referred to myself as Herman Maurice Raab, those I was talking to said to me ‘but Mr. Raab, with your Yiddish accent, what was your previous name?’ but now when they ask me, ‘but Mr. Rees-Nixon, what was your previous name?’ I can confidentally say Howard Maurice Raab”.

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  2. When I attempted to document my great-uncle ‘s lineage, I ran into quite a bit of problems. Supposedly, one side of his family was Rosencrantz prior to immigration, and his other side was Rosanovich. We are uncertain which side was which, as both sides opted to rename themselves Rosen (whether by choice or by the determination of an immigration official.)

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    1. Both sides of my father’s family did the same thing. They chose the name Miller. Not only is that an extremely common name, but it gets confusing when the same first names appear on both sides!

      According to Tracey Rich, the idea that the immigration officials on Ellis Island changed our relatives’ names is a myth. Apparently it’s a common one because that was the story I always got, and now I’ve been hearing it more and more from other people.

      Rich says that the immigrants changed their own names. If you click on that link in the article above, there is a section called, “The name was changed at Ellis Island.”

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  3. That’s fascinating how you can trace your family like that. I didn’t even know that was possible. I’m sure if I tried such a thing, I’d make a mistake and end up thinking I was related to some Bulgarian family who changed their last name to Saunders.

    The other thing I was thinking was that it was some what ironic that given the American ideal of individualism that people would change their names to fit in. Then, I started to think that actually in those days, new immigrants were subjected to a lot of discrimination, so that would have been an added incentive to fit in. We were so hostile to immigrants, we had lynchings, I think the largest mass lynching was against Italian immigrants. Newly arrived immigrants were subjected to unfair IQ tests where they would be asked questions like, “The number 1 is to 2, as George Washington is to _______.” A question that a recent arrival to the US who couldn’t even speak English would likely get wrong, no matter how intelligent they were. We were even ahead of Germany when it came to negative eugenics with our forced sterilization program, which didn’t even end until sometime in the 1970s. So, in such an environment, is it surprising that immigrants were changing their names to fit in? We didn’t actually welcome individuals and their different cultures, as much as we persecuted them for being different.

    As an American, I don’t feel good knowing that people felt the need to change their names.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, there was no political correctness back then, but the immigrants are always the lowest of the low in terms of social status. This takes place all over the world. The worst jobs often go to the immigrants, who are looked down upon. Obviously in the past the lowest of the low was lower than dirt, and conditions have improved greatly, thankfully. Name changing isn’t quite that bad compared to sterilization. That’s quite the extreme! We’ve come a long way since then, not that everything’s perfect, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction.

      Like

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