I Changed My Name

“I won't make your dirty work easier, like a sheep considerately running up the plank into the slaughterhouse. Try and find me.”
Jewish American soldiers during World War II (Yad Vashem)

Toward July of 1945 my kid brother's V-mail began coming home scrawled all over with odd pseudonyms. If I knew David, he was after something—just what, it wasn't impossible to guess, even before the final letter that rounded out his campaign. He wanted to change his name.

We are Jews, and our name was forthrightly Jewish. As his letter gingerly put it, the decision to take a new name was related to a taste for travel he had picked up in the Air Force. He had seen New Orleans, the Rockies, the Pacific, Manila; he wanted to see more after the war, and now he sought this means of assuring pleasant globe-trotting.

I think I knocked him out of his cockpit when I wrote that the step he contemplated had been on my mind a good while, and that it appeared advantageous from most angles. Somehow, halfway around the world, and busy with a B-29, he had arrived at my own well-matured conclusion as to one sine qua non of the good life in the twentieth century.

When David came home we got out our Manhattan phone directory, pored through the section of names with our initial, and compiled a list of three hundred choice surnames. When it came to making a decision, when we uttered those unfamiliar syllables aloud after our own given names, the project faltered; mutual embarrassment turned us cold. Without our old name we felt as anonymous as a couple of blades of grass.

But at last, having winnowed our sizable list, testing and rejecting, we settled on a name both neutral and euphonious. It might be Protestant or Catholic, it might be French, English, American. It might be anything. Crusaders had borne our name; street sweepers no doubt still do.

Good enough. The less your name says, the louder your actions speak. We hoped ours would do us credit.

Our idea was to find a name soothing to the greatest possible number of preconceptions and prejudices we were likely to meet. Our choice, we had agreed, was not to be pure Anglo-Saxon (although that's such a marketable strain) because we are both dark, resembling our father rather than our mother, a blue-eyed blonde. No telling what shade our children might decide to assume. So, clasping hands in enthusiasm over our own shrewdness, we steered clear of a number of British pitfalls.

Then we paid a lawyer (funny how you always pay for what the court of justice decides is yours by right) and became legal owners of the name of our choice. Incidentally—a tip for careful shoppers—the fee was about the same for both as it would have been for one. Entire families may enjoy this wholesale arrangement.

The required thirty days passed. We put a fine bright new name plate under our letter box and went out curiously into a world that had now and then turned a suspiciously stony face to our effort. Immediate results were gratifying. For those who hesitate, the answer to "Can I get away with it?" is "You'd be surprised." In my case, though I'm dark, I got the benefit of the doubt. Events showed that most Christians accepted me as just another guy—extended their cordiality without misgivings or reservations.

The right name, I congratulated myself, is a great buy at only sixty dollars.

Later I found that not everybody was fooled, that a small, militant minority penetrated my bunion disguise and were not averse to showing it; but on various counts these were mostly obnoxious birds anyway, with whom it would have been small thrill to deal—not the impressive people in my field, which happens to be journalism. Make things smooth and comfortable for the latter, and they don't give your origins a second thought.

It was the more bigoted who were apt to spot me. Seemingly they nourish a psychological set to which large portions of their waking time are dedicated: eternal, nervous separation of sheep from goats. Such specialists appear condemned to an unsleeping qui vine, like Argus. Even among the specialists, however, there were many who took me, and my sixty-dollar name into blood brotherhood, confiding how the continued existence of Jews (and/or Negroes, Italians, etc., etc.) added considerably to their burdens. Well, I didn't have to live, with them. I just wanted to fool them into the impression that I was human, and I was succeeding.

But while I went around aglow at having joined the human race, fire and brimstone were storing up for me in an unexpected quarter. It was my friends calling me a coward and deserter—literally, with just not quite enough humor to make it casual—that wiped the grin off my face. Surely there was nothing cowardly about invading what might reasonably be set down as hostile territory? But my accusers were drawing on centuries of stored-up polemic; I was groping an uncharted way to new ground.

Weeks went by before the vague complex of annoyance, logic, and intuition that had been my motivation settled into words. Then my muttering friends found themselves pinned by the lapels and flailed with my rationale of name-changing.

Those very friends who decried my change of name are in the main agnostics; the supernatural has long since departed from their world. Yes, they do sometimes attend services. To worship? The idea would embarrass them. And they were honestly angry with me. Why? What made their eyeteeth show?

I think I know. They have reacted passionately to injustice. They feel passionately that as an Irishman may have his reel, his green, his St. Patrick's Day parade, as each national group in America is entitled to its history, costumes, dishes, songs, colors, so Jews as a matter of simple justice have the right to their traditions. And they will in self-respect defend that right, to the last drop of blood. I am determined to keep my blood, every drop, for more personal ends.

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