I Changed My Name

An American Jew explains why he shed his surname after World War II: “I won't make your dirty work easier, like a sheep considerately running up the plank into the slaughterhouse. Try and find me.”
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In giving up my old name I had nothing but a headache to lose. My education was entirely secular. I went to school with a generation largely of the opinion that any man who transmits God's desires to you is probably only guessing. My heritage comes to about the same thing as that of any of my college friends whose tastes were academic. The classical tradition satisfied our cultural needs. To the extent that we were not occupied with co-eds, Greece and Rome and Florence were the playground of our young imaginations. There was a Period that I shall never forget when, the impetus of my studies upon me, I burrowed through our theory and communed, positively communed, with the Middle Ages. Maybe the past, to the scholarly tribe, holds an attraction not fully justified by all of its products. At any rate we got a fund of old art and literature; and the best of that was part of, or intimately bound up with, the Christina tradition. Such was the shape Creation took. The culture in which I live springs from twenty centuries of Christianity.

In every field it was the same. Weekly organ recitals in chapel culminated in the liturgical and semi-liturgical works of Bach. Take anything: take architecture. Before my mind's eye the gradual soaring of Early Christian, Romanesque, and Gothic comes unmatched for fascination by the most be-Oscared of Hollywood's 180-minute masterpieces. Now recently I found, scattered throughout Now York City, little replicas, little echoes, of ancient basilica and cloister—poor, aspiring imitations at best, yet in continuity with the dreams of those strange, cruel, unsanitary, devout, and lovely days. A faded church in Greenwich Village can harbor a stone column that remembers Constantinople and Ravenna.

If someone says, Jewish tradition is equally exciting, I shall have to confess, Not to me; it wasn't in the curriculum.— Then what do you know about it?—Almost as little as I do of Sanskrit. Like my classmates, I feel well-rounded despite ignorance of both Sanskrit and Hebrew. Given my choice, I'd take Sanskrit to study, for reasons obvious to philologists. However, neither is important to the enjoyment of the great heritage running through Homer, Dante, Rabelsis, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Proust. Of course if I had nine or ten lives to live I'd definitely, in the ninth, find time for Hebrew, which is, in America, at least as valuable as Chinese ceramics or Polynesian ethnology.

But don't you bleed, I've been asked, for the Jews trying to get to Palestine?

Yes, but that's another matter. I am appalled by all of man's inhumanity to man, everywhere. The tide of injustice rises, and no one does anything about it, and sometimes one would like to resign not alone from the Jews, but from the universe as well.

The Jews of the Old World all have my sympathy. For one thing, I distrust frontiers; instinct assures me that everyone has the right to go where he wants to go. But I am equally concerned with the plight of the Chinese, and the violence between Hindu and Moslem; and the bell that tolls for Republicans murdered in Java, and Negroes murdered in Georgia, tolls for me.

Today Charity, lovely lady, is denominational. Charity is Methodist and Roman Catholic, also is Scandinavian, Negroid, and Gallic. Greeks contribute scrupulously to Greek relief, Poles carefully earmark shipments to Poland, Jews scientifically raise funds for Jews. Call me naïve or perverse, but I generally feel as bad about a dying Hindu as about a dying Jew. What does that make me—a kind of Christian?

At this or some other point, when a relative begins to look reflectively at me in a withdrawn sort of way, I emphasize the aesthetic and humanitarian nature of my sentiments. I will not join a church. People with sincere beliefs have my respect. They are fortunate. But I like best to describe myself simply as a human being. I am a man, and not easy to classify.

The form of family discussion has become as standard as that of a Quonset hut. Names are paraded of brilliant, eminent, important, rich, respected Jews. "Look at Baruch, Frankfurter, Spinoza, the Twelve Apostles, the Rothschilds, Irving Berlin, Matisse, Freud, Einstein, Louis B. Mayor. They weren't handicapped."

Mournfully I point out that I am, alas, no Einstein, no Irving Berlin, no Bernard Baruch. I'm an ordinary guy, young, with a taste for security and the amenities of life. Perhaps I could serve as the composite portrait of all undistinguished college grads. And you may want to believe, I add, that the wrong name is no handicap, and you my actually kid yourself into believing it, but you're not kidding me, since I've already found things easier, my entree smoothed, the new way.

I have a special fondness for the Bright Horizons gambit. "Kindly hold out awhile longer. Education will spread the notion that each strain may have something peculiar and original and irreplaceable to contribute. Progress will teach Americans to judge each man fairly on his merits."

There is something to that. Indeed, some day folks may love others for being different. Nevertheless, while Education and Progress receive my hearty endorsement, we have only one life to live, and that's pretty brief. Pending the civilization of America, I propose to make mine easier,

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