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.”

So, while the millennium makes its slow way hither, I let my new name open doors. Today I am at the point where background doesn't count, which gives me a pleasant feeling of universality. I once had occasion to visit West Virginia. What sort of people would chance and altered environment send my way? Hillbillies, miners, farmers, moonshiners? I was frankly ignorant, and just as frankly eager. What my considerate hosts arranged was a series of introductions within the Jewish community. Swell folk—but for me it was like accepting an invitation to a restaurant in Chinatown and finding an American dinner ordered. That determined my attitude: Never again; I'm off the merry-go-round. A pox on parochialism.

"How do you like being a liar?" a tough friend will insinuatingly demand, eying me as though he had just connected with a haymaker and was now waiting for me to drop. Well, I think we should be only too pleased to misinform those gentlemen who like to know how to put their finger on Jews. Lies are too good for them, these lovers of an orderly world where each sect and breed comes plainly labeled and Jews good-naturedly make their living at pawnbroking, clothes manufacturing, or junk dealing. Such gentlemen may not always be deceived, but if enough names are changed, they will certainly be confused. Therefore to hypocritical universities, polluted employment agencies, churchgoers ignorant of Christianity, canting business leaders, haters of people they haven't met, it seems a good idea to say; I won't make your dirty work easier, like a sheep considerately running up the plank into the slaughterhouse. Try and find me.

As for the vast majority of folks, decent and kind, this little deception robs them of nothing and makes everybody more comfortable. Actually, there's no need to deceive my Christian friends. I can rely on the sympathy and good sense of those I normally choose as associates. But in a pinch I am exempted from a senseless struggle for my rights.

So far I have glossed over the experience of my younger brother, who was the one to set our experiment in motion. David's story is the story of a bit of cartilage. Now and then my brother comes up against someone so keen and infallible that by looking at the tip of David's nose he recognizes the disguised pawnbroker. My brother may invest still further in his own humanity. He may decide to pay a surgeon to remove enough of that tiny but fatal cartilage to haul him up out of the pawnbroker race—washed sinless in the modern equivalent of baptism of the heathen—up to the shining precincts of individuality, honor, good breeding, ability, personality, talent, and ethics. We don't know—it's a question of percentages; and each month the offending cartilage loses some of its treacherous power. It may stay.

Meanwhile my brother rejoices in the new name on our letter box. He says it brings a sense of freedom as bracing as a good salt wind from the ocean. We can at our ease go anywhere, travel, work, play. Set us down at any crossroads in America, in the world, and we are integrated units, going concerns operating on about the same basis as anyone else, given, as a matter of course, the same three strikes as other Americans. It isn't anything of heroic proportions to have done, but we have adjusted to environment. And that, if I recall my elementary psychology, conforms to one common, workable definition of intelligence.

Read “I’ve Kept My Name,” a rebuttal by David I. Cohn, in the April 1948 Atlantic.

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