I've Kept My Name

A forthright rebuttal to “I Changed My Name,” an anonymous article published in the February 1948 Atlantic
In April 1949, students demonstrate against alleged anti-Semitic remarks by two professors at the City College of New York. (AP Photo)

Name changing, as H. L. Mencken has exhaustively shown, is a widespread phenomenon among members of all the racial stocks who compose our population, including the AngloSaxon. The most frequent reason for name-changing among Jews is to get jobs in areas where there is marked economic discrimination against them. Others change their names as a prop to their teetering little souls: because they are socially insecure or are ashamed of their birthright. It is not for me to pass judgment upon them. One remembers, in this context, that during the nineteenth century several European travelers succeeded in penetrating to the sacred Moslem city of Mecca disguised as Moslems. Yet Doughty traveled for two years as a Christian in the Arabian peninsula, every moment in peril of his life, as he records; for to slit the throat of an infidel is to store up merit for oneself in the Moslem heaven. But Doughty's Arabia Deserta is the greatest of all travel books in the English language, for the reason, perhaps, that Doughty was personally the greatest of all among travelers.

I find that keeping my name, far from complicating my life, simplifies it. I was born an American and a Jew, as you were born an American and a Gentile. I am what I am, as you are what you are. "Jews," wrote Mark Twain, "are members of the human race. Worse than that I cannot say of them." But it would not be wholly admirable if I should, by changing my name, reject the fifty centuries' history and tradition of my people in order to gain a hotel room at Newport.

Nor is this all. Bearing an unmistakably Jewish name, I am spared the crude comments of virulent anti-Semites, for even they retain a modicum of manners in my presence; and, there being no possibility of mistake, I am not asked to join groups that do not "take" Jews. I am accepted by my fellows as a human being, or I am rejected as a Jew, and while I have no apparatus for measuring hatred and love as they move the hearts of millions of non-Jews, I do know this: that Gentiles, knowing me to be a Jew, have all my life taken me into their hearts and homes, with no self-consciousness on their part or mine, with no abrogation of dignity on either side, without condescension by them and without obsequiousness by me.

The fact that I have been free of most of the blatant prejudices that often run against so many of my coreligionists does not make me insensitive to their plight, nor do I detach myself from them as though I lived upon a private planet of my own. The war between good and evil never ceases. It was once suggested to Luigi Luzzatti, a Prime Minister of Italy and a Jew, that he change his faith. "I do not think of myself as a Jew or a Gentile," he replied, "but only as an Italian. But when Jews are attacked, then the voice of Isaiah rises in my soul" Here it would seem meet to do battle under true colors rather than false.

If I should resort to the plastic surgery of the courts, it would be only because I should like to pass myself off on the community as a synthetic Plantagnet. This, conceivably, could bring me certain dubious "advantages," such as eligibility for clubs that reject me because I am a Jew, or admission to hotels in "restricted" resorts that refuse me for the same reason. With a new name – preferably one suggesting kinship with a high-church bishop – I might even be asked to dine with some newly minted family that, having gouged the government during the First World War, is now almost as pedigreed as a grand champion bull. These considerations leave me cold.

We already have an overproduction of social climbers in this country; folks who, in the telling and contemptuous rural Negro phrase, have "got above their raisin'." There is no reason why I should add to their number; I can derive a sufficient knowledge of their obscene antics, without closer relationship, by reading the considerable Americas literature that deals with them.

Yet it is not surprising that there should be so many of them among us – Gentile and Jew – seeing that, paradoxically, snobbery reaches its ultimate in a shirt-sleeve democracy such as ours. For snobbery, generally speaking, flows from social insecurity and only two groups are free of it. The one is the tiny group of aristocrats at the top who feel that no matter what they do, they cannot lose their social position. The other is the group of men it the bottom who have no social position to lose. One finds, therefore, few snobs among true aristocrats and truck drivers. The place to look for them is among large numbers of the American middle class – especially its women. Corroded by a sense of social insecurity, they are almost pathologically concerned with the "right thing" – the right friends, schools, resorts, clothes, clubs, addresses. Nothing stops them in their search for social position.

Socially insecure Gentiles do not automatically rule out all Jews. Among them, the social penalty of being a Jew is not Jewishness. What is unforgivable is to be a poor and obscure Jew – or, even, a rich end obscure Jew. Consequently, a Lehman, a Schiff, a Warburg, a Baruch, who are neither poor nor obscure, are forgiven their lack of prenatal wisdom. The welcome extended to men of this kind is of fascinating interest to the cultural anthropologist – revealing, as it does, some of the magnificently absurd taboos of our society. While they may be "good" enough to marry a man's daughter, they are often not good enough for membership in his clubs, nor can they be permitted to swim in the miraculous waters of exclusive beaches.

So, too, socially insecure Gentiles may welcome Jews who are Famous Names –  distinguished artists, musicians, playwrights, actors, movie producers. But the Names, by a tacit conspiracy of manners, are expected to sing for their supper while their hosts, whether or no they are bemused by the singing, enjoy the pleasures of vicarious association with the famous.

One also finds in this country "pet Jews" and their Gentile keepers. The latter derive from the association an exotic touch of the fashionable, as certain English families of the eighteenth century found it exotically fashionable to adorn their households with a liveried blackamoor or two. The former derive from the association, one assumes, a certain masochistic pleasure, knowing that the attitude of their keepers toward Jews in general is that of the Duke of Dorset (in Beerbohm's Ztdeika Dobson) toward Americans. The Duke granted that Americans had a right to live, but he wished that it had not been made so easy for them to live at Oxford.

These are worlds to which I might presumably gain access by changing my name. Do you blame me if I reject them?

Presented by

David L. Cohn

David I. Cohn was a regular Atlantic contributor during the mid-1900s. A Mississippi native who studied at the University of Virginia and Yale, he authored books as diverse as African American history (God Shakes Creation), American industry (The Good Old Days), and and matrimony (Love in America).

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