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.”
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.
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 Christian 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,
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.