On June 5th, 2020, we had the honor and pleasure of having a guest speaker: Professor Kirsten Fermaglich, who was gracious enough to allow us to share a recording of her presentation.
Prof. Fermaglich spoke about her book, A Rosenberg By Any Other Name: A History of Name Changing in America.
Our thinking about Jewish name changing tends to focus on clichés: ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or insensitive Ellis Island officials who changed immigrants’ names for them. But as Professor Kirsten Fermaglich elegantly reveals, the real story is much more profound. In twentieth-century New York City, Jewish name changing was actually a broad-based and voluntary behavior: thousands of ordinary Jewish men, women, and children legally changed their names in order to respond to an upsurge of anti-Semitism. Rather than trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community.
Mining court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature, Fermaglich argues convincingly that name changing had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. This book ends with the disturbing realization that the prosperity Jews found by changing their names is not as accessible for the Chinese, Latino, and Muslim immigrants who wish to exercise that right today.
Professor Kirsten Fermaglich, Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, is the author of American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares and co-editor of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (the Norton critical edition).
Watch a recording of her presentation:
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