Jewish name changing to be subject of Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois talk on July 25, 2021
Kirsten Fermaglich, who has been teaching history and Jewish studies at Michigan State University since 2001, will give a talk on “A History of Jewish Name Changing in America” for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois online meeting on Sunday, July 25, 2021. Her live streaming presentation will begin at 2 p.m. Central Time. (A separate JGSI members-only genealogy question-and-answer discussion time will start at 1 p.m.)
Registration/RSVP details will be forthcoming. After you register, you will be sent a link to join the meeting. This webinar will be recorded so that JGSI’s paid members who are unable to view it live will be able to view the recording later.
For more information, see https://jgsi.org or phone 312-666-0100.
In her presentation, Kirsten Fermaglich will offer an overview of her most recent book, “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” (NYU Press, 2018). “Our thinking about Jewish name changing tends to focus on clichés: ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or insensitive officials who changed immigrants’ names for them,” she said. But as the speaker will describe, the real story is much more profound. Scratching below the surface, Fermaglich examines previously unexplored name change petitions to upend the clichés, revealing that in 20th-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 antisemitism.
Rather than trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community, she said. While name changing allowed Jewish families to avoid antisemitism and achieve white middle-class status, the practice also created pain within families and became a stigmatized, forgotten aspect of American Jewish culture.
Using court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature, Fermaglich argues that name changing had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Ordinary Jews were forced to consider changing their names as they saw their friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors do so. Jewish communal leaders and civil rights activists needed to consider name changers as part of the Jewish community, making name changing a pivotal part of early civil rights legislation. And Jewish artists created critical portraits of name changers that lasted for decades in American Jewish culture.
The talk 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.
As a professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University, Kirsten Fermaglich’s interests center around the historical meanings and problematic nature of ethnic identity in the United States: “I am particularly interested in secular Jews as both members of and outsiders to the Jewish community,” she said. “I am also interested in the ways that gender, race, class, and family intersect with ethnic identity.”
“A Rosenberg by any Other Name” won the Saul Viener Book Prize from the American Jewish Historical Society for the best book published in American Jewish History over the past two years. Her first book, “American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares” (Brandeis University Press, 2006), looked at secular Jewish intellectuals’ uses of the Holocaust in the early 1960s. Fermaglich also co-edited, with Lisa Fine, the Norton Critical Edition of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (2013).
She teaches undergraduate classes in American Jewish history and culture, as well as undergraduate and graduate classes in United States history after 1865.
The Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping members collect, preserve, and perpetuate the records and history of their ancestors. JGSI is a resource for the worldwide Jewish community to research their Chicago-area roots. The JGSI motto is “Members Helping Members Since 1981.” The group has more than 300 members and is affiliated with the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.