- A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Change in America ed. by Kirsten Fermaglich
Kirsten Fermaglich's groundbreaking work on Jewish name changing recasts popular perceptions of this long-standing practice in the twentieth-century United States. In emphasizing the significance of names, Fermaglich astutely uses the book's title as a prelude to her dismantling of the legal, historical, and social layers associated with the process of name changing, as discussed in each of the book's six chronological chapters. A Rosenberg by Any Other Name alludes to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet declares "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet, in her monologue, suggests that Romeo's surname, Montague, should play no obstacle in their love story. Yet, as Fermaglich argues, names do convey important information about family, culture, and class that can have significant effects on people's lives. As such, the book's objective is to "recover the struggles of ordinary men, women, and children in a world that judged them for their names" (186). A Rosenberg by Any Other Name convincingly examines the enhanced social currency American Jews have experienced when they changed their last, and to a lesser extent, first names, while also revealing that such decisions often came at the expense of interpersonal relations and psychological turmoil.
This book is meticulously researched and methodologically sound. Fermaglich consults several archival collections, films, popular fiction, and legal cases, but relies mainly on the Name Change Petitions Collection of the New York City Civil Court to make her point. Namely, she argues that the thousands of New York Jews who petitioned the city's civil court to legally change their names did so [End Page 223] to escape antisemitism, easing the way for their ability to find employment and to be admitted to universities and professional schools. Although the number of Jews who filed name-change petitions reflected a minority of the New York Jewish population, the petitions disproportionately contained historically Jewish names, indicating that the act of name changing functioned as a distinctly Jewish practice. Fermaglich examined name change petitions from 1887 through 2012 by systematically reviewing all petitions submitted to the court every five years (1922, 1927, etc.) and then selecting one out of every ten petitions from all the submissions in each of the remaining years. This approach guaranteed a representative sampling of all the individuals—and families—whether Jews or non-Jews, who requested legal name changes.
Yet the methodological framework implies that the book's subtitle is a misnomer. Rather than a "history of Jewish name change in America," A Rosenberg by Any Other Name focuses on the circumstances and the archival sources in New York City that led Jews to legally alter their names, with Fermaglich even acknowledging this is a "distinctive New York story" (16). This conflation of New York City with the United States offers a problematic examination of American Jewish history, given that New York—despite it having the largest population of Jews in the United States—has only represented a sliver of the lived Jewish experiences across the country. Fermaglich, however, trades in the particularism of New York City for a more universal "American" history of Jewish name changing when she examines the popularity of name changers in cultural works, especially in literature and comedy. The pervasiveness of name changing as a subject of discussion, such as in Laura Z. Hobson's 1947 novel Gentleman's Agreement or in the comedy routines of Lenny Bruce, reveals that while Jews filed name-change petitions in local city courts, and particularly those in New York, the practice became engrained in American cultural history.
Fermaglich's book is organized in three sections. The first investigates the increase of Jewish name changing in New York City during the interwar years. Fermaglich argues that if World War I initiated bureaucratic policies that would come to define Americans' relationship with the government and...