‘A Rosenberg by Any Other Name’ Looks at Jewish Name Changing History


It’s no surprise that Kirsten Fermaglich, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, starts her book, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America with a joke.

As Fermaglich pointed out in her introduction, the subject of Jewish names is often greeted by laughter or joke-telling. Indeed, when I talk about my own name being changed from Spikolitzer to Spikol, I always mention that Spikolitzer sounds like some kind of refreshing beverage, maybe a rose wine spritzer that comes in a can.

But as Fermaglich noted in her recently released history from NYU Press, the story of Jewish name changing has serious implications, as the majority of people who petitioned the New York City courts in the first half of the 20th century to make those changes did so for a rather grim reason: Their obviously Jewish names were, in one way or another, serving as a barrier to entry into American life, from college admissions to keeping customers away from their stores.

The Jewish name-changing story is, of course, an immigrant tale, as many names were changed upon arrival to the United States so as to fit in better with the new country’s population. Fermaglich’s thoroughly researched book delves into many implications of changing one’s name and examines the way that Jewish culture was shaped overall by the practice.

She also noted the way other immigrant groups have confronted similar issues in the 21st century, when a petitioner for a name change is far more likely to be Muslim, Chinese or Arab-American. And people in those groups are typically not petitioning for an assimilated name, as Jews did, but rather to correct bureacratic mistakes.

This, Fermaglich said, suggests “the refreshing power of multiculturalism as a cultural ideal in the years after 2001.” Or, looking at it another way, “these findings may also suggest more hardened intersections between race and class in our contemporary society.

While aspiring middle-class Jews with white skin of stigmatized names could see in name changing a ticket to upward mobility in an emerging service economy, people of color working at jobs with no room for advancement in a post-industrial economy have no seen economic promise in new names.”

Fermaglich recommended that we see names for what they are: signifiers of fascinating social histories — “gateways into the personal and political, familial and cultural, public and private dimensions of our lives,” she writes.

To that end, I posted a call for stories of  Jewish name changes on Facebook to see how area folks might react.

A couple people noted that several local TV news anchors changed their names to less Jewish-sounding monikers — Jim Gardner, Larry Kane and Marc Howard — not unlike, say, Jon Leibowitz, who became Jon Stewart.

Here are some of the comments received:

We used to be Berkowitz. The story I was told was my grandfather changed it to Burkitt in the 1920s or 1930s to facilitate the likelihood of getting work. — Stevie Burkitt

My husband’s name is Richard Wiener. He and his siblings were all teased mercilessly because of their last name, but get this: His siblings both crumbled and changed their last names (his brother took his mother’s maiden name; his sister uses her middle name as her last name). But the kid forever known as Dick Wiener kept his name. Go figure. Bonus: Their grandfather was Woody Wiener and their grandmother was Aïda Wiener (say it out loud). — Wendy Rosenfield

I didn’t know my grandmother’s real first name until she was 90 years old (it was Yetta). She hid it that well. Her nickname was “Goody” growing up and she preferred that name so everyone called her that. Since she was born on the kitchen table in a tenement house in the Lower East Side, I’m not even sure she had a birth certificate. So it wasn’t hard to get her nickname on her marriage license and Social Security card when she grew up. And of course, her family’s real last name was “Gladstein” but went by “Gladstone.” — Jaime Kelly

I’m doing my research on this because I just found out that my great-grandfather was a German Jew who fled to Peru to escape Nazi Germany. From what I gather he was a Rosenberg as well but changed his name to Rosales. — Cindy Yulissa Rodriguez

When my dad, David Rykewitz, known as Rickey, married my mom (who had daughters from her first marriage) in 1951, he changed his surname to his nickname. Ostensible reason: My future sisters, 6 and 4, wanted an easier name to say and spell. Probable reason: Six years after WWII, he probably wanted to shed an obviously Jewish/Russian name. — Carrie Rickey

Nurin was Nurinsky and something before that. Not sure they improved it much. Also, I was offered a TV job in N.C. in 1998 and told I’d have to change my name but that it was OK because “the Italian guy had to change his, too.” — Tara Nurin

There’s a closely related phenomenon of Jews naming their kids really WASPy first and middle names (or in my case, maybe Scottish-sounding names: Glenn Stewart). My last name is unchanged, because it just sounds generically German (Händler just means “dealer” or “merchant,” and is a common Jewish name in the region my paternal grandfather’s family was from, but doesn’t sound all that Jewish to Anglo ears). But my grandmother gave my father the ersatz Scottish first and middle names when he was born in 1932 because, well, it was 1932, and let’s just say the United States and the rest of the world were not free of anti-Semitism at that moment. His Hebrew names — she called them his “secret names” — had the same initials; her memory was vague when I asked her about this, but it was probably Gemaliel Scholem. By her account, this was something done by many of her friends who were naming their kids. — Glenn Hendler

My maternal grandparents had their name changed at Ellis Island (I know some dispute it happened often) to Rose (the “American flower”) from Razu. — Stu Bykofsky

Does changing your name moving from Russia to Israel count? My grandfather changed his name from Kastrol to Ben-Amos because Amos was the more socialist prophet. Many Jews making aliyah changed their names to sound Israeli. — Ariel Ben-Amos

My grandfather changed his name from Mordechovich to Ben-Yaacov (his father’s name was Yaacov) when he came to Israel (when it was Palestine) in 1947 from the Soviet Union (Belarus).  It was definitely common at the time. — Shai Ben-Yaacov

All the professionals in my father’s family had to change their names to a shorter version because they didn’t hire you if they knew you were a Jew. My dad was 14 out of 15.  Seven were boys. — Sharon Moss Lee

Chedekel to Mirelovich to Mirelowitz to Mirel. I was thinking about going with Mir. — Paul Mirel

My grandfather from the old country, Russia, was born Simon Rubin. Shortening it to Rube seemed wrong. — Dan Rubin

I would have been Paul Greenstein. Not sure of the exact details but my ancestors on my father’s side were definitely Greensteins. I was hoping for Greenberg but alas. — Paul Green

[My wife] Lauren Grabelle was originally Grabelski. My family switched from Leibmann to Herrmann under Napoleonic rule while in Germany, to assimilate (by force of law). — Jon Herrmann

All the professionals in my father’s family had to change their names to a shorter version because they didn’t hire you if they knew you were a Jew. My dad was 14 out of 15. Seven were boys. — Sharon Moss Lee

Not Jewish but my husband’s ancestors dropped the front A sound in their family name to not be so identifiably Berber and lessen discrimination from the Arab colonizers, and then when my husband naturalized he changed the transliteration from the Francophone Berkchane to the Americanized Berkshan. There’s been a couple times U.S.-born Americans have been aghast to hear he did that it’s like, “Wait, you think it’s … erasure(?) … to change a transliterated twice-colonized name?” — Amara Rockar

I’m not a Jew but the Benedetto name was changed to Benedict by my grandfather but only some of his kids adopted it. Family legend is that he did it to fit in better in America as he opened a grocery store in West Philly. — Chris Benedetto

lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


  1. Filene’s name. Before coming to America, someone suggested to Mr. Katz that his name sounded Jewish, which might discourage non-Jews from shopping in the store he intended to open in America, so he thought of “Katz” to Cats to “Feline” to “Filene.”


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