'A History of Jewish Name Changing in America' is topic of free webinar on July 25

  • Using court documents, oral histories, archival records and contemporary literature, Kirsten Fermaglich argues that name changing had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Fermaglich will present "A History of Jewish Name Changing in America" for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois online meeting on Sunday, July 25.

    Using court documents, oral histories, archival records and contemporary literature, Kirsten Fermaglich argues that name changing had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Fermaglich will present "A History of Jewish Name Changing in America" for the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois online meeting on Sunday, July 25. Courtesy of Martin Fischer

 
 
Updated 7/15/2021 4:40 PM

On Sunday, July 25, 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.

Her livestreaming presentation will begin at 2 p.m. A separate JGSI members-only genealogy question-and-answer discussion time will start at 1 p.m.

 

To register for this free event, visit jgsi.org/Events-calendar. 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, visit jgsi.org or call (312) 666-0100.

In her presentation, Fermaglich will offer an overview of her most recent book, "A Rosenberg by Any Other Name."

"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," Fermaglich 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.

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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, Fermaglich's interests center around the historical meanings and problematic nature of ethnic identity in the U.S.

"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.

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 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping members collect, preserve and perpetuate the records and history of their ancestors.

Members have access to useful and informative online family history research resources, including a members' forum, more than 65 video recordings of past speakers' presentations, monthly e-news, quarterly Morasha JGSI newsletter, and more.

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