What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Names can tell us a lot about a person …and sometimes not so much.  

My uncle Harsh Layb Lipschitz changed his last name to make it more Canadian.  His first name had already become “Harry”.   He did it to assist his son Yisroel Dovid (Sheldon David) who wanted to change his own name to make it easier to get hired as an engineer. 

In the 1950’s Jewish graduates of engineering had found it difficult to get a job.  It turned out that companies in Toronto in those days did not like to have employees with Jewish names.  And how would it be if my cousin with a newly gentile name would introduce some of his new work colleagues to his parents and have to say, “I’d like you to meet my father, Mr. Lipschitz”?   Wouldn’t work, see? 

But what name should they choose?  In Toronto, whenever you bumped into a person whose last name was Lipson or Lipton, you could say, “Oh! Lipschitz!” and you would probably be right.  A number of my cousins had that name. So my uncle and cousin decided to go further afield.  The only letter they retained from their original name was “L” and from then forward, everyone in the family was called Logan. 

It was still odd to meet my newly Irish uncle and have him speak in a thick Yiddish accent.  But this seemed preferable to the name “Lipschitz” itself which, if you say it slowly in English, does not create a very good impression. At first, the idea was that my cousin would style himself as S. David Logan and thus be sufficiently gentilized to pass muster.  But it was actually already the 1960’s and he got a job at IBM where Jewish names were not so bad.  So he kept the Sheldon.  But it was too late for my mother’s illustrious family name which has now completely disappeared amongst our mishpoche here in Canada. 

I myself was named Riwen Fridman on my Citizenship papers, which was the Polish way of spelling a name one would pronounce as Reeven Freedman.   When my parents passed through Germany, the Germans changed their last name to a German spelling, “Friedman” but they still called me “Riwen”. 

In Canada, they learned that my Yiddish first name, “reeven” had an English equivalent.   This name is usually spelled “Reuben” because it is a transliteration of the Hebrew, pronounced “re-u-ben (or ven)” and which means “Look! it’s a boy!” because as my parents kindly told me later, they were hoping I would be a girl and were surprised when I actually showed up. 

When my mother heard this name in English, she heard it in the Polish alphabet, so when we went to register me in kindergarten and they asked what my first name was, she sounded it out phonetically and spelled it “r-u-b-i-n”, using the Polish sound system. Which was a very long way to travel just to get to my name, Rubin Friedman. 

The kicker for all this is that when I was about six, my elder brother, who had to go out on the street and call me to come home for supper, pulled me aside and told me that he felt very nervous when calling me because, “Rubin sounds too Jewish.”  So he called me, “Norm”, which was my name for the next 10 years. 

This turned out to be a failed attempt to make me more normal. Today, I even answer to “Hey you”, if it doesn’t sound too insulting and combining the stereotyped perception of the Jewish proboscis with Shakespeare I have come up with a new quote, “What’s in a nose?  A nose by any other name would surely smell as sweet!”

So you can call me what you like.  Just call me Jewish.

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