In modern Jewish history, the act of changing one’s name was a poignant reflection of the interplay between upward mobility and the pervasive spectre of antisemitism.
This narrative unfolded predominantly within the contours of the middle class, where a fateful decision to alter one’s name was both a calculated endeavour and a signal of deep-seated concern.
In America, transforming one’s identity didn’t necessarily come cheap. To embark on this journey necessitated the hiring of a lawyer and the payment of administrative fees, among other onerous expenses. This price tag was a barrier, denying the steerage class passage to a world of new potential.
In the mid-20th century, however, New York state law, much like today, proffered an alternative path to name change, one that did not require a formal petition. Merely by adopting a new name consistently, devoid of fraudulent intent, individuals could seamlessly transition into their altered identity. The latter path was adopted more frequently by the working classes, whose names remained largely unmonitored by employers. The decision to eschew this simpler route in favour of the convoluted legal process bespoke a heightened awareness of the barrier to white collar employment – students aspiring to enter professional circles, businessmen seeking to woo clientele, and secretaries courting employment agencies. Within this crucible, Jews began to assert their presence at rates exceeding other ethnic groups, further exacerbating the conundrum.
The crux of the matter lay in the burgeoning institutionalized antisemitism that poisoned the wells of employment and education during the interwar years. It was an era in which Jews found themselves increasingly undesirable within the confines of American middle-class society. Those who bore distinctly Jewish-sounding surnames discovered themselves under scrutiny.
The noxious trend began its insidious creep with Columbia University in 1917, as colleges and universities nationwide began to erect quotas aimed squarely at limiting the influx of Jewish students.
To achieve this malevolent end, institutions devised intricate, probing applications that delved into the ancestral origins, occupations, and even the names of the candidates’ forebears.
Questions about the birthplace of one’s grandfather, the nature of one’s father’s occupation, and the maiden name of one’s mother were deliberately crafted to unmask and subsequently exclude Jews from these hallowed halls.
In a society that should have been built upon principles of equality and opportunity, this institutionalized discrimination laid bare the sinister undercurrents of antisemitism that ran deep in the veins of America’s middle-class aspirations.
The name change trend in Hollywood and in music is more distinct, where performers, paid to present fantasy, felt empowered to create constructs that would best sell themselves to the wider public. And indeed, any ethnic sounding name would have been viewed as a hindrance to many studios, right up until the early 70s. But part of this pitch was the denial of Jewish identity. A June Allyson was unlikely to share top billing with a James Stewart if she’d remained Eleanor Geisman.
As archaic as the practice may sound to modern ears, post Oct 7th, is it set to return?
For many, it never went away. But those who may never have considered it, especially among the current generation entering the workforce, could be now.
After the roller doors slammed shut on sympathy for Jewish lives lost only 24 hours after the barbaric Hamas pogrom, many eyes were opened to the reality that operating as a Jew in the West may require further negotiation.
Only a month after the tragedy, boycotts are gathering steam, and from groups and organisations that should know better.
Kiwibank investment fund Simplicity’s CEO, Ben Stubbs, declared they would be divesting from Israeli bank shares, assuring us the move was entirely devoid of political motivations.
He was able to distance himself from any culpability, in his mind at least, by claiming the UN made the decision for them with their own stance on Israel’s mission to remove Hamas from the Gaza strip.
The United Nations, for all its grandiloquent declarations, has proven itself time and again to be a theatre of hypocrisy and double standards. It is a body where autocrats and despots sit shoulder to shoulder with democratic nations, polluting them with their stench – where human rights violators are granted seats on human rights councils, and where resolutions against Israel are passed with bewildering frequency, while literal mass murderers such as Bashir Al Assad are barely censured.
It was also revealed that outgoing Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta’s inability to condemn Hamas on Oct 7th was not a cynical ploy orchestrated by MFAT at all, but her refutation of their advice. That a Western politician would decide to shield perpetrators of a homicidal rampage against Jews is a thunderous indictment on Jews and our current place in the West.
To list all the examples of antisemitism (in New Zealand alone) from politicians, journalists, commentators along with inexplicable silence in the face of threats and anti-Jewish protest would fill too many pages, but few should be surprised that many Jews have completely gone to ground.
The issue now is how long they stay there, and many, over the next few months, may retire their identities, or attempt to cleanse them through public declarations that they stand apart from their community.
And like the antisemitism of old, this newest mutation is chiefly infecting the middle and upper classes. It is professional bodies spitting out letters of condemnation on Israel’s reprisal to the worst atrocity committed against Jews since World War 2 – few, if any, among the working poor are being asked to pick up a pen. It is worth reiterating that a pogrom unleashed this, and that the antisemitic chants started before any Israeli military action.
It is hard to imagine, even just over a month ago, a Garfinkle opting to become a Garfield in 2023. But even our own politicians seem to be telling us, if not through their open antisemitism, then through their silence, to reheat this lamentable ancient practice.
Our livelihood and safety may soon depend on it.