What’s in a name? For many American Jews who changed their names in the twentieth century so they would sound “less Jewish,” clearly a lot. In this episode, guest host Geraldine Gudefin welcomes Kirsten Fermaglich to speak about her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America and the big issues it brings up: Name changing is the butt of many jokes, but it’s a really serious topic that illuminates the history of antisemitism in America and the power of bureaucracy in society. As Kirsten stresses, the way this story has been told is important too. Apocryphal tales about Ellis Island officials changing peoples’ names elide the importance of agency in Jewish history. As her books shows, Jews’ names were not being changed by others, but it was an active choice. Listen in for a fascinating conversation about why names are an important window into understanding American Jewish history and culture, for understanding the history of antisemitism, and for reframing our understanding of Jewish history to see how Jews have had more agency and control over their destiny.
- Purchase A Rosenberg by Any Other Name on Amazon
- Read Kirsten Fermaglich, “‘My Name Proved to Be a Great Handicap’” (Tablet, 2018)
Kirsten Fermaglich is an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of History. Her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name, which we’re looking at today, explores the history of name changing in the United States in the twentieth century, and her first book, American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares, looked at secular Jewish intellectuals’ uses of the Holocaust in the early 1960s.
Geraldine Gudefin, who is guest hosting this episode, is a scholar of modern Jewish studies currently teaching at American University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Brandeis University in 2018, and her research is focused on migration, gender, and the intersection of law and religion in French and American Jewish history.
An edited transcript of the conversation will be available shortly.