Upon gaining citizenship in the United States, my father promptly changed his surname from Pakanayev to Pakan — a less fussy, less Bukharian, more “American” alternative. A few months ago, my family discussed the possibility of collectively changing it back.
I’m not sure how I feel about it. I like Pakan. I like the fact that my name is ethnically ambiguous and would want to keep it that way for career purposes. I like the way it blends in with a variety of people; how it suggests any number of identities to employers. I’m graduating high school this year, with a future of applications and filing forms before me, and like my father at the precipice of his own adult life, I see the appeal of a name that blends in. Rachel Pakan can be anyone, and comes with no preconceived associations. On paper, people have assumed I was Malaysian, European, Pakistani. I like that. I am proud of my Bukharian Jewish ancestry and I have nothing against the concept of reclaiming this ancestry through a name change, but I don’t know if I want to be so identified on paper, to the world, every time I sign a form. I was born Rachel Pakan. I’ve built my own identity and reputation around this name, and that makes it harder to let go.
Still, though, when I identify with a family name at big Bukharian events, I call myself a Pakanayev. I do have ties to that name, and to the community it connects me to. Essentially, outside of the community I am Rachel Pakan, inside I am Rachel Pakanayev, and in my head, I’m kind of both.
Of course, I’m not the first Jewish American to grapple with this question.
While there is relatively little research on the topic, current information suggests that American Jews began changing their surnames en masse in the 1920s and 1930s, as many of them began to transition into upper middle class neighborhoods and jobs. (Contrary to popular belief, there was no name-changing at Ellis Island. Rather, the widespread anglicization of Jewish surnames started decades later, and was almost always voluntary.) Some were searching for a way to authenticate themselves as Americans, whereas others were looking to appear more American to their neighbors and potential bosses.
As I go back and read more on this history, I have to wonder if these people felt the same way I do: connected to the original names that brought them to America, and yet unsure if their new identity fits. Which one truly represents them as they want to be seen?
Some chalked the change up to discrimination and nothing more. Ralph Lauren, for instance, was born as Ralph Lifshitz before years of teasing and mockery prompted him to make a change. He told Oprah in a 2002 interview that in addition to the ridicule, “There were also people who thought that because I was Jewish, I had no right to create these preppy clothes.” But Bob Dylan, born as Robert Zimmerman, gave a more sweeping reason for his name change in a 2004 interview: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents,” he stated. “I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.” For Dylan, the name change was about correcting a wrong, breaking free of his family.
Neither feels quite right to my situation. I know an ethnic last name, and a Jewish one, does not have to bring the professional repercussions Ralph Lauren describes. Take actors Jonah Hill and Beanie Feldstein, who are often not recognized as siblings — Hill opted to swap out his last name for what was originally his middle name, while Feldstein stayed true to her given Jewish name. Both siblings are highly successful in their fields. Not to mention, there are plenty of other famous American Jews who have reached extraordinary professional heights without anglicizing their surnames, from Leonard Bernstein to Michael Bloomberg to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I have no doubt I could navigate the world as Pakanayev. I’m just not sure I feel a deep need to do so.
For my father, changing his name back to the one he grew up with is a way to reclaim pride in who he is, and erase the pressure he felt to symbolically abandon his ethnic identity thirty years ago. I don’t know if I feel that way, but I see the power of his Jewish pride, the throughline of this story. What does it say about me if I just want, primarily, the side benefits of my born name? What does it say about me if I just don’t feel that strongly about it?
And still another source of my hesitancy is that Pakan might even be our original name. According to certain versions of family lore, our original surname was modified from Pakan to Pakana by Uzbek officials to match the Uzbek word for “small” and then — as with all Uzbek names upon the invasion of the Soviets — a Russian suffix was soon tacked on, resulting in the name Pakanayev. But no official written records exist to verify this account, and surnames were not even widely utilized in Central Asia prior to the 20th century. And yet, it makes me wonder if my “original” surname is even original at all, but simply the earliest version on record. Given that the name has a Soviet suffix, it is entirely possible that prior to the Soviet takeover of Uzbekistan, my family went by my current surname, Pakan. This muddled history calls into question the veracity of what I am truly reclaiming if I change my surname: would “reclaiming” my surname be merely reinforcing a remnant of Soviet rule? Conversely, is my family’s experience living in the Soviet Union significant enough to our history to carry in our name?
All of these things considered, I am still torn on what to do. The conversations in my family are early, and it will be some time before I have to make any real decisions. There is a lot to consider. At the end of the day, reclaiming something as massive as one’s heritage is complicated, especially while also trying to build a unique personal identity. I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in my ambivalence, that thousands of others Jews have had similar musings about the implications of their names.
But even if I do eventually give in and make the change along with the rest of my family, I will remain the same person that I am now — a Bukharian Jew with family history in the former Soviet Union, but also so much more than that. I know who I am, and I don’t need to modify my surname to remind myself. Whether or not I will find myself typing out a nine-letter surname on my resume in a few years, I will hold my identity close to me and use it to guide me. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t know.