I’ve had this conversation more times than I care to count with family members over the past three years. As soon as I got engaged to my fiancé (now husband), they popped the question of not whether, but when, I was going to change my last name. Each time, my answer to them has been a resounding “never.” As the chill of anti-Semitism continues to rise in previously unthinkable places, however, that “never” has grown louder and stronger.
My husband is a long-time lapsed Catholic, while I’m a High Holidays Jew during my most observant periods. He was baptized and confirmed in the church; I had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school but stopped participating in Jewish institutional life after synagogue membership dues became unaffordable. While my family values their Jewishness, they aren’t especially religious themselves and never objected to my marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. Besides, they reassured themselves with the knowledge that any children we’d have would be Jewish by virtue of matrilineal descent, regardless of my partner’s background.
What they did object to, as it turned out, was my refusal to take my new husband’s name and leave my given name behind.
My surname is a notable one, as far as Jewish names go. The Horowitz family is a Levite family which produced hundreds of rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries and traces its genesis back to medieval Spain and, following the 1492 expulsion of the Jewish population, to Prague. Karl Marx may or may not be a distant relative of mine. While I feel no special fondness for my father, the man who gave me my name, I am attached to its history and significance. If nothing else, it’s a name that marks me as unequivocally Jewish even when few other things do.
On the other hand, my husband’s name is an ethnically and religiously neutral surname on its surface, despite its Scandinavian origins and surprising Jewish connection (it is, in some instances, an Americanization of an Ashkenazic name). It is six letters long, easy to spell and pronounce, and, unless you have specific knowledge of genealogy or etymology, lacks obvious markers that would give hints as to the background of the person bearing it. No one knows my husband’s ethnicity or religion unless he chooses to share it. If I took my husband’s name, it would likely lead people to assume that I wasn’t Jewish at all.
Aside from the standard feminist arguments in favor of keeping one’s given name — protecting one’s symbolic independence from the ownership relation undergirding the marriage contract, maintaining professional continuity, circumventing the massive pain in the ass that is the legal name change process — I wanted to hold onto this external signifier of my Jewishness. I’ve never experienced any desire to be anyone other than who I am, or to do anything to mask my religious and ethnic background. Imagine my surprise when I was encouraged by my Jewish family members to do precisely that.
To be fair, my family initially couched their feelings about my refusal to change my name as misplaced indignation on my husband’s behalf. I was told that, by keeping my given name, I was refusing to forge a “real” family with my husband and would lead to him feeling unloved. (Conversations with my husband made it clear that our family was no less “real” despite keeping my given name and that he wouldn’t love me any less for it.) I was making the lives of my future children more complicated, since, if I didn’t share their last name, who would believe me that I was their mother and not a paid caregiver, or a stranger? (The idea of, say, hyphenating a hypothetical child’s last name didn’t come up as a possible solution.) Besides that, how would the underlying logic of social niceties work if people couldn’t refer to us as “Mr. and Mrs. [Husband’s Last Name]”? (People still do it all the time; usually, I don’t bother to make corrections.)
Finally, when none of these arguments led me to reconsider my position and adopt theirs, they trotted out what they believed was their trump card (so to speak): Why wouldn’t you take an easy, non-ethnic name? Why do you want people to know you’re Jewish, especially these days?
This concern — that people will know I’m Jewish — is exactly why I want to keep my given name more than ever “these days.” My desire to continue to be known by my surname, and not my husband’s, is informed by a cultural and political climate in which anti-Semitic sentiments are increasingly normalized and the number of violent acts committed against Jews are climbing to record highs in the US. As of late, I’ve moved beyond just refusing to hide my identity toward believing that it is a moral and ethical imperative to make my religious and ethnic background clear to everyone I encounter. By doing so, people can neither pretend to speak on my behalf, nor seek to find safe quarter for their anti-Semitic viewpoints with me. I want to keep my Jewishness visible and legible, rather than hiding it out of an assimilationist impulse or just for the sake of cultural expediency.
Admittedly, I have a great deal of privilege which makes it relatively safe to be so upfront with my name and my Jewish identity. I live in New York City, in a metropolitan area with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and in which secular Jews are generally free from violence. (This is not the case for more visibly observant Jews, as recent events in Brooklyn and nearby Jersey City demonstrate.) For the most part, my husband and I are economically secure, making employer discrimination less burdensome than it might be otherwise. Moreover, as a white Ashkenazi Jew, my Jewishness itself is not liable to be questioned on the basis of my race. I cannot say for sure whether I would feel differently about keeping my name if my material and geographic circumstances were altered, but I want to believe that I’d do the same thing.
I’ve been married for two and a half years now, and the question of changing my name comes up less often than it once did, though concerned loved ones still broach it on occasions when the simmering threats against Jewish communities are made real. I hope that they’ve mostly realized that, in the end, changing my “ethnic” last name to my husband’s “neutral” name won’t save me (or anyone else) from anti-Semitism. Besides, they’re not changing their names anytime soon, either.
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