In her new book Kirsten Fermaglich shows how anti-Semitism led to labeling, job denial and more, leading many Jews to change their names.
In a New York courthouse, seated in an area that had decades-old files, Kirsten Fermaglich did research. She spent hour after hour, spanned over days, then months and ultimately 12 years, looking for reasons Jewish individuals and families changed their last names.
While the stories were gripping, her work as an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Michigan State University impelled her to probe timeline trends, and she found them along with unexpected singular stories.
The stories and trends have been shared through her book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name (New York University Press). She will speak at the Detroit Jewish Book Fair on Sunday, Nov. 3.
“I love the names, both the old ones and the new ones,” says Fermaglich, 49, whose Polish-descended father decided to keep his surname, which she kept after marrying rather than taking her husband’s last name of Gold.
“Because I have this funny long name, I’m interested in names, and I’m interested in Jews who have been at the margins. I came to like the petitioners as I read their stories and their efforts to get what they felt they needed by changing their names.”
Fermaglich describes the rise in name changing after World War I as motivated by the anti-Semitism people felt was carried out as Jewish-sounding names impeded acceptance by schools and places of employment. Toward the end of World War II, anti-Semitism also involved considerations of class mobility.
Changing to more American-sounding names declined in the 1960s, when anti-Semitism declined. In rare instances, young people reclaimed original family names.
“I found a lot of famous petitions, including those of Gene Wilder and Paul Muni, but I didn’t want to focus on famous people because petitioning was so ordinary,” Fermaglich explains. “We know about famous people who changed their names, but we don’t know about ordinary people who changed their names.
“The petition I found most interesting and really stuck with me had to do with a man named Elias Biegelman. He was a soldier, like so many of the people I write about, and he was bullied, humiliated and isolated. He associated all that with his name, which he changed to Ellis Beal.”
Fermaglich, who chose to do research in New York because of access to courthouse records and the Center for Jewish History, did some research in Michigan to confirm the local implications of what was found. She wanted to stress, especially with the current upturn in anti-Semitism, the significance of changing names, what she defines as legal behavior to allow a better livelihood and pursuit of happiness.
The book covers Allan Gale, retired from a long Michigan career with the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. He came to regret that the family name was changed from Goldfein.
Fermaglich, interested in the stories of history since she was a young girl growing up in New Jersey, teaches American history after 1876, American Jewish culture, American Jewish history and research approaches.
This project follows two other books. She is the author of American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares and co-editor of the Norton critical edition of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
“I’m working on another project,” says the member of Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Lansing. “It has to do with Jews who migrated to my area and how they created new ways of thinking of themselves as Jews. If I extend research to other areas, I may turn this into a book.”
Experiences of various ethnic groups entered into A Rosenberg by Any Other Name.
“At some point, people kept asking me about Muslim Americans after 9/11 and whether I was finding a lot of name changing among them,” recalls the author, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, master’s from Washington University in St. Louis and doctorate from New York University.
“That was covered in the last chapter, which I had not anticipated writing. I did find name changing was happening in the Muslim community for a brief period, and the research helped shed light on the relationship between Jews and Muslims.”
Fermaglich, who has addressed many groups about her book, says the best part of her project has been hearing all the stories, both as the history was researched and after the book was published in 2018.
She was very touched to learn, for example, how a survivor changed his name to commemorate a person who helped him after World War II.
“I would like readers to recognize anti-Semitism as a system that labeled Jews a different race and denied them jobs and education because of their names,” she says. “That shaped Jewish history in a way that people haven’t talked about enough.”
Kirsten Farmaglich will speak from 5-6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, in the Charach Gallery at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. Free.