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An interview with Lilith magazine’s Editor in Chief

So, I would say that every issue of the magazine has topics that impact both our own lives and the community at large. It’s hard to choose just one or two.

KS: Do you think that something is lost when women choose to take their husbands’ names and give up their maiden names?

SWS: Of course. Let’s take Facebook as an example. Ever tried to find your high school buddy Suzanne Cohen, when she’s now on there only as Suzanne Kaminsky? You get the idea.

Now that women are marrying later—after they’ve already established themselves in careers and have a professional identity—there’s confusion of identities with changing your surname.

Other women say that they like the simplicity of having all family members bearing the same last name. Perhaps this is why a rather public woman made a different choice. New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren, who, though she’d had front-page bylines under her birth name, decided when she married a fellow whose last name was Ruderman that she and he would have a new last name altogether: Rudoren.

KS: On February 8, you’ll lead What’s in a Hyphen?, a salon about naming practices for women. Why do you think some women are reluctant to hyphenate their children’s names?

SWS: Well, the first reason everyone mentions is the clumsiness they predict will happen when a “hyphenate” marries another “hyphenate.” Does the child of this union have to carry around Jennifer Goldberg-Schwartz-Lipkin-Myerson? That’s one reason why the Lilith article is so appealing to readers: it posits a whole new way of dealing with the children-of-hyphenates worry.

Unless the parents also use hyphenated surnames, there is the general feeling of oddness when parents and children do not have the same last name. I think many Jews carry a certain degree of post-traumatic stress following the Holocaust when we’re asked to separate ourselves out–say in a customs and immigration queue for an international flight—and the children have to sort themselves into a different line from the parents. Of course, this is an uneasiness that could happen also when a woman keeps her birth name (I hate to say “maiden” name) while the children have their father’s last name.

KS: How do you think a name affects a woman’s Jewish identity?

SWS: This is a fascinating question. I’m sure many of us know of interfaith marriages where a Jewish woman with a typically Jewish surname takes her husband’s seemingly non-Jewish surname. What do people assume when they first meet her? And then there are Jewish women with first names that are usually associated with non-Jews: Christina, Mary.

The opposite happens, too. A family intermarried for several generations who still bear the surname Cohen, though they identify with other religions and would not be considered Jewish.

Names do play a role in Jewish identity. Many surnames started out as something linked with either being Jewish or associated with “foreignness.” The classic case would be the New York financier who, in the 19th century, went from Schoenburg to Belmont–a direct translation. There are people named Klein who became Small, Gross who became Large, and so on. Then there are the names given at Ellis Island, when “Old Country” names were deemed too difficult for the processing agent to pronounce or spell. Of course, some people were happy to unload their Jewish names, but we’ve also seen a resurgence of interest in those original names. Children or grandchildren want to revert, surprising their older relatives who got rid of those family names to better assimilate into American society.

Susan Weidman Schneider facilitates a discussion on the influence of naming practices on our identities as women and Jews at the Wednesday, February 8th event, What’s in a Hyphen?. Part of Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood: For women in their 20s and 30s.

Read the Lilith articles on naming practices here.