Though it’s tricky to enunciate and routinely made fun of, I’ve always been proud of my hyphenated last name. I love the sheer convenience of it—the fact that it conveys a lot about me without my having to say a thing. Yes, I come from a family with liberal, egalitarian values; yes, I have feminist parents who, as Sixties’ children, had (and continue to have) no problem with unorthodox departures from cultural norms. To some extent, I have inherited who I am, and my hyphen, with elegant economy, imparts a lot of the essential me: left leaning and tolerant, willing to take a chance on untried solutions to dilemmas. And, oh yes, did I mention that I’m Jewish?—because (no surprise here) almost every hyphenate I’ve ever met turns out to be Jewish, too.
We hyphenates can wax passionate about our little chips of grammar, believing them to be the most important new jot or tittle of the latter part of the twentieth century. No other diacritic comes close to packing such a wallop of meaning, and certainly not with such minimalism. We measure the social politics of our environments—leftish summer camps, rightish Hebrew schools, edgy film seminars, gentrifying neighborhoods—simply by counting the number of hyphenates on the attendance sheet. A high-minded social action group will Inevitably contain a small posse of us. Public school? Very few. A selective East Coast college? A veritable little flock.
Though I’m only 21, I’m actually a greybeard of the hyphen-nation. That is there are very few hyphenates older than me, but quite a few younger. We pioneering elders particularly love being an elite sub-group, comprising a priestly caste entirely of our own. Think of it: We are members of a splinter race who literally embody the radical thinking of our baby-boomer mothers, flesh-and-blood emblems of a generation of enlightened women, and the men—some enlightened, some more, like, well . . . browbeaten—whom they married. How cool is that? And as if any of this needed a cherry on top (which it doesn’t), even G-d—according to the Orthodox orthography, anyway—spells His/Her name with a hyphen.
On the downside (okay, there is a small downside), most parents of hyphenates (being part of a pretty narcissistic generation) didn’t really think through what it was going to be like for us kids to shlep around our mouthfuls. I, for example, have suffered “Pelota,” “Peiat,” “Pelter-Helter,” “Pita-Heller,” “Peltaheller,” “Peltyweller,” and, of course, “Helter Skelter.”
On mailings, I routinely become “Zachary P. Heller;” I endlessly have to explain to clerks in drugstores that yes, there is such a thing as a surname that contains a hyphen; and I’m used to those cramped forms that inevitably turn me into “Pelta-Hell.” On standardized tests where you have to blacken in the bubble letters, I always have to ask what to do, since there are no bubbles for hyphens. Computers can suck, too—we fellow hyphenates often vent shared frustration over not being able to make reservations for airline tickets or open bank accounts: Our hyphens (or so we’re told) bollux up the systems.
On the other hand, being hyphenated—like being carbonated—has taught us to be people who are lighthearted, creative and flexible. I have always enjoyed, for example, inventing new identities for each mispronunciation—” Pealer-Healer” becoming an expert chef by day, physician attempting to rid the world of disease and illness by night, and “Helter-Skelter” being an avid music lover slash serial killer, who naturally is having a hard time getting his life in order.
We also soothe ourselves by collecting names that are worse than our own: Brittany Vdovichenko-Tykachynski, for example, Adina Burger-Berger, and Jeremy Small- Weiner being some favorites.
And finally (our parents didn’t think this one through at all!) there is the inevitable: intra-species dating—which should not be surprising, given that hyphenates generally hail from deeply similar backgrounds. For me and my girlfriend of two years—Anna Nettie Forman-Greenwald (at least my parents were kind enough not to give me a middle name)—falling in love was nothing short of kismet, the natural Impulse of our hyphens to come together as though they were two oppositely-charged bar magnets.
At parties, introducing ourselves inevitably sets off rounds of animated conversation, leading to the absolutely hilarious question that nearly everyone asks in a smug, high-pitched voice when they first meet us: “What will you two do if you get married?!?”—which, all jokes aside, is a true dilemma . . . which we vanguard twenty-something’s will be the first to break our teeth on. Should we males continue the feminist ethic that begat us and let our wives pass on their names, in which case our mothers will lose their legacies after all? Or should we start our own traditions (while simultaneously living out our mothers’ feminist hopes) by creating new hyphenates comprised of only our matriarchal lines?
Whichever way hyphenates eventually go, my girlfriend and I—in the meantime—retain our stock answer to that Incessantly asked party question. “We’re thinking of just dropping all of these fucking names,” we explain indulgently, “and just going with either ‘Cher’ or “Dubya.”‘
Zachary Pelta-Heller is a freshly minted graduate of Brandeis University, pursuing a career in writing.