My Hyphen

I like it. Family friends recently hyphenated their baby daughter, too. One day we were standing around their kitchen when a gaiety struck me and I burst out: “I can’t wait until Leah grows up and learns about her hyphen!”

That was when I realized that I love and am proud of my hyphen. Leah’s parents were surprised by how many of their parenting friends didn’t choose to hyphenate — for one reason or another, the kid seemed to get Dad’s last name: Mom was estranged from her family; Mom had other siblings to carry on her name but Dad didn’t; Dad’s was more Jewish or less Jewish or whatever they were looking for. After a while, the ratio seemed more than coincidental.

I too am disturbed by the number of young, forwardthinking, liberal and feminist-identified couples opting for only Dad’s name. In a language class some years ago, each student explained the origin of his or her name. I said, “I have two last names. Sometimes people think it’s because I’m married, and sometimes people think it’s because my parents aren’t married, but it’s actually because my parents are feminists.” A second hyphenated student said her mother now regrets “doing that to” her — giving her the burdensome double last name. Our female professor said she considered hyphenating her daughter, but also didn’t want to “do that to her.” A friend to whom I repeated the conversation told me that she had her mom’s maiden name as a middle name because her parents, too, were feminists…but that’s not the same!, I wanted to say.

Yes, I understand that double last names are unwieldy (no really — I do). Yet at the end of my life, however much time I have spent carefully spelling out the second of my last names over the phone to dentist-appointment schedulers and the like (20 hours? 40 hours?) will have been entirely worth it. My surname is the most concrete way that I know my parents believe in their equality, in the equality of the sexes, and in their shared role in childrearing. Their choice also ineluctably taught me that sometimes, to keep your life in line with your values, you have to consider options that are off the beaten track. I wouldn’t want to be named any other way; nor would I name my children any other way.

And yes, I know that children cannot practically accumulate the surnames of each of their ancestors over the generations. The goal here is not one of overwrought sentimentality — to carry on every family name forevermore — but to eschew sexism.

So I am not insisting that my grandchildren be, for instance, the Rifkin-Gold-Fleishman-Dali-Zynek-Borsky-Schnur-Fishman family, nor am I calling as evidence the places around the world where it is common to memorize ancestors’ names going back many generations.

Indeed, I have thought long and hard about all of this, and I’ve worked out a system I’d like to share: Women, pass on mothers’ names; men, pass on fathers’.

Example: Schnur is my mother’s name and Fishman is my father’s. Let’s say they have me and an imaginary brother, Otto, and an imaginary sister, Petunia. Otto and Petunia and I are all lucky enough to procreate with imaginary offspring of very famous political couples:

Petunia Schnur-Fishman + Derek Rodham-Clinton Joey Schnur-Clinton and Barbie Schnur-Clinton
Here Petunia passes on her mom’s name (Schnur) and Derek passes on his dad’s (Clinton).

Otto Schnur-Fishman + Etta Rodham-Clinton Elena Fishman-Rodham and Dror Fishman-Rodham
Here Otto passes on his dad’s name (Fishman), and Etta her mom’s (Rodham).

Anna Schnur-Fishman + Melissa Heinz-Kerry Georgette Schnur-Heinz and George Schnur-Heinz
Here both of us pass on our respective moms’ names.

Parents can opt to change their own names to match their kids’, or keep their pre-nuptial handles.
A similar system is used in parts of Mexico, Mozambique, the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere, though usually both parents pass on their fathers’ names. The glitch in my system has to do with queer families: Whose name would my kids, Georgette and George, pass on, having lesbian parents? Georgette has two moms’ names and George has no dad’s name. And whose name do folks pass on if they don’t identify with one gender or the other? Write to me if you figure this out.

When you’ve lived as a hyphenate, you get to experience utilitarian benefits, too. For instance, I once emailed a stranger at work who replied, “Is there any chance you are not the offspring of Shoshe Schnur, whom I knew a million years ago in New York, and her husband Lenny Fishman?” This would never have happened if I were only Schnur or only Fishman, and in a world where apples roll geographically far from the tree, last names that confirm a certain origin are ever more useful.

In another take on this, at the bar mitzvah of a distant relative recently — I love this family, but usually have trouble remembering our exact genealogical relationship — I was contentedly spacing out in shul when something made me snap back to attention. It was his grandmother being called to the Torah: “Ta’amod, Anita bat Conrad v’Ruth.” Conrad and Ruth — they’re Conrad-‘n-Ruth, my grandfather’s uncle and aunt…making the bar mitzvah boy my third cousin, which I will not forget again.

I know that hyphenated names are often not very pretty, especially when two Ashkenazi families come together to produce a mouthful of consonants. As a kid, I loved to read the Yizkor plaques on synagogue walls — long bronze plaques, often running the length of an entire wall, listing the names of deceased congregants — to find the prettiest names. Next to each one is a light bulb, which is lit only a few times a year, at the anniversary of the person’s death and when Yizkor is recited. I still remember the name Chaim Leaf from my childhood synagogue; it was my favorite. And I look out for beautiful names in general — on a plaque in my college library that named Trustees of 1949, for instance, I remember discovering the lovely Anna Canada Swain.
But that’s appreciation, not jealousy; I wouldn’t trade my name for any other.

If you can give your child a sense of humor and a little patience along with his or her hyphen (because, say, the surname might be too long to fit in the school computer system by just one letter, which for some reason gets bumped to the front of the first name, and on the first day of every class, roll call includes the name Nanna Schnurfishma) — then go ahead, parents. Hyphenate in good health!

Anna Schnur-Fishman studied linguistics at Brown University and is happy to consult on naming decisions.