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Too Jewish? Changing The Family Name

My favorite necklace is a chunky gold ring suspended on a thin linked chain. You have to look close to see the letters "SE" are carved into the middle of the ring. It's too big for my fingers, just as it was too big for my mother's fingers when her father gave her the ring. That was when she was Susan Erdreich; when I became Sarah Erdreich, my mother passed the ring onto me. 

When I was in middle school, I learned that my paternal grandfather had changed his name from “Finkelstein” to “Flint” when he immigrated to New York City from Canada. The reason for the change, my father explained, was that my grandfather felt Finkelstein was too Jewish and would encourage anti-Semitism.

There was undoubtedly more to this story, but my father did not elaborate — probably because for him, that was the whole story, too. My grandfather rarely talked about his past or his family, the majority of whom stayed in Canada. Last year, when my mother and I were going through piles of old pictures once kept at my grandparents’ house, I found sepia snapshots of a family picnic. “I guess this is my father’s family,” my dad said after examining the photos. “I’ve never seen pictures of them.”

Almost immediately after telling my sister and me about our original last name, my father told us not to tell anyone. “Don’t tell your grandparents I told you, either,” he added. “They’ve never told anyone except my brother and me.” In later years this would seem incredibly sad to me, but at the time, all I could think was that the name change was a huge deal.

Over time, I did tell close friends about my grandfather’s decision. (I later found out that my sister did, too.) While the retellings made the whole situation seem more pedestrian, they never made it less sad — not just that my grandfather had to make the change, but that he still didn’t want anyone to know. Of course, those adolescent conversations I had with my friends didn’t really touch on that aspect. Instead, they always ended with the other person asking, “But you wouldn’t want to be Sarah Finkelstein, would you?”

To be honest, no. But the knowledge that my surname was supposed to be an identifiably Jewish one stirred up unfamiliar and complicated feelings. Growing up in a liberal city with a large Jewish population, I couldn’t imagine the kind of situation that would require someone to change his or her name out of fear. I wanted to ask my grandfather so many questions, but unable to do that, I settled for questioning myself. Was it wrong to keep a neutralized name? Was I perpetuating the fear that had driven so many to change their names? Especially after I turned eighteen and realized that I could do so legally, it became hard to not consider changing my last name.

By the summer before I began graduate school, I couldn’t look at “Sarah Flint” without thinking it just seemed wrong. I didn’t have a strict religious upbringing, and I’m still more culturally than religiously Jewish, but I am proud of my religion. The thought of changing my last name was, after so many years of questioning and discomfort, a relief. The only part that gave me pause was, what to change it to? I might not be Sarah Flint, but Sarah Finkelstein didn’t fit, either. Then I thought about my mother’s ancestors.

My mother’s great-great-grandparents had immigrated to the States from Prussia and other Eastern Europe countries in the 1850s. No one changed his or her surname; Erdreichs, Marxes, and Proskauers popped up again and again in the family trees I had to make every year in religious school. My mother hadn’t even wanted to take my father’s name, but her father insisted.

I turned the thick-sounding names over in my head, listening for the one that sounded right, but in the end the choice was easy: Erdreich, my mother’s maiden name. Sure, it was hard to spell and pronounce, especially compared to Flint. But the minute I said, “Sarah Erdreich,” it fit. Not just because it was part of my history, or a name that made no attempt to hide its religion or ethnicity. But because it was the name my mother hadn’t wanted to give up, the name that — because she only had sisters — was destined to fade away.

Now that I had the name, I had to tell my parents. Even though the topic had been discussed within our family a few times over the years, I was still a bundle of nerves when I told them. After all, doing something this public was pretty much the opposite of keeping a secret. What if my father felt more beholden to the past than I expected? Not just in terms of secrecy, but in terms of the name itself? After all, even though Flint would become the middle name I’d never had, this could still be seen as a rejection of my father and his family. Even more anxiety-inspiring was the thought that my father might be proud of having a changed last name, that he might see in it a sacrifice and new beginning that I had never considered.

To my surprise and relief, my father was delighted about my decision, as was my mother. My father even confessed that he wanted to change his name, too, but felt too established in his career to make the switch. He was so proud that he offered to cover the costs of the legal process — which I am still grateful for, because it turns out that it’s not cheap or easy to change your name for reasons unrelated to marriage. But after the fingerprinting, background check, legal fees, newspaper announcement, and court appearance, I was legally Sarah Flint Erdreich.

Over six years later, the issue of names is coming up again. My boyfriend and I recently became engaged, and I know that soon his relatives will ask me if I’m changing my name. Very few of them know the story of my name; they’ve all seen the necklace, but never looked closely or asked about it. I guess now his family will know why, after putting so much thought into my surname, I have no desire to lose it.

“What about when you have children?” my mother asked me recently. “Which name will they have?” I don’t know that answer, and neither does my boyfriend. We joke about giving the girls my last name and the boys his; we joke about creating a new last name from our surnames, just for the kids.

When we do decide to have children, it won’t matter if their middle names are Erdreich, or if that’s their surname. Our children will know why my last name is different from both their father’s and my parents’ and, for that matter, from my sister. A few months after I changed my name, she did the same, for the same reason, only her last name is Marx.

But my children will also know why I wear a gold ring around my neck, and why my mother gave it to me. They’ll know that someday, if they want, they can choose a different last name. But most importantly, my children will know that when it comes to being Jewish, they have nothing to hide.

Sarah Flint Erdreich is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.