Tami Lehman-Wilzig
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Antisemitism: It’s a name changer

If you think Jews' hiding their identity doesn't touch you, you're not paying attention, but it's not the only reason to change your name
Natalie Portman, at the Women’s March in Los Angeles, January 20, 2018. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/File)
Natalie Portman, at the Women’s March in Los Angeles, January 20, 2018. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images/File)

Do the names Erich Weisz, Natalie Hershlag, Bernice Frankel, and Chaim Witz ring a bell? You’ve read about them with great interest, but under the names of Harry Houdini, Natalie Portman, Bea Arthur and Gene Simmons. Which begs the question: would they have achieved star status under their original Jewish names? I don’t have an answer, but if you’re smugly smiling, thinking, “We don’t have to do that anymore, look at Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld,” I caution you to take a parallel peek at yesteryear’s antisemitism with today’s rising hate talk and violence, and then reconsider.

Agreed, name changing in Jewish annals has been there from the start, beginning with a tiny tweak transforming Sarai to Sarah and Abram to Abraham, to the more dramatic metamorphosis of Jacob to Israel. Those were name changes signifying a purpose, while Joseph’s transition to Zaphnath-Paaneakh signaled a desire to fit in with Egyptian society. Pretty much what the gang above determined to do. The question is “why?”

As a picture book author for school-age children, history intrigues me. During an internet research ramble, I landed on a book entitled A Rosenberg of Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America by the scholar Kirsten Fermaglich. This book, which surveys the cultural, psychological and sociological motives for Jewish name changing, does not point to the fabled Ellis Island joke of Sean Ferguson (the anglicization of the Yiddish term Shain FergessenI’ve forgotten — when asked for a name). Rather it proves the impact of antisemitism during the first half of the 20th century, that as Fermaglich pointed out in a 2019 interview “affected people’s lives to the point that they felt the need to change their personal identities and that of their families. Antisemitism had a more powerful impact on people’s daily lives than historians realized.”

Nothing new to Jewish history; far from exclusive to the United States. If we dig hard enough, all of us will find name alterations in our lineage. I certainly can. My paternal family fled Portugal during the Inquisition over five centuries ago under the name of Esperanza. Making their way to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they ended up in Vienna where Esperanza became the German equivalent of Sprinzeles.

Centuries later, Nazi sympathizers recognized this obvious Jewish name and my father found himself facing overt mockery on the part of university professors. Hence, the name change to Lehmann, a surname easily worn by Christians and Jews. It is this family history that led me to write my new picture book Luis de Torres Sails to Freedom. Luis was Columbus’ official interpreter, but would Columbus have hired him had he known that Luis’ original name was Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri? A Spanish Converso — a Jew who converted to Catholicism but practiced his Jewish religion in secret – Luis, like biblical Joseph, understood that to save his skin, he had to make every effort to fit into society. Yet for Luis being a free Jew ultimately meant more than anything else. He found a solution but didn’t revert to his original name.

Nor did my father. While he chose the name Lehmann because he was a great admirer of the well-known German rabbi and Jewish children’s book author Marcus Lehmann, as a soldier in the US army, he discovered that by dropping the second n, many people fortuitously connected him to the Lehman banking family. Fast forward six-and-a-half decades, when the only Lehman child — me — is living in Israel.

Professionally, I’m following in the footsteps of an author I am not related to but bearing his name, and our eldest son who is soon to be married, has an announcement. “I’ve officially changed my name. I can’t stand this hyphenated stuff. I’ve Hebraicized Wilzig (“little wolf” in Polish) and I am now Zeevi.”

I sat in stunned silence. It took me several minutes to get a grip and hear a voice inside me say: It’s all part of Jewish history — this time not because of antisemitism, but due to Jewish pride.

About the Author
Tami Lehman-Wilzig made Aliya in 1977 with her husband, Professor Sam Lehman-Wilzig. She is an award-winning author of 13 published picture books, and three more on the way over the next two years. Her books include “SOOSIE, The Horse That Saved Shabbat,” “Keeping the Promise,” “Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles,” and “Passover Around the World.” You can find out more about Tami and her books by visiting
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