Monica Porter
London-based journalist and author

What’s in a Jewish name?

In one of his autobiographies the centenarian movie star Kirk Douglas, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, explains that he started life with the name Issur Danielovitch and it had to be Americanised for the sake of his film career. He remarks that sometimes he still mourns the passing of Issur, the erstwhile identity he was forced to ‘kill off’. Particularly since the major stroke he suffered in 1996, which caused him to re-evaluate his life and embrace Judaism.

Six years ago a number of French Jews whose families had decades earlier adopted French surnames for fear of anti-Semitism, won the legal right to regain their old Jewish names. They said they regarded their original names as an integral part of their family history. (With the current sharp rise in anti-Semitism in France, however, they might well be  having second thoughts about this move.)

Kirk (or Issur) observes that, with changing times, later generations of Hollywood  actors were not compelled to alter Jewish-sounding names. This is undeniably true. What’s more, a sort of ‘Jewish-chic’ seemed to evolve in the movie world, whereby a Jewish name actually enhanced a star’s aura of ‘cool’. Think of Jeff Goldblum, David Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Weisz, Alicia Silverstone.

The business of changing Jewish names to non-Jewish ones has been a running theme throughout my life. In Budapest, sometime after the First World War, my Jewish grandfather changed his surname from the identifiably Jewish Fischer to its Hungarian version, Halasz. There was an atmosphere in Hungary then of increasing anti-Semitism, and many Jews were becoming ‘Hungarianised’.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when, at the tender age of 22, I married a fellow whose surname was Porter. Sounds a pukka Englishman, right? In fact his Polish-Jewish grandfather’s name of Potasievicz was changed – in the blink of an eye – to Porter at Liverpool docks, by one of those perpetually flummoxed immigration officials incapable of spelling or pronouncing any foreign name at all. It was the early 1900s and Grandpa, as you have probably guessed, was a refugee from the pogroms.

Alas, my marriage to Mr. Porter didn’t stand the test of time. Although, as you can see, I’ve continued to go by his user-friendly surname.

A couple of decades later my new long-term partner had the equally English-sounding surname of Winton – he was the son of Kindertransport founder Sir Nicholas Winton. The name Winton was plucked at random out of a London phonebook in 1938. The German-Jewish family’s original name was Wertheim, but in the run-up to the Second World War, with ‘enemy aliens’ being rounded up all over Britain, it was an undesirable moniker to have. So they anglicized it, while keeping the initial ‘W’ as a nod to the family’s origins.

Take another famous actor, Tony Curtis. He was born Bernard Schwartz, the son of an émigré Hungarian Jewish tailor. Once, in the 1950s, Tony attended a big Hollywood bash and brought his father along. Spotting the MGM mogul Sam Goldwyn (formerly Schmuel Gelbfisz), he went up to him and said: ‘Mr. Goldwyn, I’d like you to meet my father, Emanuel Schwartz.’ Whereupon Goldwyn smiled and enquired of Tony’s dad: ‘Why did you change your name, Mr. Schwartz? Curtis is such a nice name.’ (This story might be apocryphal, but with the ‘verbally eccentric’ Goldwyn, you never know.)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, as the Bard observed. And I agree. Throughout history people have changed their names to suit their purposes. So what? I have no less feeling for my family roots as a Porter than I would as a Halasz…or a Fischer. And you don’t need a ‘Jewish’ name to live a good Jewish life.

About the Author
Monica Porter was born in Budapest and emigrated with her family to the US after the 1956 Revolution. Living in London since 1970, she is a freelance journalist who has contributed to countless British newspapers and magazines and written several books - her latest, about youngsters involved in anti-Nazi resistance in wartime Europe - will be published in April 2020.