Harold Behr
Harold Behr

What’s in a name? A Rosen by any other name would smell as sweet

Why do I, a Behr, have so many relatives in South Africa named Benn and even a cousin in the United States named Mehr? My father once explained this to me as follows: once upon a time, in far off Lithuania, there were three brothers whose father (my great grandfather), also with the surname Behr, lived in morbid dread of one or more of his sons falling into the clutches of the ‘chappers‘ (snatchers). These were bands of militia who patrolled the streets looking for little Jewish boys to be pressed into the Russian army. The chances of this ugly scenario arising were apparently reduced if it could be shown that the child was an only son and therefore needed by his parents for their well-being, if not their very survival. The solution was therefore to confer different names on each male child of the household.

I’m not sure how this would have worked in practice, or even whether it worked at all in many cases. It would have required official documentation and probably ancillary devices such as recourse to bribery in that brutal and corrupt world. At any rate that is how three little boys with the same father grew up with three different surnames to spawn generations of relatives who ever since have been puzzling over their relationships with one another.

This brings me to the main function of a name as I see it, which is to shape the identity of a given individual so that he or she stands out from the crowd. Some of my Jewish associates have surnames pointing to an ancestor’s occupation (Schneider the tailor, Katzeff the butcher and Shochet the slaughterer, for example). Other names denote membership of a religious tribe, a fact to which the numerous families surnamed Cohen and Levy bear testimony. Still other families reflect the region or town where the family once lived. Friends of mine by the name of Berliner and Sadowsky come to mind here. Other families I know of have taken on the names of trees, fruits and animals – life forms considered to have admirable qualities which could then be symbolically transferred to their human namesakes. Here, the names Appelbaum, Kirsch and Wolf spring to mind.

Perhaps my own surname, Behr, has a link to the noble beast which roams the forests and snowy regions of the far North. But the plain truth is that I don’t know where my name comes from. My father thought that it might have sprung from a German word meaning ‘a rude person’, the word ‘rude’ originally having meant ‘simple’, ‘uncultured’ or ‘salt-of-the earth’, not ‘unmannerly’ or ‘offensive’ as it does today. There is also a connection here with the Germanic words for farmer, rustic or peasant – ‘Bauer’and ‘Boer’ – and the more disparaging English term, ‘boor’.

However, I am not too troubled by the various etymological associations to my name. Whether flattering or pejorative, they are all remote from my self-perception. I am a stranger to arable land and the sight of a spade makes me feel weak at the knees. Nor do I regard myself as a person who lives up to the dictionary definition of a boor. What is of more concern to me is the difficulty people in my adopted country (Britain) seem to have in spelling what to me is a very ordinary four-letter word. The commonest misspell, ‘Bear’, sometimes with an ‘e’ added at the end for good measure, is easy enough to excuse. Less commonly, the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ are transposed, thus: ‘Bher’. I also occasionally receive correspondence addressed to me as ‘Barr’ or ‘Berh’. The juxtapositioning of the ‘h’ and ‘r’ in the right sequence seems to defeat all but a few diligent linguists in the predominantly English-speaking world which I inhabit and I have now taken to spelling my name out very slowly, with long pauses between each letter. Even then I am often amazed at the imaginative mishearings which come back to me.

I am sometimes asked by curious folk where my ‘interesting’ name comes from. Naturally, my finely tuned radar reads this as a coded way of finding out whether I am Jewish or not. Then, depending on my assessment of the enquirer’s bona fides, I might return with a simple ‘Don’t know’ or else a brief acknowledgement of my Jewish identity, and take it from there.

At least ‘Behr’ is a short name. I empathize with those from any ethnic background who feel obliged to abbreviate or otherwise doctor their names in order to be accepted by a society in which foreign-sounding surnames are met with puzzlement or outright disapproval. It is understandable that we should want to belong to the society in which we live, but it seems to me that British Jews are more anxious to blend in by means of this manoeuvre than, say, their North American counterparts, who are less bothered about concealing their ethnic origins. That said, however, it occurs to me that stars like Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis might not have set the movie world on fire if they had retained their birth names of Issur Danielovitch and Bernie Schwartz respectively.

In one sense, this is understandable. Having to offer a foreign-sounding tongue twister as your name immediately flags you up as an alien, someone who doesn’t quite belong. However I find it sad that so many Jews have had to resort to the device of changing their names in order to pass under the wire of hostile scrutiny. This is not only a question of shame but survival. Being appointed or not to a post for which one has applied is just one example of why people resort to this device. I once worked with a colleague who had an issue with the adopted name of another distinguished emigre colleague from Germany. ‘Why did he have to choose a good Scottish name (Hamilton) instead of the one he was given?’ was his grouse.

The emergence of the State of Israel has raised a different issue – the Hebraization of names. The iconic examples of David Ben Gurion (formerly Green) and Golda Meir (formerly Myerson), highlight yet another context in which names have been changed in order to signify membership of the prevailing culture, in this case, identification with a people who had risen from the ashes and founded a new State with a new spoken language. There can be no change without loss.

You might have thought that the spelling of ‘Behr’ in Hebrew, a simple two-letter word (‘Beyt’ and ‘Reish’) would be uncomplicated. Alas, when my father passed away in Israel, the stonemason who chiseled out the name mistook his surname for ‘Bar’, meaning ‘son of’. So my father now rests peacefully under a tombstone, the inscription on which, translated, simply reads, ‘Jacob the son of Zwi…’and the name of Behr has disappeared into the ether.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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