A few weeks ago, I went to an event at Sixth & I hosted by “Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood” (a group that comes with the hilarious caveat, “For women in their 20s and 30s. And for the record, we love all bubbes everywhere.”)
The event was co-hosted by Lilith magazine: The cover article of its latest issues asks, “What’s in a Hyphen?” In it, the author explores “what’s lost, reclaimed, or reimagined when we’re hyphenates” (joining both parents’ surnames). In the salon-style event, we split up into small groups to talk about names and identities.
The discussion’s focus was a little too heterocentric for my comfort, but since name changing often happens when women marry men, and since I’ve struggled with this very issue, I’ll admit that I only tried to change the subject a couple of times.
I did not change my name when I got married. I always assumed that I wouldn’t, especially since I identify strongly as “Salem Pearce.” My husband wasn’t interested in changing his name, so any conversation that might have occurred ended there.
But I secretly struggled with the decision. I say secretly because it was hard for me to admit; I didn’t even tell my husband about my wavering until a few years after we were married.
“Pearce” is my father’s name, and my relationship with him is difficult, to put it mildly. When I visit him and my mother in Houston, we get along, but only when we stick to the safe topics of the weather, home improvement, and sports. My husband likes to tease that all I did by keeping my name was choose my father’s name over my husband’s, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I got married when I was 31: By that time, “Pearce” was my name, too.
But there’s another layer. As a convert, I long for a readily identifiable Jewish name, and my marriage could have offered an easy path to this. “Pearce” is just about the WASP-iest name there is, but I’m not sure I can see myself as anything else.
As it turns out, this desire for a more Jewish name is not limited to converts! The rabbi who teaches my b’nai mitzvah class cited as her reason for taking her husband’s name the fact that her father isn’t Jewish: Thus, she opted for “Holtzblatt” over her birth name. And one of the participants in the salon arranges trips to Israel in her job and fears that the people she corresponds with assume she’s not Jewish because of her non-Jewish-sounding name.
Of course, a fair number of “Jewish” names — ones that we dub “Jewish sounding” and ones that we’ve come to think of as “Jewish” — have been changed from the originals: at Ellis Island, by immigrants themselves, by longtime Jewish residents who wanted to be less readily identifiably Jewish. My colleague Liz just told me last week that her grandfather changed his last name from Rosenblum to Ross, and it was her father who changed it again to its current form, Rose. My father’s family has been “Pearce” for centuries: So many recent changes boggle my mind.
If I’m being honest, another thing that boggles my mind is the fact that two women in the salon were ambivalent about changing their names at their upcoming marriages. Feeling strongly one way or another I understand, but not knowing how you feel? Harder to get. Another soon-to-be-wed (to-a-woman) woman said she wouldn’t even consider it. But the best story of the night belonged to a woman who had changed her name when she got married, for a year felt like a stranger to herself with a new name, and then changed it back to her birth name! She said that her husband was fine with both decisions, and the only reason she made the first one was that she thought she should do something that was expected for once in her life. Of course, that’s overrated.