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The Language of Names

When in 1962 a young Jewish folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota, changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, the new name was not in honor of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, as popular myth would have it. Bob professed mild dislike for Thomas' poetry and once said, "I've done more for him than he ever did for me." No, Bob Dylan, who first tried out the stage name Elston Gunn, said that the name under which he grew so famous was in honor of Matt Dillon (for a brief time Bob spelled his name Bob Dillon), the tough, world-weary US Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas in the 1955-1975 television series Gunsmoke. Bob did adopt a sort of cowboy-like swagger. And Zimmerman kind of, well, lacks swagger.

Zimmerman is an Ashkenazi Jewish name, an Americanization of a German surname meaning carpenter. The Zimmermans, like many people, can trace the origins of their surname to a profession. People with English ancestry named Carpenter, Taylor, Smith and Cooper, among many others, take their names from an ancestor's profession. A Webster was a weaver. A Fletcher was a maker of arrows.

Many classic Hollywood stars changed their names so they would be easier to pronounce, sexier, catchier, more American or less Jewish. We all know that Kirk Douglas changed his name from Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Really, it's hard to imagine a hunky leading man making it big with that name. But does changing a name change who we are? Did Norma Jeane Mortenson really become Marilyn Monroe, or was that little girl, raised in twelve foster homes and an orphanage, still in there under all that glitter? If names can be chosen and changed, why do we have them at all? Does changing a name change one's identity, or erase their history?

As we age, many of us seek to deepen and root our identities through studying the history of our families, and this we most often do by tracing family names. My uncle (a real Texas cowboy, carried a gun and used to shoot rattlesnakes, may he rest in peace) spent the last two decades of his life driving all over the American Southwest, visiting graveyards, pouring through municipal records, and tracking down the descendants of people whose names he found in old family letters, trying to piece together a tapestry of who he was and where he came from. This was long before the internet or computers. Now, with a proliferation of genealogy sites and endless online information, the patient and the tenacious can create such tapestries by tracing family names. This system is not perfect. When a person changes his or her surname, as happened with so very many Jews at various times in history, from the Spanish Inquisition to escapees from the Holocaust to the Jewish arrivals at Ellis Island during the early decades of the 20th century, some of whom threw their names overboard with their tefillin into New York Harbor as the Statue of Liberty came into view, trails can suddenly become dead ends, with secrets buried and families disappearing in one generation.

There have not always been surnames. In ancient China and Babylonia surnames apparently existed, but they were neither consistent nor passed on automatically to one's children or grandchildren. During the Roman Empire (750 BCE to 500 CE) the Romans adopted a system of three names, because of the need to identify citizens in their vast empire. The first name was the private name given to a child by parents. The second was a clan name that indicated social status, and the third was a kind of nickname, taken from a person's physical or moral characteristics – e.g, Rufus, meaning red hair.

Surnames developed in Europe in the 11th century, from one's profession (see above), from a town or area where one lived (in English names, Hamilton, Murray) or from the characteristics of a place (Wood, Field). Iceland developed a system by which a child was given a surname based on the father's, or occasionally the mother's personal name. This system was found in Norway as well. When I discovered my Norwegian great-grandmother I was able to trace her roots back several centuries throughout Scandinavia, with most people's surnames being something-dotter and something-sønn.

Sephardic Jews used a similar system as early as the 11th century, appending ben or bar (son) or bat (daughter) to the father's name. We have many such names today – Davidson, Jacobson, Wolfson, etc.

Ashkenazi Jews' adoption of surnames is more recent. Other than the ancient Cohen and Levi, as well as a few Jewish-role defining names like Sofer and Kantor, most Ashkenazi surnames were adopted from local towns or professions or local non-Jewish surnames. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire taking a permanent surname was compelled in 1787 by Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. In Germany, a demand imposed in the mid-1800s as a condition of the Jewish emancipation was that all Jews have surnames. German surnames were often taken, and sometimes Hebraized.

There are many more layers to this complicated story. The point is that even if we change our name, hide it, run from it, forget it, our surname links us to millions of people streaming out behind us; to each of our human histories and, literally, our DNA. The stream goes forward, too, with those threads of the tapestry still being woven.

As we grow older, moving less frantically into the future, and embedded more deeply in the richness of life, that DNA, that human history, and each of our absolutely unique places in it, becomes more important. The language of our names is the language of our lives.

Till next time, my friends.

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