This week we begin to read the second book of the Torah. Known in English (from the Greek) as Exodus, in Hebrew it is known as “Shemot” which means “names.” The Hebrew names of the Biblical books are derived from the first significant word in the text rather than trying to give some indication of their content, but in the case of “Shemot” our tradition explains why the name is significant. The book begins by recounting the names of the sons of Jacob who settled in Egypt and when our ancestors left Egypt 430 years later, the tribes bore the same names as those who had originally settled. This indicates, our Sages tell us, that our ancestors did not change their names.
There is a fairly widespread belief among American Jews in the existence of “Ellis Island names”; that our ancestors came to this country and were given names by clerks at Ellis Island who couldn’t spell or pronounce the original name or simply didn’t like it. But historical research indicates that this isn’t true. All of the ships which arrived at Ellis Island from Europe had detailed manifests which listed the names of all the passengers in Latin (“English”) characters, not Hebrew or Cyrillic. If your family’s surname is something different than what it originally was, it is because someone in your family made the decision to change it.
The emphasis that our tradition places on names is interesting. First names which in a previous generation were thought of as stereotypically Jewish – Irving, Sydney, Milton, Marvin --- were made popular by immigrant parents. They were at the time high WASP names but when Jews (and Blacks) started using them the WASPs stopped.
Quite a few years ago I received a detailed family tree from my father’s cousin and it was interesting to see the different first names and what they said about the choices people had made. I have distant cousins with names like Avram and Shmuel as well as Sean and Tiffany.
But names are not as reliable an indicator of identity as they once were. Younger generations are much more comfortable with distinctive names, so many Jewish children are given either biblical or Israeli/modern Hebrew names even if they are not so observant.
Even last names are no indication -- colleagues who work for Hillel report that as many as 50 percent of the kids who participate in Hillel have one Jewish parent so that a kid named O’Malley may be Jewish and a kid named Goldberg not.
A final note: because the ships arriving at Ellis Island did have such thorough and accurate manifests, they can be found and searched digitally at ellisislandrecords.org . I have found my grandparents’ immigration records and those of many of my great-aunts and great-uncles.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian