The power of names

Religion, January 2011

By Rabbi Judy Chessin, Temple Beth Or, and chair, Dayton Synagogue Forum

Rabbi Judy Chessin

There was a great deal of speculation this summer as to whether First Daughter Chelsea Clinton would take on the last name of her groom Mark Mezvinsky. And the issue of changing one’s name for marriage has, in some circles, become a source of both controversy and tension.

Roughly 80 percent of brides take their husband’s last names when they marry. However, as couples now marry later in life (the average American bride is 27 years old), a surname change is no longer an automatic assumption.

The first known advocate for women to maintain their maiden name was Lucy Stone, a suffragist (and alumna of Oberlin College). In 1850, when Stone married abolitionist Henry Blackwell, she contended, “A wife should no more take her husband’s name then he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” In 1921, the “Lucy Stone League” was founded, devoted to the preservation of women’s last names.

Stone’s sentiment was based upon the premise of ownership, that the woman passes as property from her father’s house to her husband’s. Even as slaves took on the name of their owners, so does the bride move from male to male, and as such she loses her identity. It should be noted that a woman’s maintenance of her last name does not actually mitigate this assumption, since her “maiden name” is most likely her father’s family name.

Today, other women simply do not want to modify their professional identity. They have already “made a name” for themselves professionally, and are thus reluctant to change it after marriage. Yet other women have a sentimental attachment to their own family name or identity.

In my own case, I was saddened that my family name of origin would die out among the Jewish people. Thus, I not only maintained my “maiden” name but (with my husband’s gracious encouragement) also passed it on as the last name of our two sons as well.

On the other hand, many Americans believe strongly in the tradition of a bride taking on her husband’s name. More than 70 percent of Americans surveyed believed that this is better for the family unit. For the sharing of one family name projects an image of unity, which is important not only to bride and groom but also for future children. And when the woman takes her husband’s name, it is certainly easier to avoid parents’ constantly having to explain, “David and Sarah really are my children even though their names are different from mine.”

Of course there are those who either change their family names altogether, adopt the woman’s maiden name as a middle name, or hyphenate both names. Unfortunately, we are now of the generation where engaged, hyphenated children are finding it a nightmare to pick their last name among the four last names bequeathed to them.

For all of our attachment to our surnames, that Jews even have last names is a rather recent development. Throughout Jewish history, we Jews were known merely by our given first name, followed by ben (son of) or bat (daughter of) and then our father’s given (first) name.

Often the title of Kohen or Levi was added to denote status and lineage, but not as a last name. Only in the late 18th and 19th centuries did European laws mandate Jews to take on surnames in the vernacular for the purposes of taxation and conscription.

Indeed, the names bestowed upon Jews in Europe meant little more than a foreign imposition upon Jews, who did not even record these surnames on their tombstones until as late as the 20th century.

Following the Holocaust, however, we Jews have seen how easily our names can be eradicated, turned into mere numbers. And so indeed have we begun to believe in the power of both our first and last names as means of establishing rootedness and solidifying family history.

Ironically enough, long after my husband and I gave our own sons my last name, did my father tell me that in the Ukraine, when a man had only daughters, he would pay one of the sons-in-law an additional dowry to take on the father’s family name and keep it going into the next generation.

Apparently, this occurred several generations back in my own family and thus was the name conveyed to me. Now, as I have repeated the practice, I pray that my own family name will be perpetuated well into the future by our sons.

There are wonderful reasons to change our family name upon marriage, and equally compelling reasons not to.

However, let us be reminded of the very first Jewish family, for indeed, they both had different last names: Avraham Avinu (our father) and Sarah Imeinu (our mother).

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