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Immigrant Names and Issues of Assimilation

Joel Shatzky
May 30, 2017


by Joel Shatzky

As an adjunct professor at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY for the last decade (after a thirty-seven year career at SUNY, Cortland), I have noticed trends in students’ names that seem to reveal their parents’ desire to establish a sense of identity distinctly of their own choice. This is in some respects a continuation of the 1960s rebellion in the black community against “slave names.” This desire for a distinctive, self-created identity is reflected these days not only in African-American naming practices, but in those of immigrant groups as well.

Initially, the names of immigrants usually became more “Americanized” as a reflection of their objective to assimilate. Looking at my own family tree, beginning with the 1890s, my great aunts, born in Russia, bore Yiddish names: Feyge, Bayle, Sima, Suke, Edis, and great uncles Yankl, Itzik and Pinye. The first names of my parents’ generation -- most of them born in the United States -- reflected the trend toward anglicized names from the Biblical tradition: Miriam, Benjamin, Bess, Abraham, and Israel (who changed his name to Al).

In my own generation of baby boomers are Joel, Sandra, Harriet, Howard, Elaine, Donald, and six Michaels.

Name assimilation in my children’s generation is predominantly Anglo-American, with a few biblical names given to honor the memory of predeceased relatives: Cliff, Larry, Mark, Amy, Jamie, Ben -- after my father -- and Judy, after her mother’s mother.

In contrast, the variety of names in my class roster illustrates a younger and much more ethnically diverse generation, and reflects both tradition and popularity, with remarkable ingenuity: Genesis, Ayana, Ruella, Joleli, Vancheau, Shanice, Elvis, Gurami, Inessa, Niktyla, Fareeda, Tamika, Dansel, and Inodhakon. Some of these may be fanciful creations, some are chosen because they are names of celebrities, some are given for the sound of the syllables.

Among secular Israelis the current trend is to rebel against biblical names. Such trends, I believe, reflect the desire for identity in a society that seems to be forcing conformity within an increasingly corporatized culture of consumption.

IN THE 1960S, the days of Muhammad Ali, the Reverend Elijah Mohammed, and Malcolm X , the Black Muslim movement proved particularly attractive to many African Americans and a Muslim or Muslim-sounding name became a sign of racial and political identity. But the trend toward choosing “non-white” names has had serious consequences, especially for African-Americans. In a wide-ranging study on racial bias in hiring practices, researchers “responded to more than 1,300 employment ads in the sales, administrative support, clerical, and customer services job categories,” according to the team of Bertrand and Mullainathan in “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” (NBER Working Paper No. 9873). “Job applicants with white names needed to send about ten resumés to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around fifteen resumés to get one callback.” This gap in callback rates is “statistically very significant” and “indicates that a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience [among African-Americans].” The National Bureau of Economic Research notes: “Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African-Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability.”

This is a grim indication that racial prejudice in hiring, even if unconscious, is still very much with us, and it must be tempting for young African-American college graduates to “whiten” their names when filling out an employment application. According to an article in the New York Times: “The dueling forces of assimilation and diversity have long battled for primacy in the American experience, most acutely among African-Americans. It’s not clear that assimilation has gained an edge here in the waning days of the decade, but . . . ‘whitening’ the résumé . . . is certainly not isolated.” In interviews with two dozen college-educated blacks, a “half-dozen said they had taken steps to hide their race, or at least dial back the level of ‘blackness’ signaled in their résumés,” the Times found.

Despite this dilemma, for many people of color, having one’s “own name” can be considered one of the few ways to establish an autonomous identity in a society in which institutionalized anonymity is a common concern and racist ignorance often reduces a complex human being into a racial stereotype.

IN MY OWN EXPERIENCES as a secular Jew, I have rarely regarded my name as a way of establishing my identity. My given name, “Joel,” was supposed to be “Joseph,” after my paternal grandfather, but for some reason my parents didn’t like the name, so I was given a very satisfactory substitute, with “Yossel” becoming my Yiddish name. When I look to the biblical source of my name, however, I find the Book of Joel, the story of a gloomy minor prophet, squeezed between Hosea and Amos and vividly describing a drought in which “the land mourneth, for the corn is wasted; the new wine is dried up. the oil languisheth.” Not a very optimistic monicker with which to begin one’s life-journey.

On my mother’s side, however, was an impressive real ancestor whose family name has been handed down to us for 1,000 years: “Yakira,” Yaakov ben Yakar (990–1064), the teacher of the great Talmudic commentator, Rashi, and one of the leading Talmudic authorities of his time. When Rashi would refer simply to “my teacher” without naming any one in particular, he was always referring to Yaakov ben Yakar.

In a country that has conflated the value of life experience with the size of one’s bank account, it is not that surprising to see modern immigrants to America risking their own material well-being in their hope of having more real substance in their lives — in songs, food, dress, customs and, yes, names — than our consumer culture can offer. The traditions of a homeland are maintained not merely as a protest against the grinding pursuit of wealth for its own sake, but as an affirmation of things of value that cannot be sold or bought.

For me, my name is a vital link between me and my generation and the past. As a teacher, I sometimes feel its weight as I think and as I act: It is the name of a gloomy prophet, yes, but also of a teacher, a learner, an intellect in a tradition that is wide open to the gifts of knowledge and love of humanity. As a teacher, I will always feel honored by my Jewish ancestry, and I will not allow myself to slide down that seductive path to cynicism.

Joel Shatzky has written frequently for Jewish Currents on education and culture. He is the author of Option Three: A Novel about the University, published by our magazine’s imprint, Blue Thread. Shatzky taught at SUNY Cortland for thirty-seven years. His books include The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (with Michael Taub).