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Monica Porter

Changing Names

Jewish Chronicle, 20 August 2010

Names are there to be changed

Shakespeare was right about names, Kirk Douglas and the French Jews are just being sentimental

By Monica Porter

I’ve just been reading the most recent autobiography of nonagenarian movie star Kirk Douglas (his fourth). The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Douglas started life with the name Issur Danielovitch. It had to be Americanised for the sake of his film career.

In his book, Douglas remarks that sometimes he still mourns the passing of Issur, the erstwhile identity he was forced to ‘kill off’. Particularly since the major stroke he suffered in 1996, which caused him to re-evaluate his life and embrace Judaism.

This is a sentiment with which those French Jews now fighting for the right to regain their old names would sympathise. As reported in the JC two weeks ago, a group of French Jews whose parents had earlier changed their ‘foreign-sounding’ names for fear of anti-Semitism, were battling the government to be able to get them back. They regard their original Jewish names as an integral part of their family history. Under French law you are not allowed to revert to a former name, but nothing daunted, the Jews are taking the government on.

Kirk (or Issur) observes that, with changing times, later generations of Hollywood actors were not compelled to alter Jewish-sounding names. This is undeniably true. What’s more, nowadays there even seems to be a sort of ‘Jewish-chic’ in the movie world, whereby a Jewish name actually enhances a star’s aura of ‘cool’. Think of Jeff Goldblum, David Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Weisz and Alicia Silverstone.

The business of changing Jewish names to non-Jewish ones has been a running theme throughout my life. In Budapest in the 1930s my Jewish grandfather and my father (then aged 10) changed their surname from the identifiably Jewish Fischer to its Hungarian version, Halasz. There was an atmosphere in Hungary then of increasing anti-Semitism, and many Jews became ‘Hungarianised’ during that period.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when, at the tender age of 22, I married a fellow called Robin Porter. Sounds a pukka Englishman, right? In fact his Polish-Jewish grandfather’s name of Potaszevicz was changed – in the blink of an eye – to Porter at Liverpool docks, by one of those perpetually flummoxed immigration officials incapable of spelling or pronouncing any foreign name at all. It was the early 1900s and Grandpa, as you have probably guessed, was a refugee from the pogroms.

Alas, my marriage to Mr. Porter didn’t stand the test of time. Although, as you can see, I’ve no objection to the continued use of his user-friendly surname.

Move ahead another decade and my partner is the equally English-sounding Nick Winton – the son, as most readers are now probably aware, of Kindertransport founder Sir Nicholas Winton. Occasionally someone asks Nick whether he’s related to the TV presenter Dale Winton, which always makes me laugh. The name Winton was plucked at random out of a London phonebook in 1938. The German-Jewish family’s original name was Wertheim, but in the run-up to the Second World War, with ‘enemy aliens’ being rounded up all over Britain, it was an undesirable moniker to have. So they anglicized it, while keeping the initial ‘W’ as a nod to the family’s origins.

Take another famous actor, Tony Curtis. Now, he was born Bernard Schwartz, the son of an émigré Hungarian Jewish tailor. Once, in the 1950s, Tony attended a big Hollywood bash and brought his father along. Spotting the MGM mogul Sam Goldwyn (formerly Schmuel Gelbfisz), he went up to him and said: ‘Mr. Goldwyn, I’d like you to meet my father, Emanuel Schwartz.’ Whereupon Goldwyn smiled and enquired of Tony’s dad: ‘Why did you change your name, Mr. Schwartz? Curtis is such a nice name.’ (This story might be apocryphal, but with the ‘verbally eccentric’ Goldwyn, you never know.)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, as the Bard observed. And I agree. Throughout history people have changed their names to suit their purposes. So what? I have no less feeling for my family roots as a Porter than I would as a Halasz…or a Fischer. And you don’t need a ‘Jewish’ name to live a good Jewish life. Perhaps those feisty French Jews should save their ammunition for the more crucial battles which face us.