Anyone who read Freakonomics remembers the chapter on how a person’s name can pre-determine their future. If that frightening piece of incredible parental pressure got you thinking about the name game, Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith magazine has plenty more to say on what’s in a name and the latest issue of the mag.
KS: What’s the greatest perk/biggest obstacle in working as editor of an independent, Jewish and frankly feminist magazine?
SWS: Editing Lilith magazine, now celebrating its 35th year, is a treat. The writers are wonderful, the ideas new and stimulating, and the end product is, I hope, insightful and always a good read—whether it’s in print, on the web via our soon-to-appear digital edition, or on the lively Lilith blog.
KS: What do you think is the most impactful topic that Lilith has covered?
SWS: That’s a tough one. The major issues Lilith has opened up have been topics like violence in Jewish families; Jewish women’s philanthropy and our relationship to money; Jewish hair—a sellout issue by the way; rabbinic sexual misconduct; new rituals and celebrations for the Jewish calendar and for the landmarks of our lives.
The last couple of Lilith salons at Sixth & I were really dynamite, and they dealt with cover stories that, like the what-we-call-ourselves story in Lilith’s current issue, resonate in our lives. One salon had to do with an article on breaking up over food. We spent about three hours in spirited discussion about what we eat, why it can sometimes be schismatic, what food represents in a relationship, and more. The second salon focused on what we wear. You can imagine! The talk ranged from our favorite garments to how we want to present ourselves to the world as feminists, as Jews, as professionals. Clothing is a powerful signifier, and we really mined that territory in our conversation.
So, I would say that every issue of the magazine has topics that impact both our own lives and the community at large. It’s hard to choose just one or two.
KS: Do you think that something is lost when women choose to take their husbands’ names and give up their maiden names?
SWS: Of course. Let’s take Facebook as an example. Ever tried to find your high school buddy Suzanne Cohen, when she’s now on there only as Suzanne Kaminsky? You get the idea.
Now that women are marrying later—after they’ve already established themselves in careers and have a professional identity—there’s confusion of identities with changing your surname.
Other women say that they like the simplicity of having all family members bearing the same last name. Perhaps this is why a rather public woman made a different choice. New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren, who, though she’d had front-page bylines under her birth name, decided when she married a fellow whose last name was Ruderman that she and he would have a new last name altogether: Rudoren.
KS: On February 8, you’ll lead What’s in a Hyphen?, a salon about naming practices for women. Why do you think some women are reluctant to hyphenate their children’s names?
SWS: Well, the first reason everyone mentions is the clumsiness they predict will happen when a “hyphenate” marries another “hyphenate.” Does the child of this union have to carry around Jennifer Goldberg-Schwartz-Lipkin-Myerson? That’s one reason why the Lilith article is so appealing to readers: it posits a whole new way of dealing with the children-of-hyphenates worry.
Unless the parents also use hyphenated surnames, there is the general feeling of oddness when parents and children do not have the same last name. I think many Jews carry a certain degree of post-traumatic stress following the Holocaust when we’re asked to separate ourselves out–say in a customs and immigration queue for an international flight—and the children have to sort themselves into a different line from the parents. Of course, this is an uneasiness that could happen also when a woman keeps her birth name (I hate to say “maiden” name) while the children have their father’s last name.
KS: How do you think a name affects a woman’s Jewish identity?
SWS: This is a fascinating question. I’m sure many of us know of interfaith marriages where a Jewish woman with a typically Jewish surname takes her husband’s seemingly non-Jewish surname. What do people assume when they first meet her? And then there are Jewish women with first names that are usually associated with non-Jews: Christina, Mary.
The opposite happens, too. A family intermarried for several generations who still bear the surname Cohen, though they identify with other religions and would not be considered Jewish.
Names do play a role in Jewish identity. Many surnames started out as something linked with either being Jewish or associated with “foreignness.” The classic case would be the New York financier who, in the 19th century, went from Schoenburg to Belmont–a direct translation. There are people named Klein who became Small, Gross who became Large, and so on. Then there are the names given at Ellis Island, when “Old Country” names were deemed too difficult for the processing agent to pronounce or spell. Of course, some people were happy to unload their Jewish names, but we’ve also seen a resurgence of interest in those original names. Children or grandchildren want to revert, surprising their older relatives who got rid of those family names to better assimilate into American society.
Susan Weidman Schneider facilitates a discussion on the influence of naming practices on our identities as women and Jews at the Wednesday, February 8th event, What’s in a Hyphen?. Part of Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood: For women in their 20s and 30s.
Read the Lilith articles on naming practices here.