What’s in a name?

Over the weekend I was in New York and heard the most extraordinary tale. My visit rather providentially coincided with the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival, which brought with it an influx of film aficionados, Hollywood celebrities and the requisite parties, after-hours meet ups and so forth that constitute such international art gatherings. One night over drinks at the Mercer Hotel, a well respected actor (who I’ve not yet persuaded to do a formal interview so I won’t use his name) was talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, rather heatedly, when I interjected with my usual devil’s advocacy and out of curiosity asked why felt so passionate about the situation given that he’s neither Jewish, nor Palestinian, nor Arab, nor United Nations ambassador.

“Actually that’s not entirely true,” he said. “I have a Jewish name.”

As the conversation went further and deeper, he revealed that his father, who had fought in the British army during World War II had seen such horrific things of the Holocaust and Europe’s treatment of Jews on the whole, that after the war, he changed the family to a Jewish-sounding one. It was unclear if his father did this out of alliance, guilt, or a deep, unabated shame at what he had seen. But after that, he was determined to raising his own children with a sense of Jewish identity. This struck me, for many reasons, but mostly for the way in which names can be laden with history, identity, even responsibility. This man, who is a pronounced atheist and is not at all Jewishly observant, feels profoundly connected to the Jewish people and a unique empathy for them (despite his scathing criticisms of Netanyahu) simply because his father marked their names with a Jewish cipher to cover a sordid past. The name change, in this respect, was a way of taking the burdens of the Jewish people onto himself, and it did make me wonder if his father did this because he had seen so many yellow stars without adorning his own uniform.   

All of this, of course, is increasingly ironic set in a Hollywood context where an industry famously created by Jews was done so to shed the burdens of Jewish identity and history. And in order to do so, the first things they changed were their names.