A tap dancer died on Long Island last month. According to his New York Times obituary, the dancer was known for his “airy, ballettic style and eclectic approach.” Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, The Times reported that Jerome Howard Abrams changed his surname from Abrams to Ames “early in his career, in an era when a Jewish name could be a professional impediment.”
“A professional impediment”-that expression kept tap dancing through my mind, especially when I realized that for every Jewish performer like Jerry Seinfeld, Henry “Fonzie” Winkler and even Fyvush Finkel (whose did change his first name from Phillip) there are many, many more with names like Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch), Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz), Joan Rivers (Joan Molinsky) and Woody Allen (Alan Stewart Koenigsberg) to name just a few.
So what’s in a name? No doubt you are as proud of your name and the names of your children as Kalman Seinfeld of Massapequa was to be the father of Jerome. Yet as we know, Jewish names have through the years not only been changed for theatrical marque and fast ‘n easy show business reasons, names were changed for reasons of persecution, harrassment and historical documentation. The Ellis Island Jewish name change has certainly been well documented. And, sadly, German Jews and others throughout Europe changed their surnames to try to avoid the political and personal challenges they faced. What’s more, when some of our grandparents and great-grandparents came to the United States and looked at their new world, camouflaging their names was quite typical and not unusual.
Decades later some things have changed…and some things haven’t. I guess there was a good business reason for the Bronx-born Ralph Liftshitz to believe that people would find it easier to wear a Ralph Lauren suit, dress or shirt than one with the name Ralph Liftshitz. On the other hand, people don’t seem to mind wearing jeans, underwear and even cologne bearing the birth name of another Bronx born native on or next to their body –Calvin Klein.
Fortunately today, one hopes, having a nice Jewish name is not an impediment at all but something to be worn with pride.
OK, so Jerusalem-born Natalie Hershlag did very well last month winning the Best Actress Academy Award Oscar for the film “Black Swan” with her stage name of Portman. But don’t you think that with his distinctive voice, the legendary Bob Dylan would have been equally as successful as Bob Zimmerman? Perhaps if Rodney Dangerfield had kept his real name of Jacob Cohen as a stand-up comic, maybe he would have had lots of respect!
Finally, if CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, born Wolf Isaac Blitzer can keep his name throughout his successful news career, couldn’t Jonathan Stuart Liebowitz have been just as successful hosting Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as Jon Stewart has been? Alas, we’ll never know.