Small is a Jewish surname

I wanted so much to be a Rothschild

I've been Jewish all of my life. And I wanted a large part of it to have a really Jewish-sounding surname. As a ten-year-old I couldn't be impressed with a pony, but with a recognizable Jewish family name. Mountain, stone, gold, silver, like precious metals, like rock structures, preferably of course »Rothschild«. I repeated this name quietly over and over while playing in my room, by letting the R grow slowly and theatrically in my throat. Rothschild, for me that was the Olympus of Jewish identity. Because back then, before I started high school, I was still unfamiliar with the negative emotions associated with Jewish banking families in Germany. When the financial crisis hit us in 2007 and Lehman Brothers gave the ugly grimace of financial Jewry, as a fellow student called it, a modern face, I internally switched from Rothschild to Rubinstein.

My father's family comes from French Huguenots, not from Canaanite high priests. My name is Sabiers, not Silberstein, and because of this gap in my Jewish name résumé, I struggled for years with my identity within the Jewish community, whose internal structures are similar to a royal family tree. I'm not kidding myself today. For 34 years I have been looking for the ideal balance between delimitation and fading in. Define where I clearly position myself as a Jew, even without a recognizable name, and display when I do not want to be asked about my origins and my opinion on the Middle East conflict. My personal waltz on the volcano. The fact that I am not a Rothschild gives me this luxury: to be able to choose whether I am Jewish at first sight or not.

After being convinced for a long time that I had finished with the name theme, it boiled up again a few weeks ago. I read an article (actually rather poorly written) about Whoopi Goldberg, whose Jewish name has never been up to me before. A US-American Jewish author investigated the question of whether Whoopi was Jewish or not. She calls herself "a Catholic-Jewish girl," who owes her first name to a whooping pillow and her last name to her Jewish ancestors. There are African-American Jews, so why not Caryn Elaine Johnson alias Whoopi Goldberg?

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However, according to several sources, there are no Jewish relatives of Whoopie, who goes by the name Goldberg. (Her grandmother's name was Rachel Freedman, at least that's what I read on the platform »Jew or not Jew«, which is well known in the USA, a fact that should not really be told to anyone). The truth is, the author speculated, that Whoopi, as a budding actress, followed her mother's advice and adopted a Jewish surname in order to pursue a career in Hollywood. Your current stage name. But who was I, in times of fake news, to wrinkle my nose over whether her name was real or a means to an end? It doesn't matter, or shouldn't, whether it says Johnson, Goldberg or Schweighöfer on the cloakroom door. But the text and the mere assumption hit a nerve that has been pressing on my identity behind my diaphragm ever since. And tweaks.

Me, the emancipated and cosmopolitan Jew that I want to be. The child of a mixed marriage. If my pulse can't even be disturbed by new statistics about growing anti-Semitism, why is this mundane news? Of course, over the past few years I could have married any mountain, stone or field or simply called myself Rachel Goldbergstein in order to finally get my long-awaited family name. But that's not it, because names have an identity-forming meaning in Judaism, which at the same time weighs on shoulders or - as one suspects in Hollywood - opens doors. You don't just change your name, at least in my eyes, and then you really are Rachel Goldbergstein - with fictitious relatives from Lithuania and Poland, about whose whereabouts after the war one knows nothing. It may work in Hollywood, but not in Europe. No demarcation possible, peaceful immersion in the crowd is impossible.

Too often I have witnessed the comment that one would also “like to belong” because we as a people are so networked. A comment like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

I drank my third coffee and thought about my Jewish ancestors. Merchants and cattle dealers from a Moselle village who acquired their family name from a Rhineland-Palatinate nobleman during the times of German duchies in order to sound as un-Jewish as possible. You must have been very wealthy because my mother's maiden name was Günther. Not a door opener in Hollywood, but helpful in times when Jews were excluded from guilds and inner cities.

In Germany in 2019, a Jewish stage name would end in an unsuccessful farce. I only imagine Matthias Schweighöfer, who would rename himself Matthias Bergsteiger or Salzschweiger to boost his success. Yes yes, Jewish relatives, found on a genealogy website. “Oh yes, so versatile, and he's still a Jew too. You can't tell by looking at him, "it would say from understanding circles. The Jewish community would stand upside down, the Central Council of Jews would write an open letter, and the average Jewish citizen would wonder if the people out there really think that our identity crisis, inherited over 25 generations, is a joke.

Here the fact tweaks in my diaphragm again that despite our millennia-long history of persecution and uprooting, a Jewish surname is seen as a membership card in the "Club of Networking". Too often I have witnessed the comment that one would also “like to belong” because we as a people are so networked. A comment like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Personally, it's not about anti-Semitism - that would be too banal. Rather, it is about the sensitive and omnipresent topic of identity. Four syllables that every child of a cultural minority internalizes with the first breath. Who are my ancestors? Who am I? And to what parts? The name on the doorbell plays a bigger role than outsiders suspect.

I'm getting married in a few months. A gentile, a very great gentile. This officially ends the search for the Jewish name and the question of whether it will one day be answered. No. No silver, no gold, no copper, no diamond. No precious metals on the doorbell. I take his name and keep mine for my writing. And it's good the way it is. Because over time I learned to love the ambiguity and the non-automatic assignment of my surname, and I understood how to grow into my identity from Prussian-correct and Jewish-scattered. But that took years.