From Meshuggeh to Mainstream

Upon our engagement, Tami and I decided to combine our family names. That necessitated going to court for an official name change. To save her the time, I did it in a Boston court a couple of weeks before the wedding, so that from “Lehman” she “automatically” became a Lehman-Wilzig upon our marriage.

These days there’s a different “craziness” going on in the Western world (mostly the U.S.), with millennials and some older folk in their wake signing their emails with “instructions” such as I wish to be called “they”, not she, her… – or other, similar such nomenclature. For most post-50-year-olds, this strikes us as pure craziness.

The Boston courtroom was filled with Irish: the security guard at the entrance, the stenographer, and the policeman standing next to each witness in the courtroom. With my “luck”, though, I got a Jewish judge. I handed him my papers, in which I had to explain and justify my name change. I had written that “my wife is an only child and wants to keep her parent’s name” and that “I’m a feminist and wish to have an equal marriage, in name too.”

Every generation has its own way of asserting its identity. One can call it “youthful rebellion” or “generational progress” or some other more or less positive description, but it seems to be a set pattern. What accompanies this, though, is generational pushback as well. The older ones don’t “get it”, mainly because that wasn’t the way they did it when growing up and taking over the world.

My judge took the papers in hand, read it with a stolid face, picked up his pen, and as he was signing the papers, declaimed out loud the beginning of Tennyson’s famous quote: “Ours not to reason why…”. I wanly smiled, expecting to hear the second part: “ours but to do and die.” Instead, he continued: “but you’re meshuggeh!” I couldn’t help laughing out loud, to the consternation of the Irish cop at my side – probably more perplexed at what the judge said than my guffaw.

So I now find myself in the role of my Jewish judge: “they” instead of “her”?!? How far can this gender fluidity take us? I won’t join this trend, nor do I think it will have much staying power. But then again, my last name is still Lehman-Wilzig – forty-seven years later.

The point of all this is that “you never know”. Linguistic, cultural, social trends arrive by the dozens. Most come and go (remember bell-bottom pants?); a few arrive and stay (Black has definitely overtaken Negro). Several are clear signs of moral progress (I do believe feminism – once called “Women’s Liberation” – is permanently here); conversely, a few are evidence of philosophical backsliding (Cancel Culture is antithetical to freedom of expression).

A decade ago, our son Boaz hesitatingly came to us with “bad news”: he wanted to change his last name from Lehman-Wilzig to something that sounded Israeli and was simpler to say. The irony, and reason we were actually not upset by this, is that Tami’s father’s original family name was Sprinzeles, which he changed to Lehman in Vienna back in the 1930’s due to anti-Semitism (“Lehman” was a neutral German name). We suggested “Zeevi” – the Hebrew rendition of “little wolf” which is what my family name “Vilchek” means in Polish.

Change is inevitable – linguistic and otherwise. Each of us has the right to be called whatever s/he wishes (within limits; New York State will not allow a child to be given the name “Hitler”). That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to like an individual’s decision – but it has to be respected. Respect, though, also doesn’t mean complete acquiescence but rather a measure of tolerance on our part to what seems at first to be bizarre. In any case, the passage of time and social “convention” will determine whether – and to what extent – the new trend will stick. That’s the name of the game – or the game of the name…

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