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(Bad) Oral History

I used to rather smugly consider myself something of a historian. I did, after all, spend five years in graduate school studying the languages and cultures of the Ancient Levant and Mesopotamia. Read enough about historiography, translate enough cuneiform, and spend a couple of seasons in the field, and you start to feel like you just might know something.

So you can perhaps imagine the degree of comeuppance delivered to me in the last several days when I slew some familial sacred cows by going directly to the most obvious primary source material available: the cemetery.

It all began with a phone call from a cousin of mine in California. His father (my Bubbie’s brother) died in Michigan last spring. He and his mother are ordering the headstone, and he wondered if I could I please go to the cemetery, take pictures of family stones, and email them to him. He and my great-aunt want to make sure they get the text right and follow family custom as much as local rules and personal preferences allow.

So now let me begin by listing some salient information about my family’s names handed down to me as Truth via oral history.

  • My maternal grandfather, Lester M. Wolfson, had no Hebrew name. Following the custom of the time, he had only a Yiddish name, Laser.
  • Further, the “M” in Lester M. Wolfson stood for nothing. The family saw other Americans have middle initials, and so they gave him one without ever assigning a proper middle name to it.
  • Lester M. Wolfson’s father was Simon Wolfson. His headstone reads “Simon W. Wolfson”, but no one knows what the “W” is for.
  • Lester’s mother was “Bessie” a popular name of the time randomly assigned to her and having nothing to do with her Yiddish name, Peshe. She also had no Hebrew name.
  • My paternal grandfather, Aaron Goldstein, had his name changed to “Harry” when he arrived at Ellis Island by a clerk who could not make out his thick accent.
  • My paternal grandmother’s people, the Cerfs, had a very common French name that is not particularly associated with Jews.

How many of these truths do you think held up to a careful examination of headstones and subsequent hour or two of basic research? If you answered 0 (zero!), you are correct. Let’s start the show after the page break, as this may rightly be considered a tangent.

  • Lester M. Wolfson’s headstone reads, clear as day (in Hebrew), “Eliezer”. Following the custom of his era of having a couplet name, that is a Hebrew sacred name followed by (a) a related Hebrew secular name or (b) a related or euphonious vernacular Yiddish name, his religious name was “Eliezer” and he was more casually called “Laser.” The English “Lester” was reserved for his generation and following. Let me now say that the “Wolfson” in Simon’s name is for my Zadie, as I believed that both “Lester” and “Laser” were unworkable. Had I done my research, he’d probably be “Simon Eliezer/Eli Whitworth.”
  • About the empty signifier “M.” Sigh. Lester’s name, spelled out clear as day for anyone with even remedial Hebrew reading skills, is “Eliezer Moshe ben Shimon”. He might not have gone by “Lester Moses” but clearly that’s what the M was for.
  • On to the mysterious “Simon W. Wolfson” Well, his Hebrew name posed more of a challenge. The “Shimon” was clear enough, but after that came some Yiddish that was distinct enough from Hebrew that I could not figure out what the letters signified. Thanks to the Yiddish alphabet charts I found online, I discerned that the mystery middle name was “Velvl”, a common Yiddish name meaning “Little Wolf”. In other words, (a) the middle name was a play on the last name; and (b) the initial in English should be “V” not “W”. Does no one look this stuff up?
  • Moving on to Bessie. Her parents knew much more than me or my parents. “Peshe” is the Yiddish for “Batya”, a Hebrew standalone name and a nickname for “Batsheva”. It means “daughter of God” or “daughter of the oath” respectively. This is the same name as “Elizabeth”, with the components reversed. And what was a popular nick-name for Elizabeth during my great-grandmother’s era? Bessie. Her parents got it exactly right.
  • Next up, Aaron “Harry” Goldstein. Well, it would seem that a common Yiddish nickname for “Aaron” is “Haare” or “Hurre”. Given all that I learned about names in about two hours, it seems likely to me that when asked his name, my grandfather gave the Yiddish one, which does indeed sound a lot like Harry and would go far towards explaining why I found dozens of “Harry Goldsteins” in the Ellis Island ship manifests.
  • And finally, “Cerf”. Until the Napoleonic era, Jews did not have surnames; we used a patronymic system that is still used for our religious names. Once family names became required, they were sourced by varying means: physical characteristic, location, profession, randomly assigned, adapted from a first name, etc. One of the more peculiar ways of choosing a last name was to start with a tribe of Israel, look for Biblical citations that associate that tribe with a particular animal, and then use the vernacular for that animal as a last name. Thus, the tribe of Naphtali, associated with the doe, becomes Hirsh or Cerf, depending on whether you speak German or French.

From this little exercise, I have learned the following:

  • I could have been more direct in naming after my grandfather.
  • Some relatives with unappealing Yiddish names could have easily been named for had anyone looked up the Hebrew or English equivalents (“Elizabeth” for “Bessie”, “Joy” or “Rena” for “Freida”).
  • Don’t just listen to the rabbi! My poor great-grandfather has the wrong initial on his stone, and I have a Hebrew name that is not only ugly, but also totally unrelated to both my English name and the name of the person for whom I was ostensibly named.
  • My nephew Benjamin, by pure accident, has a name of classical Eastern European form. His middle name is Wolfson, and the “wolf” is associated with the tribe of….  Benjamin.
  • Never trust what anyone says. Always go to the source. Always check.

So if there are any Goldsteins, Kahns, Soirefmans, Wolfsons, Sotsky’s, Schlossers, Loesers, or Cerfs out there trying to pick a name for the next generation, please come talk to me first. If I can keep just ONE little girl from being named “Yocheved”, it will make all this research worthwhile.

One Response to “(Bad) Oral History”

  1. Amanda says:

    My friend Suzanne found with her son Jordan that at 2 1/2 he was completely uninterested in potty training. At 3 he initiated it himself and was trained in a week. It sounds like Simon has just decided it’s time. (Jordan is now almost 14 and completely potty trained, so it will happen, lol).

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