Shakespeare said it long ago – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. However, in order to connect the word with the object, we need a clear path.
In my mother’s family, my great-great grandfather seemingly arbitrarily used a variety of names – first and last. His children seem to have each selected one of the surnames he used and that branch of the family went with that name. His son, my great-grandfather, thankfully, listed all the names, first and last, by which his father used, on his father’s probate record. Thank you, Allan Jordan for pulling those records for me several years ago.
Having that list of names gave us the ability to figure out relationships with people we thought were family, not just family friends.
My father’s family is more straightforward. Surnames in his family basically stayed the same from Europe to the U.S. with little variation. First names, however, were an issue. There was one person to whom we kept referring to by what we thought was his name – it was what his mother in Europe called him in her letters. Decades later, we found out what his name was and that she had been referring to him by an endearment – always the same one!
One day, I got a phone call from a woman I had never heard of. She had been looking at my tree, and called me, very excited. Almost her first words were: “Your Mali is my Amalia.” Once I understood what she was talking about, I pulled up my tree and hers to compare and was able to say to her “Your Chiel is my Yechezkiel, and your Israel is my Srul.” Very exciting finds, and a wonderful familial connection.
But what of the Anshel, Leibe, Yudel, Salka, Shaiku and Mundek. Who were these people? Were they or their descendants still alive? One afternoon, sitting with relatives and trying to piece this together, someone commented that she had a vague memory of someone calling her grandfather “Louis” by another name – Leibe! That started a furious conversation that lasted for hours and followed many paths. We pulled out photos of gravestones of people we thought were related but hadn’t identified, and photos of people with Yiddish names scrawled on the back. It took a while, but ultimately we found that in our family Anshel = Arthur, Yudel = Julius, Salka = Sarah, Shaiku = Asher and Mundek = Moses.
So, what’s in a name?