My father, Toby Stratton, said he didn’t want an obituary. He thought that might
tip off the United States Internal Revenue Service to a change in his status. He
was a real estate investor who preferred to stay way off the government’s
Toby died in 1986. An editor at the local paper really wanted to
write something, because the editor was a friend of our family. My mother said
no. The writer persisted; years prior, Toby had gotten the editor a moonlighting
job writing an in-house newsletter for the key company where my dad worked. No
again, my mother said.
So Toby wound up in the Cleveland Jewish News.
That was OK. Not too many IRS agents read that. However, it wouldn’t have
mattered. My dad lived his entire adult life under an alias. He had gotten
“Stratton” out of a phone book. His birth name was Soltzberg.
How had he
felt about all that? Fine, he often said. I had my doubts. (His two brothers
stayed Soltzbergs, while Toby rode off to become Stratton of Judea.) His only
regret, which was momentary, he claimed, was when my then 20-something sister
dated a sheygets (gentile boy) from Parma, Ohio, with no college degree. Toby
said, “If I hadn’t changed my name, this wouldn’t be going on!” He had picked
“Stratton” in a waiting room for a job.
He got the job and changed his
name. 1941. Sounded like BS to me. I thought he might have been simply
embarrassed and insecure about his Jewishness. He did what a lot of Jews did
back then: jumped to the U.S.S. Wasp.
I discovered half the Jews in the
US changed their names. (Commentary, August 1952, “Name-Changing – And What It
Gets You,” J. Alvin Kugelmass.) Some of the impetus was anti-Semitism and some
was a desire to “pass.” (I’m not blaming anybody. Different times back then.)
When I was just out of college, I told my dad I was going to change my name to
Soltzberg. He went nuts.
“You’re looking for trouble! Don’t do
Decades later I was doing a lecture on Mickey Katz at the
International Association of Yiddish Clubs convention, wearing a “Stratton”
nametag, and this very old man asked me, “Are you related to Toby Stratton?” “He
was my father.”
“I left town in 1941,” the man said. “I was there, right
in my apartment, when he talked about changing his name. He had gotten
turned [down] by three chemical companies. He changed his name and got a
job right then.”
For years a Soltzberg uncle had told
me Toby had jumped ship because my mother had wanted to “pass.”
the right-in-my-apartment story better.
The writer is a musician and
landlord in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the “Klezmer Guy: Real
Music & Real Estate” blog and has written for the New York Times and
Cleveland Plain Dealer.