French Jews reclaim 'Jewish' names

Names that give away religion typically dropped.

French Jews (photo credit: Celine Masson)
French Jews
(photo credit: Celine Masson)
PARIS – Jewish names have often been considered burdensome by their bearers. Not only are they difficult to spell and hard to pronounce, they’ve often exposed Jews to prejudice and anti-Semitism.
That’s why, in the past, many have been happy to let go of names that gave away their religion and ethnicity. Robert Zimmerman, Lev Bronstein and Bernard Schwartz – better known as Bob Dylan, Leon Trotsky and Tony Curtis, respectively – are a few examples.
But in a surprising reversal of that historical trend, a group of Jews in France whose parents took on French-sounding surnames after World War II are now seeking to return to their original Jewish names and reclaim their lost heritage.
La Force du Nom represents about 200 French Jews whose parents and grandparents adopted French last names after the war.
“Between 1945 and 1947, many Jews who were fed up with Polish names changed them to French ones,” explained Regine Weintrater, who serves as an acting spokeswoman for the group.
“They did so in various ways, altering or shortening them in various ways. They were not forced to do so, but there was creeping prejudice. They did not want to lose their Jewish identity, only to avoid sticking out and protect their children from the anti-Semitism they experienced.”
Celine Masson, the founder of the group, says she was inspired to start it due to her own background.
“My father changed his name from Hassan, a traditional Jewish name, to Masson when he moved to France from North Africa,” she said. “I started to hear about more Jewish families who did the same and would like to return to their original names. That’s when I decided to form this collective.”
Other members of the group include the son of Olivier Raimbaud, a well-known publisher, who wants to go back to his grandparents’ original name of Rubinstein, and Michel Volcot, nee Wolkowicz.
However, under a current law dating back to the early 19th century, French citizens who have changed their names are not allowed to return to their old ones, nor are their offspring.
“The idea behind this law is the old style of Republicanism,” Weintrater explained. “It was born out of respect for the republic. But now we have a president called Sarkozy, not Du Pont.”
Last month La Force du Nom filed a request with the French Ministry of Justice, asking it to make an exception for Jews who changed their names during the post-war years in response to pressure from society and fear that the horrors of the Holocaust might repeat themselves.
“We came up with dozens of reasons why this should be allowed,” Masson said.
Masson,who drafted the request with the help of members of the group who are lawyers, drafted the request. She said she expects a response from the ministry by October.
Regardless of whether the ministry accepts the request, the reason the issue has surfaced precisely now is a mystery.
However, in an ironic twist on late Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce’s famous joke about why he decided to change his name from Leonard Alfred Schneider (it sounded “too Hollywood”), Weintrater says younger generations see something alluring and exotic in their old family names, something that brings to mind one-horse shtetls that have long disappeared.
“This can correct a bad inheritance from the war,” said Weintrater, who is a psychoanalyst.
“A Jew who grew up after the war didn’t hear much Yiddish.
All they have left of Judaism is high holidays and a little gefilte fish, so they want their names back.
“To them, the name Rubinstein, for example, has a flavor, a hint of a place far away in a different time.”