From Soltzberg to Stratton

Changing names and what it gets you.

Bob Dylan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bob Dylan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 radar.
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 it.”
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.”
Solid info.
For years a Soltzberg uncle had told me Toby had jumped ship because my mother had wanted to “pass.”
I liked 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.