It is no coincidence that Judy Rosenberg is sponsoring the JCCNS’ Jewish Book Month virtual speaker presentation of author Kirsten Fermaglich (“A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America”) on Sunday, Nov. 29. Judy and her late husband, Ira, have long been supporters of the arts on the North Shore. Fermaglich’s book and her talk offers a window into American Jewish life in the middle of the 20th century.
Fermaglich has been teaching history and Jewish studies at Michigan State University for 20 years. Her fascination with widespread name changing after the 1880s wave of immigration, and its acceleration in the 1920s and 1930s, developed from her own “unusual” name. Her extensive research reviewing thousands of name changes in the New York City court archives reveals that very few name changes actually occurred at Ellis Island, and our local Rosenbergs’ stories bear this out.
Jim Hazlett (Judy Rosenberg’s son’s father-in-law), a talented genealogist, has traced a convoluted history that goes back at least six generations. Hailing from Grodno, in what was Lithuania and Poland, the Nadrychnyj, the Rosenberg’s original family name, is tracked through marriage and birth certificates to its ancestor, Yeoshua in the early 1800s.
Jeoshua’s son Michael migrated to Germany where he took, or was randomly assigned, the name Goldstein. His new name appears in records in Berlin, and later in London in 1893 when he married Cherna Gershene in the Old London Synagogue. When Michael, his brother Morris, and Cherna eventually came through Ellis Island, Morris kept the name Goldstein, but Michael came through as Michael Rosenberg. Family legend has it that when immigrants arrived, they chose the name Rosenberg, emulating a wealthy man who allowed them to use his name and address.
From New York they moved to Worcester, where Cherna’s older sister lived. When they next moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, they rented out rooms in their house, which was quite common in those days. One of their lodgers offered to trade their house for a farm in Stanstead, Quebec. Michael and Cherna packed up their then five children, and moved to Quebec circa 1906. Their second youngest child, Solomon (Solly) eventually moved back to Worcester and became an insurance salesman. Solly and his wife Mollie followed his sister to Malden. Ira was born there.
What does being a Rosenberg mean to Judy? She is proud to have become a Rosenberg. Judy and Ira were married for 57 years and have been blessed with three children and eight grandchildren. “Ira was larger than life. If you treated him right, he never forgot,” said Judy, who recalled a story from Ira’s Navy service when be was subjected to anti-Semitism and an Italian sailor from Brooklyn stood up for him. The two remained friends their entire lives.
The oldest child of Judy and Ira, David, has been affiliated with his father’s automobile business since he was a young boy. In high school, David recalls being harassed by anti-Semitic tropes. Years later when he was targeted, his wife Karen encouraged him to “educate” the man, and his rabbi advised him to approach him in a non-reactive manner. The two met, with the caller eventually apologizing.
David enjoys the irony in his maturity. He recounts being “kicked out of Hebrew High School at Temple Beth-El” only to become co-president of the synagogue many years later. As the fifth generation Rosenberg, he and his siblings are proud to carry forward the family name. “How you chose to live, as much as what you are named,” has become David’s mantra.
Fermaglich reminds us that Jews were not the only ethnic group seeking name changes. 1946, after World War II, saw an upsurge in petitions. Prime Minister Ben Gurion encouraged Israelis to adopt Hebrew names during the 1940s; American Jews sought to adopt contemporary names. It’s no surprise then that after 9/11, Muslims flocked to petition surname changes.
The triumphs and tragedies of our local Rosenbergs reflect the saga of all immigrants seeking assimilation, better education, military service, and job opportunities.
Kirsten Fermaglich will be speaking about her book as part of the JCCNS’ Jewish Book Month speaker series on Nov. 29. For tickets and more information, go to jccns.org.