My grandfather was a medical officer in World War II who participated in the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp. He said the best meal of his life was during the war, when the 12th Armored Division of the US Army ran out of gas in the French countryside in Brittany. He hung out waiting for gas and eating with country folk. By the time he told me the story, he no longer remembered what they ate, just that it was amazing, and I am that jackass who now has a research project to reconstruct mid-century Breton farm cuisine. I’ve been led to believe it’s a lot of crepes, which I allegedly cannot comprehend unless I get my hands on bona fide Brittany buckwheat.
At the end of the war, he arrived at Le Havre to sail for America. Apparently his Jeep wasn’t on the manifest for the ship he was to sail on, and he wouldn’t be allowed aboard with an extra Jeep. Not wanting to spend a moment more in Europe, he buried the Jeep in sand at the beach and claimed there never had been a Jeep. That’s some real Greatest Generation stuff right there.
Aboard the boat home, the first thing he did was chuck his sleeping bag overboard and vow never to use a sleeping bag again. When I need to beg off a camping trip, I can pretend to be in solidarity with my grandpa, and not that I am an indoorsy diva who doesn’t like sleeping outside and being dirty.
He wrote letters. On my thirty-third birthday in 2008, he sent me this card, with his characteristic tidy cursive and formal tone:
You’ve reached another plateau in a most interesting life. Your Grandma Hilda would be exceptionally proud of you.
We have had a most gratifying experience in partaking of your growth and maturation.
Our love and ability to accompany you throughout these formative years has been exceedingly gratifying.
This was my Grandpa Alan’s version of brimming with emotion, and it worked for me. My late grandma Hilda was the Jimi Hendrix of doting. My grandparents’ unconditional love became abruptly very conditional when my grandfather and I had the biggest fight he’d ever had with anyone, on the birth of his great-grandchildren, my twin daughters.
I nearly got disowned over my decision not to pass on the family name.
Before proceeding further, I should warn you that this is a very Jewish story. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it, or even a Matzah Queen, but it would help if you’re at least Jew-neutral. If you are a Jew-hater, there is a new post on Breitbart for you.
When my wife Naomi was pregnant in 2008, my grandpa wrote us a letter on Dr. Alan D. Green stationary, because he never got comfortable using his AOL email. He spent over fifty years as an OB/GYN, and liked that I married a Family Nurse Practitioner, but could not resist tendering clinical advice. The prenatal letter read:
It is not commonplace for a grandfather to address his grandchildren about oncoming great-grandchildren, especially of the twinning variety. My purpose is simply to voice my thoughts on this oncoming event.
First, Naomi, it is apparent I’m sure that your physical abilities and capabilities are being stretched to the utmost. Your muscles are pouring out lactic acid in great amounts, which add to fatigue and exhaustion.
The emotional factors have now altered your daily routines. It’s elevator like, up and down and each to a point of total harassment. Diet is an important role and I need not go into the proper portions of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Naomi and I don’t believe in God, but we believe in Durkheim, like most civilized people. Émile (to my surprise, not pronounced “Emily”) Durkheim was the late nineteenth century French sociologist who studied the role of ritual and sanction in defining the values of a community. Naomi and I appreciated the value of tradition, but felt no duty to maintain archaic rituals for their own sake, especially if they propped up patriarchy. We can make up our own ritual and sanction to define community thank you very much, and as such made three controversial choices during pregnancy.
Controversy #1: After my wife got pregnant with twins, we didn’t want to find out the gender. People asked, “Nato, what are you having?” People expect one of only two socially permissible answers to that question.
“Jews, or I’ll be pissed.”
“No, silly. What gender of baby are you having?”
“I’m from San Francisco. They get to pick. No gender until college.”
But really, we wanted to “be surprised,” as they say. It’s never all that much of a surprise. We knew they’d be Jews and the gender thing had fifty-fifty odds of either answer so “surprise” isn’t really part of the equation. Surprising would be if the OB/GYN declared, “It’s a dark horse upset—an asexually-reproducing hammerhead shark!” I like to imagine my babies gestating inside of Schrödinger’s womb—simultaneously existing as every possible gender until the moment of birth decides one reality while creating parallel universes in which all other sexes occur.
Controversy #2: While we didn’t know the gender, we decided that if we had boys, we wouldn’t circumcise. We told people we thought it was barbaric and then braced for arguments.
One common argument for circumcision is that it is reassuring to a son for his penis to resemble his father’s. This does not withstand scrutiny. No one ever met a little boy and declared, “That young man has his mother’s eyes and his father’s penis.” Or vice versa.
In Judaism, circumcision is understood as a way to pass on the Covenant. A gift, from the mother to the son, to carry the Covenant between the Jewish people and God. As if Jewish men are mere covenant mules, tying covenants to our dicks. That was a fine way to transport a covenant across the desert in the Bronze Age, but if God needs to renew the Covenant with me, she can send my lawyer a Docusign just like everyone else.
Controversy #3: After not discovering the gender and sparing them circumcision, we resolved to give our still-hypothetical offspring my wife’s last name, which is Schoenfeld. Her father died when she was young so she wanted to keep his memory alive. This was a way to maintain a connection to him and the Schoenfeld family, who hold to this day that the Schoenfeld name evokes dignity, intellectualism, creativity, and other lofty words blah blah blah.
My name is fine, but my nuclear family isn’t pretentious about it. The Green name doesn’t evoke anything except a literal hue. No sooner did we decide our kids would be Schoenfelds, then we were confronted by our own convoluted feelings about assimilation. Schoenfeld is a more Jewish-sounding last name than Green. We initially wanted to give the children Jewish first names as well, but someone with a name like Zahavah Schoenfeld could never pass. Tamar Schoenfeld never has the option to pretend to be a regular white person whose family knows how to fix cars and eats casserole and doesn’t live in a house that’s all bookshelves.
I had flashbacks to my childhood when, on camping trips, I was not allowed to wear t-shirts sent as gifts from family members in Israel for fear that people in the woods of California would pogrom us. A voice in my head said, “Don’t be too Jewy.” My family’s Midwestern exercise in postwar upward mobility and suburbanization meant remaining in a segregated Jewish world while trying not to perform Jewishness in a way that might attract attention from the goyim.
Naomi and I wanted to buck the archaic patriarchal tradition of assuming that children automatically get their father’s last name. Making the kids Schoenfelds wasn’t a hard choice for us. In a relationship, if you both have strong opinions about something then you negotiate. But if only one of you feels strongly, the person who wants the thing wins. I don’t need to invent opinions about barstools (actual recent example)or lineages, to create leverage for negotiation. Curtains and surnames can be her choice. I’ll play hardball about the serious stuff—light fixtures.
There are some benefits of patriarchy that it hurts to surrender. I try to have a less gendered division of household labor because it is the right thing to do, and could try harder, but nobody likes doing dishes. On the other hand, when my wife proposed that we give the children her last name, I searched my heart and could not find the faintest flutter of attachment to tradition. We have neither Green family tartan nor Green lands to bequeath, and no alliances among the great houses of Westeros to forge; the default patrilineality of naming struck me as a dopey artifact best left in the pages of fantasy.
We went to the hospital for an induced delivery. After three days Naomi was fully dilated. I interrupted the delivery staff’s singular focus on Naomi’s pushing to brew coffee and pass around a charcuterie platter. A doula had advised us to play music that would create positive feelings during delivery. We put on “Take Some, Leave Some” by James Brown from The Big Payback. The children came out, and we were informed by medical personnel that they had vaginas. One apiece.
Then, a bit delirious from not sleeping for days, I went to a coffee shop and, like a new father, emailed everybody. Unlike all new fathers, I used the subject line, “Introducing Lamoisha and Hezbollah Schoenfeld.” Those are not their names, but I thought it would be funny. I was sleepy.
Apparently many people have negative associations with the name Hezbollah, because it is associated with violence and war. If you can set aside the mental image of bombings, I chose “Hezbollah” for the joke because it really does have a lovely mellifluous ring to it as a name, Lebanese militant group aside. And I wrote “Lamoisha” to suggest a feminine form of the venerable Yiddish name Moishe, and because it sounded silly.
It was upon receipt of this email, delivered to his AOL inbox, that my grandfather learned his first great-granddaughters were not Greens. He learned they were Schoenfelds, and he lost his fucking mind. Not seeing the family name carried on was the most upset anyone had seen him in eighty years. It was worse than the Holocaust. He had once described Buchenwald as “messy.” In the hierarchy of horrible events that ever happened in his life, number one was when my grandma Hilda died. Number two, his great-granddaughters not being Greens, and then a distant number three, the Holocaust. That was his ranking of the worst things. We tried to talk him down but he wrote a letter instead.
The letter he wrote after the twins were born and named Schoenfeld was similar in style to his other letters. This is what he wrote, with my commentary in response, some of which was delivered to him over the phone at the time.
It is with heavy heart and mind that I write to you. The naming of your children is definitely your decision, but there should be some recognition of family in the sense of fraternal ties.
“Grandpa, I live in San Francisco. My kids will not be the freakiest kids on the block. They’re my kids, so they won’t be the least freaky either. Naomi and I both have cousins who are dutifully following the traditions and that life looks like a joyless prison, and as you know, a joyless prison is even worse than regular prison.”
It doesn’t seem plausible that your lovely girls will marry and carry their maiden names if their husbands to be do not agree. Thus, your theory holds little of any validity.
“Oh it’s plausible. Even according to this weird logic, if we followed your rules, then the family name would be carried on for only another twenty-five more years until I sold them to their husband, right? Why do you care about that? As new parents of twins, we’re barely managing showering and sleeping for more than three hours a day. We’re not in a position to contemplate the logistics of a hypothetical heteronormative marriage decades hence.”
As the twins become more mature, they’ll be constantly frustrated to keep explaining to everyone, “Yes, my father is Nato Green.”
In the decade since he sent this letter, it hasn’t happened once. Not once.
Rituals and morals, as we know it, considers the father’s name the family name. My thoughts have been bewildered, angry in rage. I certainly can’t come to California and ask for the Green family.
“Grandpa, I would hope that we’re on a first name basis by this point.”
Nobody would ever have predicted that he’d allow anything under the sun to cloud adoring his great-grandchildren. While I perfected my swaddling technique and ate standing up, I kept hoping someone would talk sense into him. We floated a trial balloon concept of hyphenating it Green-Schoenfeld. He wrote back:
Green-Schoenfeld is an oxymoron. It is correctly Schoenfeld-Green.
Here, he advanced an argument about sexist tradition but also free-styled rather a bit. There is indeed a tradition that the father’s name is passed on, but not that in a hyphenate, the father’s name comes last. If we were Cuban, the formal last name would be Green Schoenfeld, but expressed as Green. Tragically for my abuelo, no one in our family is Cuban. My grandpa simply proclaimed, “Schoenfeld-Green is better than Green-Schoenfeld.” Which is not in the Ashkenazi sexist handbook.
Naomi’s eyes rolled so hard they affected the tides.
If this destroys your train of thought and decision, so be it. Your selection of a name destroys my sense of propriety and ability to enjoy a family. May your children live with good health and happiness. My love for you is everlasting.
He declared that I’d been castrated. He was very upset.
The argument raged on for a month. No matter what happened after, he was diminished for me. Naomi never quite forgave him. The threat was conveyed to me via my father that if I didn’t reconsider, I would be out of his will. I wasn’t going to negotiate with terrorists over money, but was worried about him not knowing his first great-grandchildren. After a lifetime of affection, for it to evaporate over something so superficial scared me. It meant maybe none of it was real.
In making the decision to give the kids my wife’s last name, I was not initially taking a bold feminist stand, although my wife was. I wish I had been. In my head, I wasn’t standing on principle, merely supporting my specific partner’s link to her specific heritage. It felt easy. His fury would have made sense if I had taken a bold principled stand and prepared for a backlash. But it didn’t become a matter of principle for me until he got angry. It seems almost more subversive that it wasn’t a principled stand. In that regard (and, I hasten to add, that regard only, maybe) we were already living free of patriarchy. As a middle-class, cishet white guy, I’m familiar with the sting of giving up privilege, but this wasn’t it. It felt like a decision with the level of intensity as when discussing where to go on vacation, which is not intense at all.
Faced with an onslaught of irrational sexism, I clearly wouldn’t capitulate. We might have been persuaded by some argument other than Depression Era-patriarchy, but seeing none, we wouldn’t yield. Naomi said to me, “We made a decision. Fuck it. It’s your problem. What are you going to do?”
I tried to understand why my grandfather got so unhinged. His generation never had therapy, so he could only consider the question as one of absolute right and wrong. He never had insight into himself, so I had to piece it together on my own. My grandfather was a child of immigrants, grew up in a working-class family in Chicago, speaking Yiddish in the house. He worked his way through high school and college and medical school and World War II. Through his labor and his labor alone, he pulled his family into the middle class for three generations. A gift I am currently squandering as a comedian.
He was an OB/GYN in Chicago. He started the first birthing center at Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago and is of that old school who thinks modern medicine is soft. He was from the generation who can touch a pregnant woman’s belly and say, accurately, “Your baby is facing the wrong way. I don’t need an ultrasound.”
I’d talk to him about medicine and he’d say, “If you’re having trouble conceiving, I would recommend scotch.” Or “Oh, you’re worried about premature delivery? Vodka.”
He had worked hard enough and he made enough money that he knew rich people but wasn’t rich himself. He’d reached a sufficiently elevated class to get around enough rich people to study obsessively how to fit in. He didn’t have especially good taste in food, but all he wanted in life was to walk into a fancy restaurant and be greeted with a warm, “Dr. Green, let me show you your table.” Our assault on his identity upset everything he’d worked for.
We had a decision before us. We could change the name and end it, but that would mean succumbing to the stupid argument. Someone suggested that we could change the name and change it back after he died. He was ninety-five; how much longer would he live?
We could keep fighting about it. There are times I cherish a protracted conflict, but this wasn’t one of them. When I was a kid, I insisted on playing Beastie Boys cassettes in his Audi (license plate “IXMNU,” because he was a doctor, get it?) and he let me. As a kid, I insisted that we not dine at restaurants with intimate lighting so I could read during meals. I was an ostentatiously rebellious teenager, sporting long hair, a fedora, a denim jacket with Motorhead patches, and a rubber elephant nose. No one understood me. But I’m an adult now, with nothing to prove. After a lifetime of being accepted by him, he deserved one chance to be an asshole. I didn’t need to win this fight with him. It was more important to me to maintain my relationship with him and let him have a relationship with his great-granddaughters than to be right.
I wasn’t going to back down, but I wasn’t going to try to win, so I lied. Having seen him so angry and judgmental, ready to burn it all down over pride, was a bell that could not be unrung. As a body will heal partially around a broken bone, so we figured out how to resume a family life with him that mostly ignored this knot, but a wrong twist might send shooting pains as a reminder.
We told him that we hyphenated the name even though we hadn’t. We created a fake business account for the kids to be able to deposit checks made out to the other name. I realize that’s a bit on the nose for a Jew: to plan for the financial transactions, to include it in the story, and to use the phrase “on the nose.”
He adored his great-granddaughters. They were loving and tender to him. When we visited him, we’d tell the kids, “Okay girls, this weekend and only for this weekend, if anyone asks you what your last name is, tell them it’s Green.”
Then one year at Thanksgiving, when the twins were about three, we were sitting around the table with the entire family and his second wife tried to start some shit. She was forever making outlandish provocations, like the time she asked my grandpa in all seriousness if “the New Testament was out yet when we were kids.” Another time she attempted to convince the school district of her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois to give every high school student a dictionary so that teenagers “could learn the meaning of RESPECT.”
Wife #2 asked my kids, “Hey, what’s your last name?” All twenty-five people froze, dropping Brussels sprouts and rushing in from the other room. My daughter slowly said, “Green?” Naomi and I hit a tiny high-five under the Thanksgiving table.
We taught the children to lie to hold the family together.
As I write this in 2018, my kids are ten. My grandpa died in 2015, in his Highland Park, Illinois condo, surrounded by his Eames chairs and signed Miró lithographs. He drank Johnnie Walker every afternoon until the penultimate week of his life. It’s how one would want to go, and, at one hundred and two, his death was sad but not tragic.
After he died, I discovered that my grandfather, who I had only known as Alan Green, was in fact born Abraham Green. I also learned that he had been an accomplished classical violinist as a teenager, playing in a quartet on the radio. He discarded both the name Abraham and the violin when he left high school without a second look back, apparently worried that those signifiers of his Jewishness would slow his ascent in a hostile gentile world. That’s how I learned where the voice warning me when I got “too Jewy” came from.
We both made choices about our names, choices that were separated by almost eighty years. He gave up his name and his instrument to forge his path into the middle class. He remained convinced his entire life that Jews should be doctors and lawyers and the like as a matter of security. He thought a Jew who worked for a goy would always be precarious. He built a public persona as a classy, dignified doctor—instead of a loud, obnoxious, Yiddish-speaking immigrant.
Let’s take a moment to savor the delicious bittersweet irony of an obstetrician who delivered 10,419 babies flying into a rage over a woman’s choice about motherhood.
He may have been right that his choices were necessary for his family’s survival in the early 1930s. To me, he wasn’t fooling anybody. His assimilation was lox-thin. The Jewish doctor with Jewish patients living in the Jewish neighborhood in Chicago who moved to a Jewish suburb who only had Jewish friends and joined a Jewish country club but drove a German car (Mercedes, natch). No one would ever find out his secret!
But I didn’t see Buchenwald. Let’s say he was right that giving up his name and building up his suburban doctor identity was necessary. Then it wasn’t much of a choice. Our choice about naming our children was the opposite. It wasn’t based on fear but on freedom. We could buck patriarchal traditions knowing we would face no adversity for it. Maybe he reacted to our choice with such ferocity because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that he’d already won the war. Or because it reminded him how arduous his journey had been. As a father, I can easily imagine all the things my children might do in the world that would definitely get them murdered immediately. If they did those things as casually as I order lunch (very), I too would freak out.
I can happily report that nothing he feared came to pass. No one has been confused about my children’s names or whether I’m their father. No one has thought we were weird, at least not for our naming choices. Our innovation in last names is universally recognized as consistent with our other dissident values. While women not taking their husband’s name is common in our circles, passing on the mother’s name instead of the father’s without hyphenation remains rare. On the rare occasion we run into someone else who has done it, we head-nod in quiet solidarity.
Last year, we told the kids how Zayde Alan went berserk when they were born because we gave them their mother’s last name. They decided that they prefer being Schoenfelds. They think Green sounds dumb, and I agree.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.