Navigating Identity: The Complex Story of Jewish Name Changes in 20th Century America

This blog post serves as a summarization of the thought-provoking presentation by IFFP member Stanley Drake. The original video, available on YouTube, captures a deep dive into the complexities of Jewish name changes in 20th-century America. In this insightful conversation, Stanley Drake explores the motivations, challenges, and societal dynamics that led many Jewish individuals and families to consider altering their names. To watch the full presentation and immerse yourself in the spoken narrative, you can access the video below.

As Shakespeare wisely mused, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But our journey through the annals of Jewish name changes in America reveals a different truth. Names, it turns out, are not mere labels; they are intricate threads connecting us to family, status, community, and culture.


In the mid-20th century, a peculiar phenomenon unfolded among Jewish families in the United States—the changing of surnames. While the prevailing belief held that Ellis Island officials assigned more palatable names to immigrants, my exploration uncovers a deeper reality. The collective amnesia shrouding the truth of these name changes is a testament to the nuanced decisions made by Jewish families like mine.

Our names aren’t just strings of letters; they are reflections of our past, identities, and roots. Consider the history of my partner Brad Boekeloo’s family name. The proud Boekeloo family, rooted in Dutch heritage, celebrates their lineage with pride and a road named “Boekeloo Road” in Lake Michigan. On the flip side, my family’s journey with our surname “Drachenberg” changed to “Drake,” revealed a different narrative—a tale of concealing identity for the sake of success in a society not always welcoming.


To truly grasp the impetus behind these name changes, we must journey through the historical landscape of Jewish life in the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s. As nearly three million Jews entered the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, they faced rising antisemitism fueled by fears of racial purity and discriminatory practices. The institutionalization of discrimination in employment, education, and housing forced strategic decisions, including altering one’s name, to navigate this challenging terrain.


The 1920s and 1930s were fraught with antisemitic sentiments, with discriminatory practices limiting opportunities for Jewish Americans. The impact extended to education, employment, and even military service. Jews faced not only explicit bias but also subtle, insidious discrimination—gentlemen’s agreements, unofficial mechanisms, and prejudiced application forms that aimed to segregate Jews in social and economic life.

In the face of discrimination, the Jewish community mobilized. Initiatives like the Bureau of War Records aimed to combat stereotypes about Jewish participation in World War II. Organizations like the American Jewish War Veterans established the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in 1951, countering accusations of Jewish disloyalty.

On an individual level, the decision to change names was both strategic and controversial within the Jewish community. Families often altered their surnames collectively, choosing names that retained a connection to their original identity. Yet, this act was not without internal and external criticism. Name changers faced accusations of betrayal, leading to debates within the community about the implications of such decisions.

The phenomenon of Jewish name changing became a subject of fascination in popular culture, influencing literature, films, and even jokes. The 1947 film “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” addressing hidden antisemitism, won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Such portrayals reflected the societal attitudes and challenges faced by those navigating a multicultural landscape.

As we traverse the evolving landscape of Jewish name changes, we gain insight into the struggles, compromises, and triumphs of our predecessors. The oppressive antisemitism of the mid-20th century gradually waned, thanks to the activism of various minority groups, leading to legislative changes and altered societal attitudes. The stories of those who navigated these challenges, like my family, reflect the multi-dimensional weight names carried throughout history.

Our names, often considered private labels, carry profound social, economic, cultural, and political significance. The historical journey of name changes in the Jewish community offers a window into the intricate interplay between the state and elements such as race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Names, it appears, are not merely linguistic tags but gateways into the personal and public dimensions of our lives.



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