WHAT’S IN A NAME?

People often ask me how I pronounce my name: Perl•stine (long “i”) or Perl•steen (long “e”). The latter is accurate. I appreciate the inquiries. Most people try to get others’ names right as a mark of respect. Some self-important people don’t.

As it happens, my family name was probably pronounced Per•el•shtine when in 1906 my grandparents landed at Ellis Island from Warsaw with three young children, including 2-1/2-year-old Moishe Chaim (my father). Moishe became Morris, and everyone else took an Americanized first names. Still, the family’s naturalization certificate (1914) displays the name Perelstein. Shortly after, the second “e” disappeared.

We value our names. The Torah relates that people sought to build a tower to the heavens (the Tower of Babel) to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11). In Genesis 12:2, God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.”

Shakespeare throws this tenet a curve. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She’s a Capulet and loves a Montague—the name alone sufficient to earn her family’s displeasure. Call Romeo “a Montague,” and you label him a monster.

As kids, we defended ourselves from schoolyard bullies who mangled our names or hurled epithets with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names (or words) will never harm me.” This lesson seems lost on our Schoolyard Bully-in-Chief.

At a recent political rally in Iowa, Donald Trump errantly referred to California’s Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein as Fein•steen. It’s Finestine(long “I” in both syllables). Am I quibbling? I think not. Senator Feinstein has become the latest object of Trump rallies’ chants of “Lock her up.” Because she opposed Trump in the matter of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Trump sought a way to lash out. What better way for a 12-year-old to advance political discourse than to mispronounce the name of an opponent.

Also, to “dog whistle” a key message to his supporters. I suspect Trump well knows how Senator Feinstein pronounces her name but wanted to remind his supporters that the Senator is—gasp—Jewish. The real pronunciation might mislead them into thinking her background (and that of her second husband whose name stayed with her) German.

As it happens, Trump’s paternal grandfather Americanized his name from Drumpf. Nothing wrong with that. But Senator Feinstein had to be called out since a significant segment of the far-right exudes anti-Semitism, including those who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia last year chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Ah, you say, the President’s daughter Ivanka is Jewish. She converted to marry Jared Kushner. Good luck. When Trump stated re Charlottesville that there were good people on bothsides, he threw Ivanka and Jared under the bus. Unless he numbers these particular Jews among “the good ones” who toe the Republican line enumerated by Christian conservatives and white supremacists (they sometimes overlap) lamenting white people’s loss of their “rights”—a euphemism for monopolistic political, economic and social power.

Yes, sometimes people address me as Perl•stine. I correct them. They appreciate it. They understand the integrity names because they hold others in regard. Such esteem was offered a few years back in the Oval Office. I hope it will be again—soon.

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10 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Oct 19, 2018

    You’ll always be a PerlSTYNE to me. It’s that four years of German I learned…Shabbat shalom.


    • David
      Oct 19, 2018

      Then, Tracy, there’s that group of people…


  2. Jerry Robinson
    Oct 19, 2018

    My father’s Moishe became Moe. I sure agree about Diane.


    • David
      Oct 19, 2018

      Jerry, it’s hard to believe that the president, with his huge brain and genius, would get Feinstein’s name wrong.

  3. Then there was my first visit to teach in Alaska in the 1990’s when the hotel receptionist thought my name was: Pearl Stein. And, yes, I had registered as Carolyn Perlstein. Even so, to him, I was Pearl Stein. The look on his face was one of complete confusion. This was definitely a case of lost in translation.


    • David
      Oct 19, 2018

      Not everyone is familiar with Jewish names. Alas, some who are use them as verbal cudgels.


  4. Ira
    Oct 20, 2018

    You should have a talk with Siri who responds with long eeeeee. Responding from Tuscany. Enjoy Torah study.
    Ira


    • David
      Oct 20, 2018

      Ira: Siri calls us Perl•stine. No AI—Can’t learn. I call her… names. Enjoy!


  5. Nancy Sheftel-Gomes
    Oct 21, 2018

    For many poor men all they have to give their children is a good name.
    Many an older person has recounted than they were told not to sully their name.
    Its disrespectful for people to not take the time to listen and learn to pronounce
    the other person’s name correctly.
    The most common response when I say my name
    (Even before the hyphen) is ‘what’!
    Puts one in their place.
    It’s more than a micro aggression.


    • David
      Oct 21, 2018

      No question, Nancy, our names are important if sometimes they confuse some people. Donald Trump was not accused, and mispronouncing Senator Feinstein’s name was way bigger than a micro aggression.

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