What’s in a Name?
Russian army cadet Grandfather Nathan and Grandmother Polly - circa 1900
Grandfather Nathan, his young wife Polly, and the first two of their eventual ten children, landed on the shores of England at the turn of the last-but-one century. I believe that Nathan or Eli-Nachum as he was sometimes called, was actually a deserter from the Russian army. A deserter is usually a dishonorable title, and the inglorious bearer is viewed with disdain. But twenty-five years of compulsory service for young Jewish conscripts who were drafted at the age of just twelve, was reason enough for Nathan to uproot his family from their shtetl of Dobrinka in the Ukraine, and seek their fortunes on distant greener pastures.
Nathan, whom sadly I never knew but after whom I was named, confidently disembarked the ship, and though fluent in Russian and Yiddish, his smattering of unintelligible English failed to get him understood by the immigration official who was processing the newcomers.
Some may jest that the said official was anti-Semitic. Jackie Mason for one, regularly hurls such accusations. I believe that the official was guilty of nothing more than an inability to speak Russian or Yiddish. But you never know?
For the aspiring and ambitious Nathan Kopalovich, his name was probably far too Jewish for his liking. Jews would customarily tweak their surnames to adopt a more goyshe indigenous version to avoid detection as to their Jewish roots. The more devout would employ a physical hands-on method. They would curl their long overgrown sideburns around their ears to try to look inconspicuous in their thick 14th century black woolen garb.
Nathan had probably heard of the Isaacson who reinvented himself as Saxon and was aware, that in our extended family, Hirsch had done a good job assimilating as Hurst, and Cohen drew little attention as Conway.
The tale is told of how upon arrival in the reception hall, Nathan Kopalovich decided that losing the Russian suffix would cleverly fool the natives. He chose to become Nathan Kopaloff – he thought they would never know. With such a poor grounding in basic international espionage skills, it is little wonder that Grandfather Nathan was never to become a spy.
Another and more plausible version, as recounted by Cousin Martin, is that Nathan had no idea whatsoever what was going on, and that it was the immigration official, who having trouble spelling Kopalovich, took the initiative and created Kopaloff.
Akin to their place of worship, Jews have always tried to blend in. Since the collapse of the Tower of Babel, your average synagogue has been anything but an imposing structure that kisses the skyline or a towering edifice that dwarfs the landscape. The Jewish house of prayer as a rule, is an unassuming building that doesn’t want to cause any trouble and does not suffer from delusions of grandeur, sacrilegiously attributed to soaring mosques and gargantuan churches and cathedrals.
Blending in was never more striking than in the period of emancipation and in the age of enlightenment in the 18th century.
Many Jews in the German states and in central Europe, took on board Moses Mendelsohn’s advice to be a Jew indoors, and a gentlemen outside, while all too many others embraced their newly-found freedom by going that extra mile and converting to Christianity.
From Heine, F. Mendelsohn, Mahler, Gans, Offenbach, Borne, Bendemann, the list is painful and endless.
In a die-hard effort to preserve their uniqueness, orthodox Jews and Charedim in particular, would deliberately try to stick out like a sore thumb. Their reactionary intransigence provided an excellent example as to the meaning of the untranslatable “Davka.”
In an eerie symbiotic relationship, religious continuity appears to need that which is dark and medieval, in order to ensure survival.
But to the multitudes of Jews who embraced emancipation, the root cause of centuries of oppression had been their Jewishness. Now with the shackles removed, the Jewishness was best concealed.
With the breaching of the walls of the ghettoes, names were tweaked, beards and sideburns were out, and modern dress and respectful demeanor were in. Assuming immaculate mannerisms and immersing oneself in the beauties of the liberating culture would overshadow the inadequacies of their lowly birth.
Emancipation was all about seizing the opportunity, blending in, making up for lost time and getting ahead.
Some never managed to lift the curse of their Jewishness. German Finance Minister Walter Rathanau would stretch his limbs daily for want of that elusive Aryan physique. This strange practice he continued until his assassination – after which he ceased to do it.
The philosopher Otto Weininger almost saw it as a crime to pass on his inferior Jewish genes and ended up dramatically committing suicide in the same house where Beethoven had died.
Jews everywhere would agree that almost all gentiles harbored some degree of revulsion towards Jews. Pinsker wrote that “Jew hatred is a phenomenon lying deep in human psychology.” In his blanket statement, he was probably not including the “Huaorani” tribe of the Ecuadorian rain forests, who had never even heard of a Jew. He was probably just mimicking the license of the Catholic Church who would have had the “Huaorani” committed to the fires of eternal hell for not accepting as their Messiah someone they had never even heard of. But back to the Jews.
Anti-Semitism was just a murky feature of how God in his infinite wisdom, had designed the world. Even leading literary figures like Dickens and Voltaire, were ostensibly anti-Semitic, they just did not hate the Jews any more than was necessary.
In their discourse and interactions with gentiles, Jews knew their place. That is why in Russia they were never fearful when dealing with Ivan the Terrible – they knew what to expect. Terrible by name, terrible by nature.
Emancipation fell short of making its mark in the vast Romanov empire. Far fewer Jews converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church while many became communists and revolutionaries. Some were attracted to the fledgling Zionist movement while many like Nathan Kopalovich just wanted out and took to the seas in search of a brighter future.
Nathan fathered ten children. My father was the youngest and he was given the name of Sidney in English, and Shlomo in Hebrew.
Sidney married my mother Franceska (Fruma), a wartime refugee and Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia.
For some obscure reason, they chose to name me Nicholas. It was not after Saint Nicholas aka Father Christmas, or after one of the two Jew-hating Tsar’s of Russia, or after Pope Nicholas who was the first to sanction hereditary pagan slavery. The name had a tasteless pedigree but was intended to honor me with a name, that like my Grandfather’s, began with the letter “N”.
Either way, it seems like an inappropriate name for a nice Jewish boy from England.
Each to his own, but the cycles of history have taught me that I personally cannot live a meaningful Jewish life, orthodox or otherwise, outside of Israel.
I have come home, and my name is Nachum Yosef.