What’s in a Name?

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.

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9 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Co-author (of many) says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
    Last line made me well up.
    Welcome home!

  2. Judah says:

    “Many Jews in the German states and in central Europe, took on board Moses Mendelsohn’s advice to be a Jew indoors….”

    Though I’m sure it was not Nachum’s intent to so do, Mendelsohn is often wrongly accredited with being an assimilationist, the founding father of Reform Judaism or worse. This is more to do with the latter movements speaking in his name than his actual beliefs of practises.

    In fact Mendlesohn remained a strictly Orthodox Jew all his life and their is a famous letter, written when he quite old, in which he explained to a Gentile friend not to be shocked at his being unshaven, because it was the time of the counting of the Omer.

    If names are our subject then neither was Mendlesohn the first good Jew whose name was tarnished because of his followers’ behavior nor the last. Jesus, on the one hand and the Rebbe on the other are well known examples.

    I welcome Nachum to the blog and thank him for his beautiful virgin posting. I know he hesitated a lot before writing, but now he’s out there I’m sure he’ll be putting it about regularly. I certainly recall that was the case the previous time.

  3. Nick says:

    I am indebted to co-author’s kind words, and I accept Judah’s warm welcome to the blog in the vein of friendship with which it was made.

    I also thank him for his clarification about Moses Mendelsohn, whom he puts on the same pedestal as the Rebbe and Jesus Christ. It is not the first time he has mentioned the latter two in the same breath – probably for shock appeal as much as conviction.

    In addition, I should point out to Judah that this is not my virgin posting. My first posting received one comment by a gentleman who just asked for your email address. I have already doubled my last score – and this comment marks a 300% increase – and for that, and for other things in my life, I am a contented man.

  4. Desmond says:


  5. Judah says:

    How fascinating the subject of names is. The author of this excellent posting concludes it with the stirring:

    “I have come home, and my name is Nachum Yosef.”

    But then publishes his first comment as just plain old “Nick”.

    Still on names, I would jog Nick/Nachum’s memory as to the fact that Christ was not Jesus’ family name but is derived from the Greek word for anointed one. Christ is regularly translated into English as Messiah.

    Clearly, he was never called Jesus throughout his lifetime, unquestionably not by his mates, more likely Yehoshua or Josh by his really close friends. I chose to call him Jesus all the same, to avoid confusion with his many namesakes. I drew the proverbial line, however, at calling him Christ – I do not see him as being my Messiah, and thus whether or not someone poured oil over his head becomes immaterial.

    Incidentally, lest any Christians be offended, neither do I call Muhammad by any of his wonderfully imaginative appellations such as; prophet, messenger, ‘abd (servant of God), bashir (announcer), nathir (warner), midhakkir (reminder), shahid (witness) mubashshir (bearer of good tidings), one who calls etc. Not bad for a bloke who started off his professional life as a camel taxi driver.

    Therefore, to me and until proven otherwise Jesus will stay Jesus and Muhammad just plain Muhammad. Regarding Nachum, however, the jury is still out and who better than the man himself to decide. If he is looking for an Arabic appellation, might I recommend:

    كاتب مثيرة للاهتمام ونشر جيدة جدا لاعب الشطرنج.

    Quite literally:

    “Writer of interesting postings and a very good chess player.”

  6. Silke says:

    that wonderful lecturer on art history who visited my city for years every winter insisted that in his time Jesus had many competitors, which raises the interesting question why he succeeded and the others are known, if at all, only to specialists. I don’t think we were told much about him as the Messias. We were told that he was God’s son and other than that they more often than not dwelt on that driving the nails through his hands and feets. It must have given them some kind of a kick.

    The real Nicholas is the protecting patron of all seafarers and a definite improvement over Poseidon. On “my” island, full of seafaring folk, his birthday was a much more cherished holiday than Xmas especially since when dealing with the sea a bit of superstition maybe a bit of extra insurance.

  7. Nick K says:

    In biblical times, when prophets wondered around making vague or cryptic prophecies that were seldom specific, Prophet Nachum was not a heavy hitter. He was a lightweight at best and is only regarded as one of the minor prophets.

    Although his family was rightly very proud of him, if the truth be told, he was lucky to be recognized as a prophet at all. He must have been eternally grateful to the panel of judges who gave him the nod and gave the title.

    It is hard to assess the cut off point of admission and the qualification requirements to the esoteric world of prophets. If Nachum just squeezed in, then who were the next in line and why did they fall short?

    How many dejected wannerbies were going around shaking their heads in disappointment uttering “If only – if only.”

    Perhaps Judah, who has surprised the multitude of readers on this excellent blog with his mnemonic recall of Arabic appellations, can explain the difference between predictions and prophecies. Probably divine intervention has got something to do with it

    I think that when bluffing your way through prophecies you got to keep it vague, have it thinly peppered with a poetic array of simile and metaphor – and you got yourself a prophecy: “Sometime in the distant, or not so distant future, something terrible is going to happen……”

    And chariots – you got to mention chariots – A doomsday Armageddon with plenty of chariots -.

    Nachum’s prophesies focused on the destruction of Ninveh, a subject in which he specialized. So he scored well on the apocalyptic but failed miserably with the chariots.

    Nachum was to prophets what Ann Elk was to theorists.

    “Hmm I have a prophecy” he would say as he cleared his throat, “I have another prophecy.”

    Whilst both the names, Daniel and Judah, stand tall in their association with the king of the beasts, the Lion; the mention of Nachum in Israel is disparagingly met with taunts of “Jack in the Box” or what they mockingly call “Nachum Takum.”

    I am no Jack in the Box – I am a human being.

  8. Co-author (of many) says:

    Nick Nahun (yes you’re not a Jack in the Box I’m sure),

    If you check the blog stats you will see your recent piece has an impressive amount of hits.

    This is particulaly impressive given that the other author and myself are quite ignorant at “increasing our web presence”. Have you managed to increase it?

    We may need to employ the services of you-know-who if we don’t start increasing our web presence soon. He reckons he knows a thing or two about it (although I think he is not a good “lead by example” case which is a tad worrying)

  9. Silke says:

    if you find life boring without little wannabe Voldemort I recommend this site https://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dgxshts6_38cng4kth4&hl=en
    a place highly recommended over and over by you-know-who and his buddies and I seem to remember that he comments there on and off – Maybe if you come up with some cleverly veiled monikers they let you stay for a while.

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