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A Closer Look at Weiner: Ruminating on Irksome Jewish Names

Changing one's family name has often been an enormously useful device for those attempting to assimilate into other cultures. Take the 1933 case of Warsaw dry goods merchant, Moyshe Hitler.
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"Disgusted Democrats Letting Weiner Shrivel," "Weiner's Rise and Fall," "Obama Beats Weiner." It's fair to say that the Anthony Weiner fiasco has been headline gold for the New York Post and other city tabloids. It thus stands to reason that the story got a great deal more traction than it would have if the erstwhile congressman's last name hadn't been a juvenile euphemism for a penis.

A story of transposed e's and i's, the reality is that "Weiner" is a mispronunciation and/or misspelling of "Wiener," which means "from Vienna," and can refer to a person or a small sausage. "Weiner," on the other hand, (pronounced like "diner") refers to someone involved in the wine industry. How Anthony Weiner's family came to mispronounce or misspell the name isn't known, but it hasn't served him well.

Historically, for Jews or others with names that haven't worked well in new environments (the recent account of a nun named Schmuck is a case in point), changing one's family name has often been an enormously useful device for those attempting to assimilate into other cultures. For many Jewish immigrants and their kin, changing one's name was often considered one of the trade-offs one made to become naturalized in their new environments.

There were, of course, Jews who chose to rebuff the embrace of other cultures and held steadfastly onto their names. In the early 19th century, the great progenitor of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, Rabbi Moses Sofer, warned his followers not to change their Jewish names, their Jewish language or their Jewish clothing styles. A decree against innovation and modernity based on a midrash that explains how the ancient Hebrews managed to survive Pharaonic captivity, it is one of the reasons why contemporary Hasidim are linguistically and sartorially suspended in 19th century Poland.

But the vast majority of Jews had no interest in this dictum: after all, part of becoming modern not only required ditching Yiddish for the local jargon, but dressing like everyone else as well. It meant trying to fit in, a matter that might involve degrees of variation. One of those variables included Jewish last names.

A person's name, after all, serves as their public face when they aren't around. If one didn't want a particularly ethnic moniker, it could be changed with relative ease. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that American legal statistics bear out the fact that Jews were much more active name changers than other ethnics, in spite of a far greater societal acceptance in the U.S. than elsewhere.

But despite America's embrace of the Jews, the stigma of having an odd-sounding, ethnic name, either in business or in social situations, could be worrisome for those shackled with blatantly Jewish names. Even after World War II, white-shoe firms still didn't want ethnic names marring their rosters, so a change from Cohen to Conn, from Levy to Lewis, or from Rosenzweig to Ross might have been a prudent move.

In other cases, some European Jewish names occasionally have secondary meanings in other languages, not unlike our Weiner. A variety of examples exist. Consider, for example, the Israeli entertainment reporter, Guy Penis (spelled "Pines," but pronounced pee-nes). Or Rabbi Dick Hertz, who helmed the pulpit of a major Reform Temple in Detroit until not too long ago. What of Hadassah member Anita Wiener? One may also recall the poor kid at summer camp named Jeff Hyman, who never managed to outrun the nickname, "Buster."

These Jewish variants of the "Mike Hunt Dilemma" all point to the question, what do you do when you realize your family name has become offensive?

Up for consideration is the 1933 case of Warsaw dry goods merchant, Moyshe Hitler. Since the rise to power of a much better known Hitler in a nearby country, the city's two major Yiddish dailies reported that Moyshe had been taking a social and financial beating. It wasn't enough that this bearded, peyes-wearing, kittel-clad Hasid bore no relation whatsoever to the excitable fascist dictator: he was still bitterly mocked by friends and acquaintances. What had previously been a somewhat uncommon last name was now all over the papers, associated with the most virulent form of Jew hatred.

What's more, Adolf Hitler's family name wasn't even Hitler to begin with. It had been changed from Schickelgruber, stealing and sullying the previously benign Hitler name forever -- just as he had done with the swastika, originally an Indian symbol for harmony.

But what was Moyshe Hitler to do? He petitioned the Warsaw Crown Court to change his name from the nefarious "Hitler," to the less menacing, "Hiller." But it wasn't that simple. The court, after all, didn't just agree to name changes willy-nilly. They needed a sound basis to allow Mr. Hitler to make the change.

Presenting his case before the court, Hitler argued that his family suffered great unhappiness on account of this accursed last name. The daily Moment reported in June of 1933 that his poor little boy, Noteh, came home every day from school crying his eyes out. Why? His schoolmates had instituted a boycott against him, took turns beating him up and, worst of all, just before classes began, they would all shout at him in unison, "Down with Hitler."

Moment also reported that Hitler's elder son, Itzik, also had problems with the name. Having recently been engaged to a well-off girl by the name of Gitl Weintsvang, the 24-year-old Hitler boy was unceremoniously informed that his fiancee planned to break off the engagement if the name-change didn't go through. The mere possibility of becoming "Gitl Hitler," was apparently unappealing enough to dump her groom-to-be.

Throwing himself at the mercy of the court, Moyshe Hitler was desperate. Worst of all, his name had become bad for business. Nobody in Warsaw wanted to buy dry goods from a guy named Hitler, whether he had peyes or not. His livelihood was being severely affected.

Although all the major Yiddish dailies in Warsaw reported on the name change petition, none of them reported the resolution. Considering the disinterest on the part of the Yiddish press in happy endings (this is, after all, a press that had a daily column during the late 1930s called "Tragedies and Disasters"), the result was that Moyshe Hitler got his wish and ended up as Moyshe Hiller, thereby saving his business, his elder son's engagement and his younger son's ass.

The name change served the family formerly known as the Hitlers well. They were free to go about their lives unmolested by what had become a terribly offensive last name.

Not so for Anthony Weiner. He'll always be remembered as the one who couldn't stick it out to the end of his term.