I Was Desperate To Change My Last Name – Until I Got Married

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changing name marriageThe teasing began, inevitably, as soon as I started school. “Himel-fart!” was the most obvious and the most common nickname. Even “Smellen Himelfart!” I’d be followed by boys making loud spitting noises or assaulted with hands squeezed in armpits. Other kids got tagged with ugly handles, of course, but none of their names were one letter away from a putrid rear emission. Himelfarb provided great material for schoolyard comics.

Just as frustrating, though, were the mispronunciations and misspellings I faced all my young life: Hymelfarb, Himmelfork, Himbelfark. Despite growing up in a neighborhood where two-thirds of the families were first-generation Canadian, I felt like I was being singled out as different. I couldn’t understand why my father would answer the phone with a jolly “Himelfarb here!” Was he… proud of it? Where was his vanity?

Most girls spend a good chunk of their childhood wishing to be prettier, have “normal” parents, or pin-straight hair. And sure, I wanted those plenty. But even more, I wanted a prettier name. Any way you parse it, Himelfarb is just not pretty. I would have given anything to be a Smith or a Jones – even, being the nice Jewish girl I am, a Schwartz.

Naturally, I longed for the day I would one day be married. In high school, any boy who deigned to go out with me was instantly memorialized in ink on the inside cover of my class binder. I’d fantasize about taking his highly pronounceable name as my own. My desperation must have showed, because none of them stayed with me long. By the time I graduated from university I was still single and still, alas, a Himelfarb.

But then something unexpected happened: I grew up. I started working, using my given name professionally and seeing it there, naked, in print. And… nothing. No snickering from my colleagues, no name-calling – at least not that I knew of. The work kept coming and so did the men, until one finally bit.

After my marriage, I kept my maiden name. At first it was out of inertia; there just seemed to be too many other things to attend to without having to also gather up all those documents and sit for hours in a charmless government building. But when I thought harder about it, I realized I would never change it, no matter how much time I had on my hands. Not only were my feminist leanings influencing my choice, and not just the risk of becoming an unknown after years of having my name out there. Mostly it was my Himelfarb-ness. “I am Himelfarb,” I’d think whenever the subject came up with my less-than-thrilled new husband. “Hear me roar.”

Some women feel protective about their surnames, uncommon names that might not survive their generation without some unconventional help. That wasn’t me; there were plenty of young Himelfarbs out there to carry on the family name. No, what I was being protective of was my father, his peculiar pride in this peculiar European name.

Have people snickered behind my back? Perhaps. Perhaps my resumé has been tossed in the bin by some editor seeking a more glamorous sort. I’ve come to terms with all that. And so has my husband. He’s now taken to addressing me as, “Hey, Himelfarb.” And I always answer: “That’s me!”

(Photo: Nataliia Natykach/Shutterstock)