November 23, 2018

My Name

My name is not the name I was born with. That name — Michael Jay Rosenblum — I always hated, and resolved at a young age to change.

I didn’t hate my first name; in fact I’ve always liked the name Michael; what I hated was my last name, Rosenblum. This was partly about my relationship with my father and partly about the fact that when people heard Rosenblum, they immediately thought “Jew.” It felt as though I was wearing a giant traffic light that flashed “Jew” every few seconds.

I had, I should say, a fraught relationship with Judaism. I particularly resented the fact that because my mother is Jewish that made me, by Jewish law, a Jew, though I had declared myself an atheist at seven-years-old and had left Hebrew school at eleven after a titanic battle with my father, which I won, finally, by threatening to throw the torah at him from the stage if he tried to force me to have a Bar Mitzvah.

Beyond my issues with Judaism, what I minded was being stuffed into a box with a label; in this case, a label that read “Jew.” I would have hated this whatever the label said, but the fact that the label read “Jew” made it that much worse. I wanted a name which had no corresponding box, a name which if it revealed anything, revealed something meaningful about who I am.

It was a lot to ask for. Too much, really, as I would discover whenever I tried to come up with a replacement for Rosenblum. The core problem was the problem of meaning. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a name that not only revealed something about me but didn’t seem dopey or forced.

I returned to this project every few years, only to give up each time in exasperation. The only name I seriously considered in those years was Estlin. This name was meant as an homage to E. E. Cummings (“Estlin” is the second E in Cummings’ name — Edward Estlin Cummings). However, there were two obvious problems with Estlin: 1) How Brahmin it sounded, and 2) The fact that few people would know the reference.

It was sad, a sad defeat, but at a certain point I felt I had no choice but to throw away the folder of name change related notes and ideas I had amassed over the years and get on with my life.

And that is what I did over the next ten years or so, only occasionally returning to the problem anew and quickly abandoning it anew. It was like having a stone in your shoe for so long you only rarely notice it.

Then, for reasons which have nothing to do with my name, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Moving, as anyone who has done it knows, sucks, and this move was no exception. Among other things, it required me to open a new bank account, because my existing bank had no branches in Cambridge. I dreaded doing this and put it off as long as I could. Then, finally, I gave in and asked my friend Liz to come to the bank with me, and she agreed; she was then, and remains today, a better friend than I deserve.

At the bank I was soon put to work signing a thick stack of forms. I didn’t count how many there were, but there had to be at least twenty. All I had to do in each case was sign my name. This sounds easy enough, but I hated signing my name; it made me angry. In fact there were moments when I considered giving up and announcing that I would be taking my business to another bank. Liz, seeing my frustration, asked what was upsetting me. “I hate Rosenblum,” I said. “I’ve always hated Rosenblum and I don’t like signing it; it makes me angry.”

“Have you ever considered changing it?”

“Yes, but I’ve never been able to come up with a good enough replacement.”

“Well, what not change it to Barrish? Isn’t that your mom’s maiden name? Wasn’t that your grandfather’s name? Anyway, Barrish is a nice name. I think it would suit you.”

I looked at Liz, then I looked at the unsigned forms in front of me, then I looked at the bank representative across from me and I said to her, “I’m really sorry to have wasted your time today, but I can’t open a bank account right now, I have to go change my name.”

There was a bench outside the bank where Liz and I sat together, trying to come up with a middle name to replace “Jay” (which my mother once told me meant nothing; she simply choose it because she liked the sound of it).

I wasn’t convinced that I actually needed a middle name; “Michael Barrish” seemed plenty to me. But Liz thought we should at least give it shot and see what happens. I agreed, but only on the condition that the name we pick would reveal something important about me. Then we got up and started walking down Mass. Ave. toward the closest subway stop.

I don’t remember what middle names we considered, but it doesn’t really matter because none of them were any good, so finally I told Liz that I was happy with Michael Barrish; thrilled with it, really; and I thanked her for all her help.

A few moments later we reached the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street. It was a busy corner, with people streaming by in all directions. I remember looking across the street at the traffic light.

And then there was this strange moment when I saw an older man who sort of looked like my beloved grandfather, my mom’s dad, Abraham Barrish. Stranger still, it appeared that he was waving to me. I should add that my grandfather died 16 years prior to this day, and that his death had been, and remains to this day, the most devastating loss of my life. Also, I should mention that I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or anything of the sort, nor did I that day. Nor did I imagine that some manifestation of my grandfather was waving to me from across the street. Instead I understood that I was simply imagining it, because I wanted it to be true.

But it wasn’t true, of course, and soon enough the man across the street vanished.

Whenever I remember this day, and this moment in particular, I think of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the good witch reveals that Dorothy can return home simply by closing her eyes, clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together three times, and repeating the phrase, “There’s no place like home.” I loved this scene as a child — that is, I loved the fact that Dorothy always had the power to go home, she just didn’t know it. Whenever I watched that scene, I always wondered if maybe I had magical powers that I wasn’t yet aware of. It was a fun thing to think. But of course, I was a child then.

However, I wasn’t a child when I stood on the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street. Nor was I a child when, standing there, I suddenly realized what my name is. Not, mind you, what I wanted my name to be, but what my name had always been, without me knowing.

When it hit me, for it really was like being hit, I began to cry. Liz, believing I was upset, kept asking me what was wrong, but I wasn’t able to compose myself enough to get the words out. When I finally did, Liz broke down as well, and so there we were, at the corner of Mass Ave. and Prospect Street, holding each other and sobbing.

Here is what I said to Liz: “My name is Michael Abraham Barrish. This has always been my name, I just didn’t know it. My grandfather is inside me.”