I Always Thought We Were Unique: The True Story Of Ellis Island

 This article was written for Aish.com.

Jews Changing Their Surname at Ellis Island

Nov 7, 2021 | by Rabbi Pinchas Landis

Why everything you’ve been told about the name changes at Ellis Island is a big, fat lie.

When I meet people, they inevitably ask if I am related to any other Landises they know. John Landis, the Hollywood director? Nope, no relation. Baseballs first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis? Nope. Sketchy pro-cyclist Floyd Landis? Also no. Our family has no distant cousins or long-lost relatives named Landis because it isnt our original name.

Sometime after 1945, my grandfathers youngest brother, William, petitioned to have his surname changed fromLefkowitz, a clearly identifiable Jewish name, to the more American-sounding Landis. The request was granted and the rest of his family followed suit. My grandparents were married as Paul and Rhona Lefkowitz, and changed their name to Landis before my father and uncles entered the picture.

Paul Lefkowitz and Rhona Koplin before they were married

It wasnt unusual for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to use anglicized or truncated versions of their Jewish surnames. Chances are you’re familiar with the stories of relatives or friends who arrived at the gates of Ellis Island with surnames that were too difficult for the impatient immigration officer to pronounce. The timid immigrants could not protest when their Jewish names weren’t recorded accurately because they did not speak or read English. This cultural phenomenon was so prevalent that it spawned an entire genre of self-deprecating Jewish jokes.

My favorite is the one about the Jew who went by the name of Sam Ferguson. Fresh off the boat from Europe, he knew that his real name, Yerachmiel Yakobavitch, would be a mouthful for the immigration officers at Ellis Island. So instead of waiting for them to butcher his Jewish name, he figured he would just introduce himself as Jerry Jacobs. He repeated his new moniker over and over while he waited in line to be processed at the port. When his turn finally came, he was so intimidated by the immigration officer that when asked for his name, he completely drew a blank and blurted out in Yiddish, “Oy! Shem fargessen!” (I forgot the name!). So the worker dutifully wrote down what he heard, and Yerachmiel Yakobovitch became Sam Ferguson.

This portrayal of confused and clueless Jewish immigrants being forced to take on random American names by immigration workers is even part of the official narrative told today by tour guides at the Ellis Island museum.

My grandparents, Paul and Rhona Lefkowitz, getting married

My fathers family has been proud All-Americans since the late 1800s and my children are fifth-generation AmericanJews. They were not new immigrants who changed their names under duress. So, I always thought that the fact that my grandfathers entire family voluntarily chose to change their name made them outliers. That is until I read the new book, People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn’s fascinating critical analysis of the subtleties of modern-day antisemitism, and discovered that everything Id been told about the name changes at Ellis Island was a big, fat lie!

First off, the intake personnel at Ellis Island were not incompetent blowhards, jotting down whatever they heard, (or thought they heard). They were highly skilled immigration officials who were required to be fluent in at least three languages. Additionally, translators circulated the floor to provide extra linguistic support. At any given time, there would have been someone on duty who spoke German, Polish, or Russian, any possible language spoken by Eastern European Jews.

Next, dont assume that new arrivals to American shores merely paid a toll, had their passports stamped, and then quickly shuffled through a turnstile. The immigration process was prolonged and thorough, with documents carefully checked and certified, and the interviews lasting at least 20 minutes to ensure that the new immigrants would not potentially be a burden on American society. 

Paul Lefkowitz draft card.

Finally, during these interviews, no names were recorded, accurately or otherwise, because no one asked the immigrants for their names! The immigration officials worked off of the ship manifests that came from the port of origin in Europe and these manifests were based on passports and government documents. Since anyone who was improperly documented on the manifest was shipped back to Europe at the companys expense, the records were meticulously compiled; they knew that any mistakes would cost the transport company money and sometimes the workers their jobs. 

Yet, there are thousands of early 20th-century New York City court records that show Jews requesting name changes (including that of Lefkowitz/Landis). Horn cites the book A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America by Kirsten Fermaglich, which documents many of these court cases. In fact, by 1932, ten years after Ellis Island officially closed its doors, 65% of the petitions to change a surname filed in New York were Jewish-sounding names, and almost always filed on behalf of entire families. Strangely, very few of these records mention antisemitism as the basis for these petitions. 

They do, however, mention the petitioners changing their name because they couldnt find a job, or because their children were being picked on in school. The official reason given was that they had foreign-sounding names, with no mention of their Jewish heritage. In other words, the predominant mentality of Jews at that time was to hide their Jewishness, cowering under the heavy boot of discrimination. Instead of being proud of their Jewish identities and standing up against the antisemitism, they were experiencing, they chose to hide their heritage, discarding their Jewish names.

Horn does not offer a theory as to who first created this immigration fairytale or how it spread like wildfire throughout American Jewry. Yet, the reasoning and motivation behind this tall tale are clear. After thousands of years of exile and expulsion from countless countries, these new immigrants hoped that America would finally be a safe haven for their families, that the pogroms of the past were behind them, and that this stop in the Jewish journey towards redemption would be different. 

Yet the sobering reality was that Jews were not welcome in early 20th century America; the insidious horrors of antisemitism also lined the gold paved streets. The fear and despair they felt at the prospect of history repeating itself was something they desperately wanted to shield their children from. Determined to give their children a better life than they left behind in Europe, they collectively told this folk tale of a silly mistake made by an incompetent worker at the borders of a country that welcomed them with open arms. 

Contrary to what I thought, my familys story is not unique; Jewish families seeking to successfully assimilate into American culture by willingly adopting less Jewish-sounding names were very much the norm, not the exception. The one thing that seems to be exceptional in our story is that my grandfather was upfront about the circumstances that led to our family abandoning the Lefkowitz name for Landis. I dont know why he didn’t feel the need to hide it from his children as so many others did, and now I cannot ask him. My hunch is that by the time he told my father, the oldest of his three sons, he had already built a successful business and his family was fully integrated into American life, without their Jewishness being a liability. So my grandfather did what he always taught us to do; he simply told the truth. 

But as of those who jumped on the Ellis Island canard bandwagon, what do we make of them? They so wanted the American Jewish experience to be better than its prosectors in Europe. Horn defends this as something in the collective psyche of the early 20th century American Jew said that if we can just stop the multigenerational transference of psychological baggage and trauma that comes along with centuries of oppression and give America time to get used to us, our kids will have a fighting chance. In many cases, these people were not running away from the Jewish community. Those who changed their names often still joined synagogues, gave to the Federation, and strived to raise their children as good American Jews. That was the case with my family. 

With the hindsight of close to a century, was the decision to hide the truth from their children a good one? In many ways, Jewry has thrived in America. Never before in our 2,000 years of exile has there been a safer, more affluent home than Jews have in the USA. The freedoms and equality have led to unparalleled success as a community. The American Jew is basically accepted into normal American life. 

But this has all come with tremendous cost. Along with affluence has come mass assimilation, and in many cases, those who consciously changed their names while hiding the circumstances from their children do not have a Jewish descendant left. 

What would have happened if the collective early twentieth century Jew hunkered down and told the truth to their children as my grandfather did, in so doing expressing the difficulties of being a Jew in America at that time? I dont know, but one thing I can say is that my grandfather can look down from heaven and see a family three generations later where everyone is still proudly Jewish.