By Miriam Annenberg, Medill, Immigrant Connect
I’m sitting at the Ventura County Clerk’s office counter, pen perched in my hand above my marriage certificate, panicking. I can hear my fiancé, Jarrett, sighing at my indecision. It’s Sept. 22, 2016, three days before our wedding. My task is simple. Put pen to paper and write, upon marriage, what I want as my name.
My mind races, distracted by staplers crunching, papers shuffling and an air conditioner hissing intermittently as I’m hit with blasts of cool air.
I shift uncomfortably in the faux wood chair pushed against the counter station, one in a row of similar stations, like visiting a bank teller. Two panels of Plexiglas protrude slightly, offering a façade of privacy as I put down the pen, silently cursing myself for not deciding this sooner.
I plan to change my last name, but can’t imagine parting with my maiden name, Finder. I can make Finder my middle name, but what about my given middle name, Devorah, the name of my great grandmother? Giving that up feels akin to abandonment. But why? How much do I attach to her name in the first place?
As it turns out, a lot. Having Devorah’s name as one of mine keeps my family history close to me, like a secret amulet unlocking a piece of my identity.
Devorah, whom everyone called Dora, found herself in Poland at 18 in the early 1920s yearning for America. She missed her two older sisters, who had settled in Louisville, Kentucky, a few years earlier and married a pair of brothers who’d immigrated there from their hometown.
Like most of history, the 1920s was not a good time for Eastern European Jews. While technically Polish, Dora’s bloodline was complicated. Her family had been pushed from country to country for centuries as regimes and religions decided Jews were no longer welcome. Eastern Europe was in perpetual flux, Borders came and went, periodically altering her family’s nationality—Lithuanian? Russian?—so that her great-grandchildren would learn to say their ancestors came from “The Pale,” without a clear indication of where their bloodlines began. The Pale at times encompassed parts of Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Russia, as well as Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, with the borders frequently shifting. Travel within and outside of the Pale was limited for Jews, complicating the lines of my family history.
I first realized the lack of understanding of this reality in seventh grade when assigned an art project on the country my ancestors called home. I did mine on the Pale. My teacher graded my project harshly, telling me the Pale was not a country. I didn’t know how to tell her my heritage wasn’t that simple.
Dora, downtrodden by her limited rights and prospects as a Polish Jew, reached out to her sisters for advice. American immigration rules were strict and aimed at keeping less desirable people—like Eastern European Jews—out.
As her sisters read her letters, they cooked up a plan. Their husbands had a friend, Sam Finder, an orphan who left his aunt and uncle’s home behind at just 13 years old and traveled with them to America. What if he and Dora married? She’d have a better chance to be allowed into the country then.
Dora said goodbye to Poland and set sail for Cuba. While she spoke neither Spanish nor English, she waited in Cuba for Sam’s arrival. The two married in Cuba and Dora entered America as Sam’s wife, using marriage as a means of circumventing the immigration system.
At the clerk’s office, I realize that for me and for much of my family, our heritage isn’t connected to a country or nationality. It can’t be. Instead, we see our heritage in the stories of those who built our family. These ancestors set the foundation for our family culture and identity. We connect more to their histories and traditions and Jewish faith than to any geography.
Dora’s name conjures bravery and resilience, calm in the midst of uncertainty, grit in the face of persecution, and a quiet, steady determination. Having her name keeps her story entwined with mine.
I feel the clerk’s eyes boring into the top of head. Jarrett rolls his eyes next to me, his foot tapping restlessly. I can’t let go of Finder—the name I’ve had my whole life, a name of immigrants and Holocaust survivors, nurturing homes and Shabbat dinners. But I also can’t let go of Devorah. So, I decide to keep both. I will have two middle names, holding onto my heritage and the memory of an 18-year-old girl who set out across the sea to an unknown. I pick up the pen and write.