You, me and a hyphen — and the whole world weighing in

My wife and I took each other’s last names as a message to our children. The message is that we hate them and don’t care what happens when they get married.

I kid, but I’m the first to admit we’ve handed our children a challenge. Sharon and I combined last names — she was Silow, I was Carroll — because we are committed egalitarians. In the 26 years before our wedding, she got quite used to her last name and couldn’t imagine giving it up because of a fairly recent custom. She doesn’t have brothers and knew her last name would literally disappear into mine.

Had I wanted to argue (and I didn’t! I promise!), the only thing I could have come up with is convenience. Our hyphenated name is a mouthful to say and spell, and pity the Silow-Carroll child who falls in love with a Rosenthal-Jagoda.

But while I joke about the name, some people find it quite threatening. A few months ago an Israeli rabbi inveighed against what he called the “feminist” trend. “A hyphenated last name for women undermines family values,” Rabbi Yisrael Rozen declared, according to Ynetnews.com.

Rozen heads the Zomet Institute, which designs gadgets to enable observant Jews to “coexist with a modern, technologically oriented society.” Apparently the hyphen is a little too innovative. Rozen insists that the hyphenated name creates “a slippery slope.”

“It is clear to me that a hyphenated name for married women is just the beginning of the process,” Rozen wrote. “There are already women who keep their maiden name alone, as if saying, ‘Marriage is only a secondary aspect of life,’ ‘Who needs to know that I’m married?’ and ‘This is an invasion of privacy.'”

The trend, he added, is founded on “a feminist message which strays from the patriarchal tradition and makes a statement that women are not the husband’s property.”

Rozen is not alone in his distrust of names like mine. My column is regularly reprinted in the Jerusalem Post, and in the online comments section someone invariably wants to know what gives with my name. One recent poster demanded, “You call yourself Torah-observant, yet your name is not a Jewish name. Why is that, my friend?” It was signed “Yosef the real Torah-observant JEW.”

(For the record, I don’t remember calling myself “Torah-observant.” I prefer the phrase “Kiddush-obsessed.”)

Another poster refers to me as “O’Carroll.” (You can see the level of discourse in the Jpost.com comments section.)

At first I felt the need to argue with these folks. Have they never heard of Ellis Island? Good for you, Yosef, with your proud biblical name. But I bet if it were 1956 and you were applying for a job, you’d be Joe.

(For the record, Silow used to be Szylowicz or some such; Carroll a similarly unspellable Polish name.)

But you know what? These folks are right. My last name does make a statement. It declares that I am a proud feminist. That I love and value my wife’s family as much as my own. That I am happy to be a role model for any other couple struggling with the name issue.

And Rozen is right too. The slope is not only slippery but incredibly steep. Because once you add a hyphen, soon you start talking about husband and wife as full partners, women as the intellectual and spiritual equal of men, and marriage as a means of instilling your children with such notions. Next thing you know, we’ll make divorce egalitarian as well, and Jewish men will lose the ability to extort their estranged wives.

Yosef and his friends don’t hate my last name as much as they hate anything that acknowledges Jewish views different from their own. The notion of Jewish diversity — represented, for example, by the Jews by choice who are bringing all sorts of names into the Jewish fold — scares them to death. That two people can read the same Torah and come to different conclusions confounds them.

Their Judaism is a petrified monolith, not a living heritage forever grappling between the poles of universalism and parochialism, tradition and modernity, conservatism and liberalism.

The hyphen is indeed a dangerous symbol, because it has the ability to yoke together two different, sometimes contradictory sensibilities, and make something wonderful and new. Try it: Jewish-American, liberal-Orthodox, religious-Zionist, traditional-Reform. It’s a miracle of union and compromise — just like marriage.

 

Andrew-Silow-Carroll
Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor of JTA.