I felt at home as soon as I walked into the restaurant, even though I only knew a handful of the women there. The thing is, we all had the same name.
It was the annual Susan Dinner, a ritual that’s been going on in the Bay Area for more than a decade. Anyone named Susan, Sue, Susie, or any reasonable derivative is welcome to attend.
It’s an odd feeling being in a room where everyone has the same name. Somehow that was enough to create a kind of surface intimacy, as if we were all in cahoots. We giggled at our nametags.
As I looked more carefully around the room, I realized something else we shared: We were all about the same age, in our late 40s to mid-60s. Susan was a popular name in the middle of the last century, enjoying a brief but glorious reign. According to Social Security records, it didn’t appear at all in the top 200 names for baby girls as late as the 1920s. But by the 1940s it was No. 10, rising to No. 4 in the 1950s, and then No. 3 in the 1960s, just below Mary and Lisa. The name began to lose its luster in the 1970s, dropping down to No. 27, and since the 1980s it has disappeared from the list altogether, banished with the likes of Mildred, Bernice and Doris (all big hits in the 1920s).
Why was Susan so popular in those decades? The quick answer is Susan Hayward, a prolific actress and Korean War pin-up girl whose career hit its peak in the 1950s — and whose real name, by the way, was the decidedly unglamorous Edythe Marrener.
That brings me to another thing about the Susans. A lot of us are Jewish. Miss Marrener was of Swedish extraction, not Jewish, but many Jews, famous or not, changed their names to sound less ethnic back in the era when white bread was the cat’s meow. You know the drill — Greenberg became Green, Hymie became Henry.
David Waksberg, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, relates how his father, who was born in 1923, received the name Irving. David’s grandparents had recently arrived from Poland, and when the obstetrician asked the new mother what she wanted to name her infant, she said “Yisroel.” The doctor, an American Jew, promptly wrote “Irving” on the birth certificate.
“I don’t think a non-Jewish doctor would have had the chutzpah,” Waksberg says, adding that Irving was a popular choice for new Americans because of writer Washington Irving — “Washington was the quintessential American, in their minds,” he says.
Susan was also one of those crossover names. It fit a Jewish last name (like Fishkoff), wasn’t too obviously Hebraic (like Rachel or Sarah) yet wasn’t too gentile either (Mary comes to mind). It was a name my Jewish father and non-Jewish mother could agree on, and they weren’t alone — I had plenty of childhood friends named Susan, which is why I started to call myself Sue.
So I was at home on many levels at my first Susan Dinner. And it turned out that the preponderance of Jewish women there was as much a result of the event’s origins as the popularity of the name among Jewish families half a century ago.
About a dozen years ago, at the farewell dinner of an S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation mission to Israel, someone took the microphone and asked all the Susans to step forward. Eight or 10 women did so, including Susan Rothenberg and j. columnist Suzan Berns. Back home, they were chatting with Susan Mall, who worked at the federation at the time, and decided to hold a luncheon for all the Susans they knew. Susan Libitzky and Suzy Locke chaired that first lunch, which continued for several years before morphing into a dinner, which itself took place annually until 2008. The economic downturn inspired a four-year hiatus, which happily came to an end last month.
“Common themes at past events were also true at this most recent Susan gathering,” reminisces Susan Mall. “Lots of women from the Midwest, lots of women had connections to each other, many were Jewish though not all.”
I plan to be a regular at the Susan dinners from now on. And I hereby invite all you Susans, Sues, Suzannes, Suzies, etc. to next year’s celebration. I suppose we’ll permit Shoshanas as well, since that’s the Hebrew version of Susan (both mean “lily” or “rose”).
Rachels, Sarahs and Rebeccas? You’re on your own.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.