What’s in a name? Good question. Turns out, in my case the answer proved maddeningly elusive.
When the checker at the Berkeley Andronico’s store says to me, “Thank you for shopping, Mr. Pine,” she has no idea what a can of worms she’s opening.
Growing up, I had a love/hate relationship with my last name. Well, to be honest, it was mostly hate.
“Pineapple,” “Pinecone,” “Pine-Sol.” I heard them all during grade school. Even more than the teasing, I didn’t like the sound of Pine. Too abrupt. Only one nasal syllable.
I also remember wondering how a Jew ends up with a name like Pine. What’s Jewish about that? Granted, as a kid I was relieved not to be saddled with a surname that, to my insouciant ears, sounded embarrassingly hyper-Jewish. At the same time, Pine didn’t seem like much of anything, but rather bland and bleached out.
By my 20s, I had become curious about the origins of the Pine name, and asked relatives on my father’s side about it. No one could say. I did learn my great-grandfather Harry Pine had been a Chicago shopkeeper back in the 1880s, but no one knew where he came from, or when, or what his grandfather’s name was.
At the time, it struck me as odd that nobody in the Pine clan had a clue. How incurious and ignorant of them, I hissed. Of course, at the time I had failed to take into account my ancestors’ forward-looking assimilationism, the kind that drove young Jewish immigrants to flee ghetto and shtetl and build a bright shining future in America.
Still, there I was, a third-generation American and newly rededicated practicing Jew, wholly unsatisfied. I needed to know: what was Pine? An Ellis Island bastardization? Short for something unpronounceable from the Polish or Yiddish or Ukrainian? What?
I thought I’d discovered the answer when, quite by accident, I found myself chatting with a woman in line at the pharmacy. We shared the same last name, and after a few minutes playing Jewish geography, we concluded we were probably related.
“Pinchasik,” she said with authority when I asked about the Pine name. “The family name was changed from Pinchasik.”
So there it was. Mystery solved. I was from an East European Jewish clan called Pinchasik. It was all so anti-climactic, even though I loved the sound of the name. Pinchasik: such a guttural and earthy appellation. Yet, for some reason, I held doubts as to whether that was my real name.
A few years after that, I attended a social event at my synagogue. There I bumped into another woman who was a second or third cousin of mine. We caught up on family news, and then, almost as an afterthought, I asked: “So what’s with the Pine name anyway? Where did that come from?”
Her answer was so sure, so simple, so obvious, I wondered why I hadn’t intuited it on my own long before.
“The family name was originally ‘Fine,’ she replied. ‘But the ‘P’ and ‘F’ in Yiddish look the same. Someone at Ellis Island must have switched them, and ‘Fine’ became ‘Pine.'”
With the stroke of a pen, one hassled immigration clerk in New York renamed an entire family, a family that fanned out across America, from Chicago to Sacramento (where most of the Pines live today) to the Albany-Berkeley flats not far from the BART tracks.
Funny thing is: However noble and mellifluously Jewish may be the name Fine, and however much I now acknowledge it as the true ancestral name, I do not see myself at all as a Fine. That’s because I finally came to accept the name Pine.
Actually, more than merely accept it, I now celebrate it. My last name is a tiny one-syllable bit of residue from the great Jewish migration to North America. It’s the official brand some nameless gatekeeper placed on my forebears as they passed through to safe harbor here. Today, I honor that.
I doubt I’ll ever tackle an exhaustive family genealogy. Whoever was the first “Pine” will surely remain lost to me forever. But the name sticks, proudly, and for me that will do just fine.
Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].