Mash-up Culture: Why Couples Are Changing the Way They Change Their Names

Six couples reveal how and why they changed their surnames, and the reactions their sometimes unorthodox decisions prompted from family and friends.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Marriage is changing -- why shouldn't names?
Marriage is changing -- why shouldn't names?Credit: AP
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Once upon a time, a woman getting married became Mrs. HisLastName, and the wedding invitations were sent to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe. Enter the feminist movement, and one began to see occasional wedding announcements in newspapers noting that the bride was “keeping her name,” or would be known by a hyphenation of her name and her husband’s.

Today, however, the possibilities are endless, including the groom taking the bride’s name. Among Jews in particular, there’s been a trend toward combining surnames to create an entirely new family name or a mash-up name; adding on a new name that holds some special meaning; or adopting an out-of-use ancestral surname as a way of reconnecting to the past.

Haaretz meets six couples who took the leap...

Celebrating a gift, modeling what’s possible

Names: Annie Matan Gilbert and Stuart Matan Lithwick

Previous names: Annie Gilbert and Stuart Lithwick

Whereabouts: Toronto, Canada. Annie, 34, is the Jewish life program coordinator at the Miles Nadal JCC; Stuart, 36, is a PhD student in cell biology at the University of Toronto.

Their story: When Annie and Stuart got married in 2012, they knew that neither felt comfortable taking the other’s family name. “We tried to find some combination or variation on the two, but that didn’t feel right, either,” says Annie. “I knew people who chose a Hebrew word that represented a shared idea or value as their shared middle name or last name when they got married, so I suggested the idea to Stuart.” They decided on Matan, meaning gift. “At the beginning of our relationship, we both often said ‘You are such a gift in my life’ to each other. So we liked that reminder,” she explains. They also liked the idea of being able to give the children they hope to have just one family name.

The transition to having two last names is not always easy, however. Many people still refer to them as Annie Gilbert or Stuart Lithwick, dropping the Matan, which people sometimes assume is a middle name; Stuart recently starting adding a hyphen between the two names so that Matan wouldn’t get dropped on his professional publications. Meanwhile, Annie is in the process of changing her name to just Annie Matan, dropping Gilbert. It’s a cumbersome legal process, she adds, including a 13-page court document and police record check. (Many people who have changed their name in the United States also say they went through this, as authorities suspect that people changing their name might be on the run from the law or creditors.) “I hope the name change will be finished within another month or so,” Annie says. “We feel excited to be out-of-the-box people, modeling what is possible.”

Annie Matan Gilbert and Stuart Matan Lithwick. Courtesy

Creating a new line of people

Names: Rachel and Leeor Zorel

Previous names: Rachel Distelburger and Leeor Zorbaron

Whereabouts: South Orange, New Jersey. Rachel, 33, has her own graphic design shop, Zorel Design; Leeor, 35, has a general contracting company, The Zorel Group.

Their story: Leeor says that neither he nor his wife agreed with the practice of a woman taking on her husband’s family. “I would have been willing to take Rachel’s name had it been something shorter like Smith!” he laughs. They also didn’t want to hyphenate their somewhat rare family names, which would have bequeathed a seven-syllable name on their children. “We considered keeping our separate names, but felt that becomes complicated with children, and also felt less unified. We decided that it would be a great idea to come up with a combination of the two last names to create a new name to symbolize the creation and beginning of our own family together, while still maintaining our heritage,” he explains. So they came up with Zorel, segments of which exist in each of the original names. The Hebrew version of the name – Leeor was born and raised in America, to Israeli parents – starts with the letter “tzadi,” so that the name means “Rock of God.”

Some of their guests’ jaws dropped when they announced the name change under the chuppah in 2003. It took some getting used to, but now that they have four children – including a 5-week-old baby – it feels logical that they became the Zorel family from the get-go. “Many of us have family names that already are not what they were a long time ago, so I felt comfortable adding a little movement there,” says Rachel. “People often have a strong reaction to it. But I say if you’re giving up a name, it seems just as sensible for two people to give up their name. Now we’re six people with this last name, and it’s a remarkable thing. You’re really creating this new line of people.”

Rachel and Leeor Zorel after the birth of their fourth child, Ozzie. Courtesy

A mash-up of Ashkenazi and Sephardi names

Names: Shelly and Yosef Ganel

Previous names: Shelly Gantz and Yosef Elbaz

Whereabouts: Jerusalem. Shelly, 35, is an industrial and interior designer; Yosef, also 35, is a teacher and assistant principal.

Their story: Shelly and Yosef met in a rather unusual place – on the judo mat. She’d come for the exercise – she’d once been a women’s rugby player – and he did a bit of substitute coaching. The fun of pinning each other on the mat was just the beginning, and they got married in 2004. “Shelly said, ‘Why should I take your name? It’s yours,’ Yosef – known to friends as Yossi – recalls. “And I said, ‘What, should I take your name?’ But we definitely didn’t want two family names.”

And so they began a search. They tried going by other names they liked: first Hallel, then Shalem. Then, one day, they came up with the idea of combining their names to make Ganel, meaning garden of God. In 2006, they formally changed their names – in Israel, this can often be done with one trip to the Interior Ministry. Today, their son Lavi is almost 8, Alma is almost 4, and the next Ganel is on his way. Theirs is, in many ways, a very Israeli story: Shelly comes from a Polish-Romanian background, while Yosef’s family came from Algeria and Morocco. Asked how his family accepted his decision, he jokes: “Who says they’ve accepted it?” He’s an only son with four sisters, augmenting the expectation that he would continue the family name. “There is at least one place where I’m still Elbaz, and will always be: When they call me to the Torah. There, I’m Yosef ben Haim Elbaz.” (In the Sephardic tradition, last names are used in the religious ceremony of being called to the Torah, while in Ashkenazi communities, only first names are used.)

Shelly and Yosef Ganel, with their children Lavi and Alma. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

The sound of blue wolf

Names: Rebecca and Joshua Blouwolff

Previous names: Rebecca Wolff and Joshua Bloustine

Whereabouts: Brookline, Massachusetts. Rebecca, 39, is a middle-school French teacher; Josh,37, is a scientist.

Their story: Rebecca and Josh decided that one shared name was the way to go. In fact, Rebecca did a one-year fellowship in Israel (the Dorot Fellowship), in 2000-2001, from which, she says, about a third of the fellows chose to do “mash-up” surnames when they got married. “We did not want future children to have a hyphenated last name for practical purposes, and because I feared they’d drop my name off. We liked the sound of ‘blue wolf,’” Rebecca explains.

“It took some time, but I’d say everyone made the switch eventually. Blouwolff is an unusual name, hard to spell and pronounce, so we’ve gotten a lot of jokes. The secretaries at my middle school still mangle it regularly on the PA system,” she says. “We waited until after the wedding, because we weren’t sure what Josh’s parents would think. His dad was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and is just a whole different sort of person than my parents, who are ‘sixties people’ – their words. I’ll never forget when Josh called him up after the wedding to broach the topic: We’d waited until after the wedding because we didn’t want it to upset people and color the day. Josh’s dad, Stan Bloustine, told him that when he married Josh’s mom, Karen Baker, he’d considered changing his last name to Baker for simplicity’s sake. And that was that!”

Joshua and Rebecca Blouwolff and their two children, Jonah and Liora. Photo by Justine Johnson

Echoes of a lost world

Names: Daniel Silberbusch and Oshrat Cohen Silberbusch

Previous names: Daniel Bush and Oshrat Cohen

Whereabouts: New York City. Daniel, 36, is a chaplain and educator; Oshrat, 37, is a philosopher.

Their story: Daniel and Oshrat met in Jerusalem and got married in 2009. For years, Daniel had a hankering to return to the family name of his great-grandfather in Galicia, once a small kingdom that currently straddles the border between Poland and Ukraine. When his great-grandfather arrived in America in 1902, he Americanized the spelling, changing it to Silberbush. The next generation, Daniel’s grandfather, took it a step further and decided to shorten the name to Bush. “Part of the reclamation was learning more of the family history, and visiting [the grave of] a relative, David Isaiah Silberbusch – an early Hebrew-Yiddish writer – who is buried in Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv,” Daniel explains. He managed to convince his brother to adopt Silberbusch as well.

Oshrat, meanwhile, is of Sephardic origin and grew up in Switzerland, but the Ashkenazi element of the name spoke to her nonetheless. “My intellectual world is heavily German-speaking, Ashkenazi, pre-WWII,” she says. “To me, Silberbusch sounded like an echo of that lost world, and I really wanted to claim it back from oblivion, in all its impractical Yiddishe and un-Americanized bulkiness. For me, it’s also an act of remembrance, a way to bow our head to that world. I have, obviously, had a love-hate relationship with the German language ever since I started thinking. Silberbusch is, to my ears, about as beautiful as German can get.”

Daniel Silberbusch and Oshrat Cohen Silberbusch and their two boys, Malkiel and Solal. Courtesy

Wife taking hubby’s name? He finds it weird

Names: Joshua Weinberg Getz and Mara Sheftel Getz

Previous names: Joshua Weinberg and Mara Getz Sheftel

Whereabouts: Brooklyn, New York. Mara, 33, is an educator and doctoral student. Josh, 35, is a rabbi.

Their story: Mara grew up with Getz as a middle name because it was her mother’s maiden name. True, her mother was a feminist with a doctorate. But more than that, her mother only had one sister and no brothers – nor any first cousins – so the Getz name was not going to be passed down to the next generation. Moreover, Mara felt close to the Getz side of her family, and so it was an important part of her identity. When she and Josh got married in 2009, it was clear they needed a name combination, but didn’t want a hyphenation.

“We both already had started careers and didn’t want to drop our original last names altogether,” Mara explains. “So we decided to add Getz to the end of our names – for me that meant changing the order of my name – and we intended only to give our children the name Getz.”

This would have meant that Josh’s last name, Weinberg, wouldn’t be passed on to his kids at all, and he was fine with that. “The name thing was really important to Mara and less important to me,” Josh says. “I wanted the kids to have biblical first names and didn’t care that much about our last name.”

In the end, the names they chose for their daughters, Noa and Ella, are more modern than biblical – Noa means movement, while Ella means goddess or oak tree. Then living in Israel – they had both made aliyah from the United States – their plans were undermined when they went to the Interior Ministry and were faced with a policy: The children’s last names had to be the same as at least one of the parents. “Josh was willing to argue, but I was 10 days postpartum and just wanted to get home,” Mara says, recalling the period after the birth of her first child, in 2010. “In retrospect we should have fought harder, because now my daughters are both officially registered in Israel and the United States with Weinberg Getz – which means, in essence, they have a hyphenated last name, something we wanted to avoid.”

Still, they’re happy with their compromise and their family of four. “I didn’t get any flack at all, but rather, several compliments,” adds Josh. “I have jokes that go along with the explanation. I do now actually get surprised or find it weird when wives take their husband’s names.”

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