What’s in a Name?

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Because the government decided to shut down immediately after I got married, weeks later, I still haven’t been able to change my last name legally with the Social Security office. Right now, about half my accounts have one last name listed and the other half have a different one. I’m in total name limbo. Since I’m always in limbo in regards to something or another, I’m taking this somewhat in stride, but changing one’s name after marriage is already such a hassle—adding even more obstacles to it just seems over the top. Although I think the biggest obstacle is just getting used to it. Strangely, I don’t have to go through this process alone—my …husband (calling someone a husband is also taking some getting used to) also recently changed his last name. Now this was actually a very easy process, much easier than mine so far, even though he’s not even an American citizen. However, the government wasn’t shut down in July. That probably helped. It did not, however, make things easy for the attendees of our wedding. Following the Eastern European custom of money-only wedding presents (a custom Americans should really consider adopting, especially considering how many people are already in debt when heading to the altar), we had about five different combinations of names written on our checks and most of them just made to cash; it took about three managers at the bank to sort it out.

Slors

The original Slors, circa 1923

On Danny’s end, the decision to be a Slor was actually quite a complicated one. It all started with his parents getting divorced after forty years of marriage, back in the winter of 2011. This was right around the time we’d met, and right off the bat, I sided with Danny’s mom. It was hard not to. Danny’s father, the head of education in a large county of Israel, had very publicly had an affair with a woman, also married, who worked for him.  So in one fell swoop he’d simultaneously ruined his marriage, someone else’s marriage, and his career. Not the best first impression to make. (There’s a lot more to this story, but I won’t go into it here.) About a year and a half later, during our most recent visit to Israel, Danny’s mom told us she was changing her name back to Slor, her maiden name. Somehow it occurred to us, during that trip, that we could too. While I liked the idea of distancing myself from Danny’s father—for a few reasons, by that point—more than anything, we just enjoyed the sound of it better. I’ve spent my whole life having to spell and pronounce and re-spell and re-pronounce not just my first name, which is complicated enough, but also my last name. The thought of having a last name with four letters! It was like hitting the jackpot. On top of that, because it’s not an Israeli name or a name from any language, every Slor is a direct descendent of Danny’s great-great-grandfather, Benyamin Scheff, who created it upon his immigration from Ukraine to Israel in 1861. Someone had asked him, in English, to speak his last name for the official records, and Benyamin had a hard time understanding them, so he had said, “Speak slower! Slower!” And just like that, Slor was created. There’s not a single Slor that Danny or his mom aren’t aware of, even if it’s a fourth or fifth cousin, and known only indirectly or online.

We decided pretty quickly this was what we wanted to do, so just a week after our return from Israel, we filled out all the paperwork and applied for the name change. The whole thing was very quick, very simple. Danny’s name was officially Slor by August, just a month before our wedding.

So here’s where it stopped being simple: the wedding. Unusually difficult in many regards, my wedding deserves an essay of its own. But just to skim the surface, it included no common language, a pair of feuding grandmothers, a pregnant sister-in-law who was supposed to be on bed rest, and, worst of all, the void created by my mother’s absence. But, of the many dramas occurring that day, I think the cake-topper would have to go to the one surrounding our name change.

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Three days before the wedding, we’d met with the MC and spent a good few hours practicing the timing of the aisle-walking (making sure to walk very, very slow for all my grandparents), arranging our table of immediate family so that no one who hated each other would be sitting near each other, and trying to decide how to be announced. I suggested that we be announced without a last name at all. Our MC, a fast-talking Russian named Roman who Danny is convinced sounds exactly like Borat, looked at us with complete and utter bewilderment. After thirty years in the wedding business, he’d never heard of such a thing. It probably didn’t help that we had been somewhat difficult up until that point—we weren’t sure who was making a speech, and in which language; we were very picky about music (though we mostly stayed away from the song choices for the party—it was a Russian wedding, and Russians are very attached to the same Russian pop and disco music they’ve been listening to since the seventies). We also had no idea how we wanted anything to go, or how a wedding was even supposed to go. I’d spent most of the year of wedding planning working on the more creative side of it—assembling my multi-language place cards and book centerpieces for the tables, making the guestbook, creating the slideshow of childhood pictures, picking the songs and colors for everything, and constantly arranging and rearranging the tables for all the never-ending last-minute changes. At that point I hadn’t even found a hair stylist or makeup artist yet, and had just picked up my dress on the way to the meeting with Roman. I was so tired of anything relating to a wedding that my answer to most things was just: “Whatever you think, Roman.”

Except for the name thing. After Roman said that it would be very strange to announce us without a last name, Danny suggested we be announced with both his old last name and new last name—but I thought that would just confuse people even more. Eventually, we told Roman we’d get back to him. “Maybe your dad won’t even notice,” I told Danny. “He doesn’t seem to notice anything else, unless it involves making your mom jealous.”

“Oh, he’ll notice,” Danny said, for the first time somewhat stressed about our wedding.

Because each table was named after a book, my centerpieces included a stack of books under the flowers (people took them home as parting gifts).

Because each table was named after a book, my centerpieces included a stack of books under the flowers (people took them home as parting gifts).

Besides the fact that we didn’t even know if Danny’s father was coming to our wedding until a week prior to it, and that he’d called us all morning on the day of it for the address of the Russian banquet hall where we were getting married, and then still showed up an hour late, he’d also, expressly against our wishes, brought a woman he’d just started dating all the way from Israel. He then forced her into every family photo and even the immediate family-only signing of the marriage license. So if I’d had any reservations about this public display of disassociation, by the time Roman had begun playing a hilarious discotheque version of “Here Comes the Bride” that he was absolutely convinced was the hippest song on earth for introducing newlyweds and starting the subsequent party—it was definitely gone by then. Plus, I couldn’t really think of anything beyond finally getting to sit down and maybe even eating something. Danny, however, was preoccupied with how we would be announced. He couldn’t even face the ballroom, where I could see his father standing there, by himself. “Can you watch him?” he kept asking me. “I thought you explained everything to him already,” I said. “I did, but I don’t think he understands. Just watch him, please,” Danny repeated. “Okay, okay,” I said, frustrated that for the millionth time that day I couldn’t just relax and enjoy what was going on around me.

And then, there it was—the announcement. “…Danny and Zhanna Slor!”

In the end, we had decided to just go with the truth.

So what, like Shakespeare’s poor Juliet once asked, is in a name? Would the sound of the word ‘rose’ still excite you if it wasn’t attributed to the popular flower? Would the word ‘cockroach’ still irk you if it wasn’t describing a large, disgusting bug?

The right name can mean everything—because, even though many deny it, first impressions are everything. People do, quite often, judge a book by its cover. I work in publishing, so I know this. And like a cover, your name comes with certain connotations. It can tell people about your background and heritage (or confuse people about it—who could guess Slor is an Israeli name?). It can, if you’re a woman, mean giving up one’s family for your husband’s family—or it can mean taking sides within that family. Or, it can, on the most superficial level, just sound cool. Madonna would still be Madonna with another name, but she would also lose something. When I think of all my favorite authors, is it a coincidence that they all have very cool names? Very pronounceable, very distinct names? It’s doubtful.

Perhaps because of my literature-heavy background, I’ve always thought more about the meanings of events than the actual thing taking place. Therefore, I can’t help but wonder what it means that I still can’t legally change my name (perhaps the world thinks I’m not ready to so quickly drop my old one? Perhaps it shouldn’t be so easy to convert to a name that has not one but two street signs in Israel named after it?); correspondingly, I’ve thought little about the physical effects of the government shutdown—garbage piling up on the streets of D.C., closed national parks, zoos, museums—and more about what it means for the American psyche. I’m not the only one; David Simpson and Saeed Ahmed write on CNN.com: “America is the largest economy in the world and a beacon for how democracy ought to work. To watch elected lawmakers engage in a high-stakes staring contest with no one willing to blink is no way to do business.” It’s bad enough recent college grads all have to move back home with their parents and there are so few jobs even people with master’s degrees and PhDs can’t find work, now even people that work for the government are sitting around in their pajamas? That just does not sounds promising in any capacity. I don’t think Americans need any more reasons to think they will be unemployed forever.

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My dad used my wedding as an excuse to drink for five days straight with his childhood friends from the Soviet Union (these guys).

As for the wedding announcement, Danny’s father did notice. During his speech, spoken in Hebrew, he very pointedly kept calling Danny by his old last name. It was about the only thing I could understand, since my dad’s high school friend, Lusik, translated the speech from Hebrew to Russian and was already way too drunk to stand properly let alone translate something. But by that point, I’d already slurped down at least five vodka-sodas, diffused at least one grandma’s tantrum, had been hoisted up onto a chair by three layers of Russians and Israelis dancing the Hava Nagila and not died, and was finally starting to feel like I might make it through the whole night without falling asleep, tripping on my dress, or crying, so for once I just didn’t let the drama bother me.

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