Sitting in the loud, crowded dining hall at Camp Tamarack, I overheard our camp rabbi, Ben Shalva, called by a different name. Confused, I asked why someone referred to him with another last name.
He explained to me (and my summer fling sitting next to me) that he and his wife had decided to change their name together when they got married. Instead of his wife taking his name, the two of them chose a Hebrew word that felt fitting for their relationship — and went by that. Incredibly impressed with this egalitarian and modern idea, my fling and I joked together that we would one day get married and do the same thing.
Turned out it wasn’t a joke.
Five years later, after a break-up, a move to Florida (then quickly back) and a reunion, my 2015 “camp boyfriend” and I were happily planning our wedding.
The name-change idea stuck around as well. Jacob (upgraded from summer fling to fiancé) and I took the inspiration from Rabbi Ben and ran with it. The whole concept was perfect for us. We could share a name in a way that felt equal, fresh, and not automatically assuming I would take his name or hyphenate – but rather we would go forward as The _____ Family.
Now, it was time to fill in that blank. We wrote down all the Hebrew words we liked and formed a list of name ideas. We brainstormed with Israelis and bounced potential names off friends and family. Nothing seemed to feel right and I found myself in an unexpected identity crisis.
How was I, an historian and genealogy enthusiast, going to create a completely new branch on a family tree? How confusing would it be to take a name that was not ours, and claim it? Israelis had done it plenty, but the family historian in me could not shake the idea that rather than create something completely new we could instead reclaim a name that had belonged to us.
So, we went digging in our family trees.
Plotkin, Pianin, Zalensky from Jacob's. Magedman, Gottlieb, Steinway from mine. (No great grandparents in common.) From here, it was a matter of what sounded good, what felt like it fit with our first names, what had a significant meaning. Eventually, we narrowed down the list, and one name stood out:
We were thrilled to take on this name that had Yiddish roots, translating to roughly “God’s Love.” The Gottliebs go back generations in Detroit on my mom's side, including Hyman Gottlieb, whose Oakland Avenue store inspired my brother to create Shopkeepers Gin (stories for another time).
It finally felt right. The hard part was over, or so we thought.
Now, we had to tell our family. As expected, they had mixed reactions. Some were ecstatic at the reclaiming of a name whose branch had shrunk, others skeptical at the concept all together. But we were excited, and eventually got our loved ones on board with this unorthodox, but meaningful choice.
We were finally feeling good about becoming The Gottlieb Family when another reality hit — we live in a patriarchal society. For all the principle and philosophical issues that stem from gender inequity, in this moment, it meant we had to jump through hoops to change our name.
For anyone that has done a marriage name change before, you might be familiar with the process of filling out paperwork and getting all new IDs, updating records, etc. However, if you happen to be a man trying to change his name (gasp), it also means fingerprints, background checks, newspaper publications, court dates and then the paperwork.
Our wedding date came and went — went well — and we were still trying to figure out the system. Attempting to get fingerprints and a court date during a pandemic was an added hurdle, but we never lost the momentum.
Approval from the Oakland County Circuit Court arrived in the mail and our court date was set for a month out.
For a month, we wondered ... How would we tell people? What if our kids (G-d willing) decide to continue the trend of changing their name? Will the cycle never end? What should I change my Facebook name to? How do we explain this? These last minute “what ifs” and “too weird?” questions died down as the court date approached. We were ready.
Nervous and optimistic, on June 24th, we signed on to our Zoom courtroom (yes, that’s a thing) and compulsively adjusted the computer’s camera and audio while waiting our turn.
Six years after we were inspired by the story of a rabbi who changed his name — after exploring the roots and branches of our family trees, after signing the ketubah and stepping on the glass — we finally heard the judge say the words:
“It’s official, you are now the Gottliebs.”
Laura Gottlieb is the Director of Cultural Resources at Temple Beth El, home of the Leo M. Franklin Archives. She and Jacob live in Southfield their puggle, Rashi (yes, like the rabbi).