The Myth of Ellis Island and Other Tales of Origin

By Dara Horn

On the Jewish tradition of changing names and inventing roots.

Signup for FREE ACCESS to all content
on AzureOnline


sk any Ashkenazi American Jew about his family’s arrival in the United States, and you’re likely to hear a certain story. With minor variations, it goes something like this: “My great-grandfather was called Rogarshevsky, but when he arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration officer couldn’t understand his accent. So he just wrote down ‘Rogers,’ and that became my family’s name.”
Most American Jews accept such stories as fact. The truth, however, is that they’re fiction. Ellis Island, New York City’s historic immigrant-absorption center, processed up to 11,000 immigrants daily between 1892 and 1924. Yet despite this incessant flow of newcomers, the highest standards of professionalism were demanded of those who worked there. All inspectors—many of whom were themselves immigrants, or children of immigrants—were required to know at least two languages; many knew far more, and all at the native-speaker level. Add to that the hundreds of auxiliary interpreters, and together you’ve covered nearly every possible language one might hear at Ellis Island. Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, in this context, were a piece of cake.
Nor were inspections the brief interactions we associate with passport control in today’s airports. Generally they lasted twenty minutes or more, as inspectors sought to identify those at high risk of becoming wards of the state. But perhaps most significantly, Ellis Island officers never wrote down immigrants’ names. Instead, they worked from ships’ manifests, which were themselves compiled by local officials at the point of embarkation. Even overseas, passenger lists were likewise not generated simply by asking immigrants for their names. Rather, they were drawn from passports, exit visas, and other identification papers. The reason for this was simple: Errors cost the shipping company money. A mistake on a manifest, such as a name that was not corroborated by other documentation (whether legal or fraudulent), would result in the forced deportation of the person in question back to his point of departure—at the shipping company’s expense. Of course, many Jewish immigrants’ names were changed upon coming to America. Without exception, however, they changed their names themselves.
All of these historical facts, amply documented in various sources,1 should be more than enough to debunk irrefutably the myth that Jewish American family names (or, for that matter, any other American family names, since the same myth is common among several American ethnic groups) were “changed at Ellis Island.” And yet, the opposite is the case. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the name-change story among otherwise rational American Jews is nothing short of astounding.2 They cling to it, stubbornly defending it, long after any of their ancestors who actually came through Ellis Island as adults has passed away. It has taken on a near-sacred status, passed from parent to child to grandchild along with more general stories of national identity, such as the Exodus narrative related at Passover.
Of course, this stance is understandable. For the Ellis Island name-change story is not so much a historical error as it is a legend. It expresses both the highest hopes and the deepest fears of American Jewry.
To be sure, the hopes and fears embedded in the Ellis Island myth are specific to the challenges of American life. But they are also tied inexorably to long Jewish traditions of diaspora life around the world. For thousands of years, Jews outside the Land of Israel have developed strategies for preserving their culture absent collective political autonomy—an absence that, almost invariably, resulted in persecution, assimilation, or both. Some of these strategies, such as the establishment of separate educational systems, are common to all diaspora Jewish communities. The creation of founding legends is another example. These legends attempted to ground each community’s legitimacy in Jewish terms, invariably by rooting it firmly in the grand Jewish-historical narrative. At the same time, they offered a tailored response to the specific challenges each Jewish community faced.

Dara Horn is a novelist and essayist. Her most recent book is All Other Nights (Norton, 2009).

Signup >>
Forgot password? >>

From the

Israel and the Palestinians: A New StrategyThe former IDF chief of staff proposes a different approach to dealing with an old conflict.
An Attempt to Identify the Root Cause of AntisemitismA prominent Israeli author gets to the bottom of the world`s oldest hatred.
Faces of DeathSaw, a film by James Wan; and Saw II, a film by Darren Lynn Bousman
Palestinian ApocalypseParadise Now by Hany Abu-Assad
I.B. Singer's Cruel ChoiceFate and freedom for his characters, for himself.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2018