By Harriet P. Gross
Great anticipation is already building for this year’s Oscars. It’s a good time to take a look at performers of the past, some Oscar winners and some not, but all of them well-known. And all of them Jewish, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from their stage names.
I collect these things from various sources, and they’re usually grouped alphabetically, or by art (movie star, TV or live theater performer, musician, etc.). But I prefer what seems a more Jewish approach: looking at the different ways in which these people chose to change their names.
Let’s initially consider a few who retained their first names while “Americanizing” their last. For example: Milton Berle began life as Milton Berlinger, and Fanny Brice as Fanny Borach. Melvyn Douglas, born Melvyn Hesselberg, belongs in this category, along with Joan Rivers (nee Joan Molinsky) and Karen Black (formerly Karen Ziegler). And would you have thought Simone Signoret just as mysteriously alluring if you’d known that her last name was really Kaminker? (Elliott Gould also fits here, although — to me, at least — “Gould” sounds just as Jewish as Elliott’s former name, which was Goldstein.)
Close but no cigar in the keeping-your-first-name category: Joseph Gottlieb, who became Joey Bishop; Melvin Kaminsky, more famous as Mel Brooks; Bobby Zimmerman, now Bob Dylan; Michael Peschkowsky, who emerged in stardom as Mike Nichols; and Edward Itzkowitz, the beloved, bug-eyed Eddie Cantor.
Here’s a special pair, one each from the two groupings above: Michael Orowitz grew up to be the beloved Papa on “Little House on the Prairie,” much better known as Michael Landon, while Sophia Kalish morphed into that Red Hot Mama, Sophie Tucker.
Here’s another interesting pairing. First comes a man who gave up both his names because he thought he’d do better with more American monikers, and chose — of all possible choices! — a first name that is widely thought of as being typically Jewish, and a last name with a very foreign connotation. Did Israel Baline achieve immortality because of his new name, or in spite of it? Or did Irving Berlin display enough talent to have made it big without any change at all? I find it humorously ironic that another entertainment great was just as anxious to get rid of her last name, which happened to be the same as the one Baline picked to keep: Elaine May, you may not know, was actually born Elaine Berlin.
A couple of luminaries converted their given first names into new last ones. Two cases in point: The ageless Jack Benny started out as Benjamin Kubelsky, and the late great Victor Borge was once Borge Rosenbaum. Alan Koenigsberg did the same, but changed the spelling of that name as he moved it from first to last to become Woody Allen. Ella Geisman may have been thinking along the same linguistic lines when she made this selection: June Allyson was her new name.
Al Jolson completely ditched his first name, switching from Asa, but retained Yoelson, his last name, in a new, Americanized form. George Burns took a similar tack, keeping some of his original last name’s sound when he gave up Nathan Birnbaum; so did Belle Silverman, who showed her operatic chops as Beverly Sills.
A few stars kept their original initials but little or nothing else: David Kaminsky to Danny Kaye … Sidney Leibowitz to Steve Lawrence … Joseph Levitch to Jerry Lewis. Lee Grant takes the prize here; her birth name was the tongue-twisting Lyova Geisman. But even more folks tossed away everything en route to establishing new identities. Think Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske), Jeff Chandler (Ira Grossel), Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz), Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), Paulette Goddard (Marion Levy).
Peter Lorre kept one of his L’s from Laszlo Lowenstein; Gene Wilder stuck with his G but threw out the S when he got rid of Gerald Silberman. Retaining her original J was Joyce Frankenberg, now known as Jane Seymour. Edward G. Robinson’s middle initial harks back to his original Emanuel Goldenberg; Yves Montand toyed with the French language when he left Ivo Levy behind.
How clever Amos Jacob was to become Lee J. Cobb: Jacob — J. Cobb. Get it? But the most creative of all, I think, was Judith Tuvim, who turned Hebrew into English. Do you recognize “Tuvim” as a plural of “Tov,” meaning “Good”? She did, and turned herself into something very good: Judy Holliday!
Hooray for holidays — like Oscar day — in Hollywood!
By Harriet P. Gross