What’s In A Family Name?


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A family shapes us from the moment we are born. We learn stories, beliefs, and traditions to help shape our identity. Everyone wants to know, “Who am I?” “Where do I belong in this big world?” “Who will accept me?” “Who can I relate to?”

Being a part of a group makes us feel included and important as a young person. Sports teams, student council, youth groups, and jobs all create a sense of community. We want to belong somewhere, especially if we felt like we missed out on a loving family. As a young girl, I looked for a sense of belonging in my friends’ families, a local youth group, and the Jewish community. I wanted to know who I could turn to once I left the nest.  

It’s important to remember that you are an individual, a unique soul that came here to Earth to fulfill your purpose. Your family does not define your character, and you can acknowledge your background and heritage without needing to hold on to the stories as if they are your own. 

A family name, however, can make it seem like you are branded with a certain characteristic, personality or reputation right from birth. The stories associated with our surnames usually include occupations, physical traits, a father’s identity or city of origin. The most common English surnames derived from occupations, such as Taylor, Smith, Wright, Cook and Turner.

The name Weinstein is of Ashkenazic origin, meaning Eastern European Jewry, according to Ancestry.com, and is the most common Jewish surname. Author Bennet Muraskin of The Jewish Journal explains that Ashkenazic Jews were the last Europeans to take family names. The process of taking a surname began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1787, and proceeded until Czarist Russia in 1844. Muraskin highlights that the authorities wanted the Ashkenazi Jews to take last names so they could be taxed, drafted, and educated, but the Jewish people resisted and distrusted the authorities. They wanted to keep their traditional process for naming, which included using “son of” or “daughter of” after the first name. Eventually the Jewish people accepted their new names so they could broaden their scope of opportunity.   

My last name is of Jewish heritage, but I no longer observe Judaism. My dilemma was how do I relate to my name in a new way, when its origins are based on old beliefs? After looking up the real meaning of my last name, I discovered it means “wine-stone,” specifically referring to the crystallization of wine at the end of a cork. The photo illustration alongside this information looks like a beautiful amethyst. I choose to see my last name as that — a beautiful, loving energy. 

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal came out, people would often comment about him first and the news in Hollywood when they heard my last name. I felt a bit resentful towards him and the media for sullying my last name’s reputation, and towards the other person for focusing on a fleeting illusion instead of who I am. I needed to come to a place of forgiveness towards myself for choosing to believe what people said about my last name, and for not being present. The stories that came from my last name are true and did happen, but do not define me. My name was given to me, but it is my choice how to perceive it.

Tori Weinstein is a Providence freelance writer originally from Seattle.

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