Henry Shaw & Names

August 16, 2013 10:36 am 2 comments

Jewish immigrants. Photo: Wikipedia.

What’s in a name? My late father had an only sibling called Henry Shaw. We loved our Uncle Hashy as we called him. He was huge, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, and had to stoop to get through the doors of our house. He had a deep but soft bass voice and a wonderful sense of humor. He was a marvelous raconteur, steeped in Yiddish culture and the intricacies of internal Jewish political warfare in Eastern Europe. His great impact on my life was through the range of experiences he introduced me to, from Chazanut to Verdi’s Requiem, from Hillel Zeitlin to AJP Taylor, from Martin Buber to Bertrand Russell. He was less charismatic than my father, less combative, and a much more approachable person.

He qualified in social studies at London University and spent his life devoted to the Jewish Community, first in London in the Association of Jewish Youth, then running Hillel House in Endsleigh Street, London. He and his devoted wife, Sybil, provided a home away from home for thousands of Jewish students from around the world for over twenty years. I saw most of him in my own student years and he was very supportive and encouraging. But then they ‘disappeared’ from my life and went off to Australia to take over the Hillel Foundation of Victoria which involved the Melbourne and Monash Universities. Five years later Henry switched to academia to help establish a Jewish studies program at Prahran College. His work eventually morphed into the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization at Monash. Sybil died in 1978, but Henry flourished until 1996.

I am writing this piece because this week is his Yahrzeit. But also because I am embarrassed to admit that I never found out why he adopted the surname Shaw. Which leads me to the issue of Jewish surnames. We Jews never really took them very seriously. Napoleon’s civil reforms insisted that everyone had to have a surname. Previously non-Jews had Christian names (yes, that’s what first names were called in Britain until the sixties) and Jews had Jewish names on to which occasionally one added a location or a profession. When the law of the land insisted on surnames Jews usually took their profession, the town they came from, or a Latin version of a Hebrew word like Benedict or Priest. Amongst themselves they invariably used only Hebrew names, until the process of acculturation took hold. This explains why Jews tended to be rather cavalier about changing their civil names or having them changed by others.

My paternal grandparents came from Radomsk. My grandmother was a Bialystock, the name of a Polish town. My grandfather’s family name was a more Russian, Rozrasowski . During the great migrations of over a hundred years ago, lots of migrants took or had simpler or more western names given to them as they came through immigration. You have heard of the old Jewish gentleman called, improbably, Shawn Fergusson because when he arrived at immigration in a state of exhaustion and shock and was asked his name he said in Yiddish, “Shoyn Fergessen” (“I have forgotten.”) Or the Chinese man called Moishe Greenberg because as he came through after a Jewish migrant and gave his name as Sam Ting, they thought he meant “the same thing”.

Seriously, when the Rozrasowskis came to London in the early part of the twentieth century the family simplified its name to Rosen. They must have thought it would sound more English! There were five girls and four boys. The boys decided that they’d rather be known by their first names, so as to differentiate themselves. That was how my Grandfather Shlomo came to be known as Mr. Solomons. Indeed his tombstone in Dublin (where he moved during the Depression) gives his name as “Mr. Sydney Solomons (Rosen)”.

My father was always known as Rosen, but his elder brother Hashy became Shaw. Was it to sound more English, or actually Irish? Shaw is a popular Irish name. When his parents moved to Ireland this was an era in which when getting a job or an apartment with a Jewish name was as difficult as getting one with an African name fifty years later. Or was it just a play on Henry’s nickname Hashy? One family tradition had it that he had lost his papers and got an Irish passport on the black market. The most improbable was that he had accidentally killed an anti-Semitic drunk in a fight and carried his name as a penance. Who knows? He never gave me a straight answer.

But if you think this story strange, let me tell you about my maternal grandfather, Moishe Yaakov Cohen, known as MJ. He was born Moishe Shumacher in Uman in the Ukraine. As a boy he emigrated to Tredegar in Wales. There he was taken under the wing of a relative whose name was Cohen, who had become the godfather of Jewish peddlers servicing the isolated Welsh mining villages of the Rhonda with haberdashery and other supplies that the miners paid for in installments. The peddlers went out on foot on a Sunday with goods provided by Mr. Cohen and did not come back till Friday to spend Shabbes together and make up the minyan. It was suggested to Moishe that if he had the same name as the boss it would inspire confidence. So Moishe Shumacher, the Levi from Uman, became MJ Cohen. Soon he did well enough to set himself up in business on his own in Manchester as MJ Cohen, General Draper (a fancy name for selling odds and ends). Later he transferred to Cardiff. One day he sent a letter back home on his notepaper inviting relatives to come and join him. When they read the invitation they had no idea who MJ Cohen was, but they did recognize the word “General” and assumed he’d been promoted in the army and had changed his name to Draper. Which explains why we once had relatives in Manchester called Draper.

All these people I have mentioned here only had one Hebrew name from the beginning to the end of their lives, names that linked them directly to their heritage of millennia. Their surnames were secondary, like a chameleon’s skin. But they, like my Uncle Hashy, were and are all proud and contributing members of the Jewish people. As far as I am concerned that’s what counts.

2 Comments

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    I found this so fascinating that I sat down to write about my father’s family name, and to touch on my mother’s. I am still moiling over the pages which are far too particular to fit into a reply forum, but like Herman Gershon above, I urge you to write more about your family. In particular immigrant family stories are a subject of fascination–and I have often been regaled with tales of peddlers who rose to be multi-millionaires, and whose name changes did not change their deep sense of allegiance to their Jewish identity.

  • Herman Gershon

    I love these stories. keep them coming. they contribute to my sense of pride in my identity and heritage.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    Young Syrian Jewish Restauranteur Continues a Family Legacy

    JNS.org – At the turn of the century, a young Jewish immigrant arrived in New York. So begins the history of many American Jewish families. It is 27-year-old Albert Allaham’s story, too, with a few unusual twists. Albert’s “century” is the 21st—he arrived almost 100 years after the massive waves of European Jewish immigration. Rather than coming from a small town along the Danube river, his shtetl was Damascus. His first American business was not a pushcart on the Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    A Holistic Look at the Rebbe’s Life and Career (REVIEW)

    Did you know that in the entire Bible, only one birthday is mentioned and it is that of Pharaoh? And did you know that according to some scientists, by accepting Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it is impossible to prove or disprove that the sun is the gravitational center of our solar system? In his new book, REBBE, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking details as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Mitzvos New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    New Jerusalem Eatery’s Uniform Pricing Seeks to ‘Help People Make It’

    JNS.org – Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels. There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea. Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything—and that means everything—goes for five shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Primetime Drama ‘Tyrant’ Filmed Entirely in Israel (VIDEO)

    The new FX Network drama Tyrant was shot entirely in Israel, just 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, Bloomberg News reported last Tuesday. Tyrant follows the life of an Arab dictator’s second son Barry, played by Adam Rayner, who reluctantly returns home to the Middle Eastern nation of his birth to join the family business away from his suburban life in America. The elaborate set production for the primetime drama included a crew of 300 and a reported cost of over $3 million [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Supermodel: Jewish Mothers Are Constantly Trying to Set Me Up With Their Sons

    Skokie, Il-born 25-year-old Erin Heatherton (Erin Heather Bubley) is rocking the modeling world. And in a new interview accompanying a cover spread for Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine, she says Jewish moms are “constantly trying to set her up with their sons.” Imagine that – who would have thought? “The moms, they’re doing what they do. It doesn’t matter what country they live in, what city – grandmothers, too,” she admitted. “But I’m probably going to do that too one day.” Heatherton was [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.