What’s In A Name?
By Elizabeth Rusch
Published in Beliefnet.com, April 2001
Have regard for your name, since it will remain for you longer than a great store of gold.
Four years ago, I, Elizabeth Schulz, took Craig Russman to be my lawfully wedded husband. Shortly after the service, a friend introduced us at the reception as Craig and Elizabeth Rusch.
The union of two equals, that’s how Craig and I saw our marriage. We were a Catholic and a Jew, finding common ground in our new faith, Unitarianism. We believed that a new last name, blended from our given names, would be an apt expression of our vision for our new life together.
Embracing a new name meant parting with the identity that last names confer. What did our original names say? My maiden name Schulz is Polish, yet is often mistaken for German. It conjures no clear religious affiliation; people assume I’m Christian or Jewish by default, since Schulz doesn’t sound Islamic or Buddhist.
My husband’s name, Russman, though, speaks volumes. It tells of the Russianmen, the Jews who fled Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms. The name also marks my husband as one of the chosen people, a living example of survival of a great tribe through periods of senseless slaughter. This is a heritage we would not abandon lightly.
We considered using just Craig’s name, but felt it didn’t reflect our vision of marriage as a union of two equals, of two families, of two heritages. We also considered hyphenating Russman-Schulz or Schulz-Russman, but found those names long and awkward. Such lengthy surnames seemed heavy baggage to ask our children to carry.
We also thought about keeping our own separate family names. After all, being a journalist, I have good professional reasons to keep my byline. And tradition would dictate that Craig keep his. But what would our children do? If they took Russman, I would feel disconnected from my own offspring. Craig would feel the same if they took my name. Having the girls take my name and the boys take Craig’s would divide the family by gender, something we did not want to do in world more interested in divisions than common ground.
So we made a choice that seemed unusual but logical: to combine our names and our heritages, taking Rus from Russman and Sch from Schulz to form the name Rusch.
One of our greatest concerns was how Craig’s grandparents, Ethel and Reuben Russman, would react. Conservative Jews in their 80s, the Russmans respected tradition. But their reaction showed how open they were to the changing times. “I guess that’s what kids do these days,” they said. We felt warmed by their acceptance. Craig’s father was uneasy about the idea at first. He told us several times: “I know a couple who considered combining their names but decided against it,” hinting that we should, too. But he ultimately respected our decision. My parents took the change in stride; in fact, my father guessed before we told him what we would do.
Others have been less accommodating. Craig and I have both had to endure some teasing. Friends and family asked us if we would name our children Craigabeth. But my husband bears the brunt of it. People who think nothing of the fact that a woman would change her name feel uneasy when a man makes that choice. “You are so soft,” one friend said. “You are making it harder for the rest of us,” another buddy complained. Others forget time and again that he changed his name. His alma mater continues to send correspondences addressed to Russman, despite his repeated requests to update their database. “They won’t get a penny from me as long as they continue this sexist behavior,” he says, tossing the fundraising letter into the trash.
On legal documents, there is rarely a place for Craig to include his premarital name. We asked for Russman to be listed somewhere on our son’s birth certificate, since space is available for my maiden name. An official told us we couldn’t. “The computer will just spit it out,” she warned.
One worry I had was that our descendents would have trouble tracing their roots. So I dug through family birth and death certificates and naturalization documents and interviewed our parents to create a family tree for our children. The name of my great-grandmother conjured up rolling hills of Irish green pastures marked off with stone fences. Annie Callahan Looney. Chickens tucked in heavy skirts, upturned earth, and bitter winters came to mind when I discovered my Polish great-grandmother’s name, Frances Growska. My grandmother’s maiden name, Weinschreider, accompanied her from Lithuania to Ellis Island. No one can recall her mother Tekle’s maiden name. It is lost forever to our family.
A family name can capture but a tiny sliver of a family’s history. To preserve more takes more work -- it takes an urge to preserve and retell your family’s stories. But a family name can reflect your vision for your marriage and your relationship with your spouse and children.
For us, the religion we eventually chose to practice as a family was also reflected in our name. I was raised Catholic and my husband Jewish, and in the blending and unifying principals of the Unitarian Universalists we found a spiritual home.
What will our children do with their names? We don’t know. Our sons and daughters may want to keep the name Rusch. They may choose to form a new name when they start a family. Or they may decide to do something else entirely. That is fine with us. We only hope that the story of our name will challenge them to choose the path that best reflects their deepest held beliefs about family history, religion, and marriage.