Our kids’ part-Jewish, part-Italian last name kind of sounds like a syndrome — as though two scientists from different backgrounds came together to study some rare, debilitating set of symptoms before being jointly memorialized in this disease’s name. But my kids’ awkward-sounding last name isn’t a syndrome. It’s what happens when two egalitarian parents feel equally strongly about their kids having their last name, no matter what a mouthful it is.
I have grown to love the unique string of 14 letters that are attached to my two kids — and my two kids alone in the entire universe. Other people, though, don’t seem to be as enamored.
Despite mailing baby announcements with my kids’ full names, and holiday cards with those same 14-letter last names every year thereafter, too many people in our orbit leave out my part, the Bodgas, when they use my children’s last name. If it happened once or twice, I could believe it was accidental. When it happens right after they’ve received one of those holiday cards, I have a tough time believing it’s not on purpose. To complicate matters, my last name most often gets left off of the checks these people kindly write my kids for birthdays and holidays. Saying, “Hey, thanks for your generosity that you don’t owe us one bit, but it’s a microaggression to omit the Jewish half of my kids’ last names” wouldn’t go over well. Traditional people don’t tend to believe in microaggressions. And they still can’t believe I didn’t take my husband’s last name.
I love my husband, Paul, deeply. We’ve been together since we were 13 years old. But I also (now) love my last name, Bodgas. I didn’t always. I was teased for it as a kid. Butt kiss. Body gas. Bad gas. At the height of “Terminator” fandom, my 10-year-old classmate, in his best Austrian accent, told me, “Arnold Schwarzenegger called. He said you have ‘bahd gahs.'” I feel better that he’s a stand-up comic now. I also feel better about my last name these days.
I recently learned that Bodgas supposedly comes from the German for “bath house.” I don’t know what kind of bath house my ancestors were hanging around, but this fact delights me to no end. I like to think they were running a secret retreat for sexually free Eastern Europeans to be themselves. I imagine the reality is less scandalous.
More importantly, Bodgas is the name that many more people had until they were wiped out in the Holocaust. It’s the name a long-lost cousin in Canada used to find me after doing some research. It’s the name my father, an only child, passed down to his two daughters before unexpectedly passing away in his 60s. It’s the name that only a handful of people on Facebook have, and they are my mom, my sister, a cousin in Israel, her daughter, and me. That’s the sum total of Bodgases that we’re aware of because of a combination of Hitler’s efforts, a series of daughters taking their husbands’ names, and a cousin who inexplicably changed his last name to Steinberg.
My sister isn’t having children. I don’t know my Israeli cousin well enough to know her plans for our last name. I do know that I don’t want to be the reason the Bodgas name goes extinct. My wonderful husband understands this and respects this. Why can’t everyone else?
When I see cards addressed to a name so close to one of my son’s, just without the Bodgas, I feel erased. I feel that my family’s struggle to survive isn’t worth writing out six extra letters to some people. I feel my choice to honor my family along with my husband’s is an eyeroll-worthy nuisance to them.
It’s possible my sons won’t keep their hyphenated last name forever. (It does sound like a syndrome, after all.) Even though I’d be sad if they decide to ditch the Bodgas, that’d be their choice. Because it’s their name. You know whose choice it isn’t? The people leaving it off cards and checks.
My kids, thankfully, are too young to care. These checks could be addressed to “Your name is stupid lol” and they wouldn’t mind much as long as they get to use the money for Pokemon cards. But my oldest is 9 now and getting closer to understanding the full importance of his name. It will break my heart if he feels a sliver of what I feel when people choose to acknowledge only a part of his identity. Until that time, I remind my kids of how special it is to have their two-of-a-kind last name. Even if others don’t recognize that.