Last week, my son’s elementary school hosted its winter band and choral concert. While waiting for the fifth and sixth grade musicians to finish tuning their instruments, I scanned the brightly colored program to find my son’s name misspelled. Instead of Ben Marx, he was now mistakenly dubbed “Ben Tharx.”
After the concert, I reassured my chagrined son that “The Tharx” sounded like a superhero — possibly one who seeks justice for the downtrodden using his “tharxian” powers, whatever they might be (but likely involving a saxophone).
I was empathetic to his irritation about the misprint. When I was growing up, my last name, Forman, was constantly misspelled with an additional vowel, suggesting that I might be related to a renowned boxer and grilling specialist. And although it might be exciting to George Foreman’s relative, I trace my roots to a different family tree. (To this day, when I spell my name aloud, I automatically add, “No ‘e,’” as if warding off nuts offered to someone with food allergies.)
A few days after tucking away the concert program into my son’s box of keepsakes, I received an unexpected package from my dad. At 82, my father seems to be on a mission to divest himself of worldly goods. Every time he comes to visit, he produces artifacts from the trunk of his car: photo albums, diplomas, books, and last time, a small statute of a Roman centurion. In his latest package, I discovered copies of passenger lists from steamships with names like “The Patricia” and “The Lapland,” which had transported my great-grandparents to this country. There were also registration forms from the U.S Army draft during World War I, copies of pages from the 1920 census, applications for American citizenship, and even a copy of my grandparents’ 1935 marriage license.
Almost exactly 105 years ago, my great-grandfather arrived in New York City from an Eastern European region known as Bessarabia. His town, then called Vadul-Rascov or even Wodrashchkow, is now a part of Moldova, though it may have belonged to Russia at that moment in February of 1913 when landed on these shores. While other passengers’ nationalities were registered as Slovenian, Lithuanian, Polish, or German, my relatives were labeled as “Hebrews.”
After studying these documents, I realized that my great-grandfather, Nathan Forman — who lived as a boarder with a family in Portland, Oregon for seven years before having enough money to bring his wife and two sons over to this country — did not start off as Nathan Forman without an “e.” Rather, he was Nussen Fuhrmann — a 36-year-old man poor in money but rich in the letters “s” and “n.” By 1929, when he filed naturalization papers, he was calling himself “Natan Forman” — which had morphed from the 1920 census report listing him as “Nathan Furman.”
Did my great-grandfather care one bit about how his name looked in English? Probably not. He was a full-grown man when he came to the U.S. He was raised speaking and writing Yiddish, and probably had never written many letters in English.
For weeks now, since receiving the package, I’ve been staring at his signature on a 1926 declaration of intention from the Naturalization Service. My great-grandfather was 49 at the time that he applied for permanent residency. Described officially as five feet eight inches tall, with brown hair and gray eyes, this humble man managed to save his family from almost certain death, as in 1941 the Jews of his homeland were murdered by fascists. I keep examining his signature, with the painstaking twirls of the upper and lower case “n.” His capital “F” falls below a line, and the name, “Fuhrmann,” ascends with each successive letter.
For him to leave his familiar life behind — to be apart from his young wife and two little boys for almost a decade, to start off fresh in a country without relatives, or a profession, or even a grasp of the language — his existence must have been pretty grim in Bessarabia. My dad told me that his grandmother — left on her own while her husband was in America — used to row the family across the Dniester River to escape from marauding bands of raiders who would regularly antagonize the Jewish villagers. They would hide in the forest across the water until the raids had died down, and then row back to their homes.
Therefore, was worth it for my great-grandfather to make his way to America, to start at zero.
I think my great-grandfather, whom I never met, would have chuckled at the way Forman is frequently misspelled in English today. After all, we were “Hebrews” — and the name, using the Hebrew alphabet, was originally spelled Fey, Vav, Reish, Mem, and final Nun. I can imagine his bewilderment over my keeping the family name — with or without the “e” or “u” or extra “n”s — even after I married. It never occurred to me to change my name, especially as I married in my 30s. Nathan Forman changed his name enough for all of us.
I think he would tell me to treasure this country, and to not let the door close behind us, rather, to hold it open for the next guy who needs a safe harbor. It’s a big country. It’s a golden country. There is plenty of space for a family — and a name — to grow.