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Open Book: Kabotchnik v. Cabot

Open Book

Kabotchnik v. Cabot

Husband-and-wife team Justin Kaplan '45, G '47, and Anne Bernays have written a funny, fascinating, and important book, The Language of Names (Simon & Schuster, $25), that makes the case--through a mass of engaging detail--that our names are consequential, that they can shape our lives. We needn't stick with the names we are given, of course. In their chapter "Names in the Melting Pot," the authors write of immigrants recasting themselves with "simplified or normalized names."

By the 1930s there were so many newly hatched Coopers and Gordons, Kings and Davises, Livingstons and Newmans, Gladstones and Harrises, Madisons and Taylors, to list some of the commoner examples, that these names had become recognizably Jewish, certainly to Jews. They were self-defeating, so far as their original purpose, to mask or assimilate Jewish identity, was concerned. One can imagine non-Jewish Coopers, Gordons, Kings, and so forth changing their names in order to protect themselves or, as actually happened, taking legal action to prevent their names from being appropriated....

The most celebrated of these rear-guard actions pitted a Philadelphia man, Harry H. Kabotchnik, who in 1923 had petitioned the court for permission to shorten his name to Cabot, against an army of outraged bluebloods. In addition to the Pennsylvania branch of the Order of Founder and Patriots, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, Kabotchnik's suit faced opposition from half a dozen genuine Cabots, representatives of what was universally, or at least New Englandly, acknowledged to be the first of Boston's first families, which made them so lofty, as a banquet toast of the time put it, that they talked "only to God." The founding Cabots--the name apparently comes from chabot, French for "catfish"--had made their money "in slaves, rum, and opium, in piracy, and by marriage," according to Leon Harris's biography of Godfrey Lowell Cabot. "There is even a story that one of the Cabots paid an impoverished historian to seek out his antecedents and that when the industrious historian traced the family...to some tenth-century Lombardy Jews, his employer paid him to forget his research."

Kabotchnik and his wife, Myrtle, argued that the name they wanted to change was "cumbersome, a hardship, and an inconvenience." In allowing their petition, Judge Charles Y. Audenreid of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas argued that the change was an acceptable example of normalization and that these new Cabots had no intention of wanting to pass themselves off as old ones. For his part, he added, he would have been flattered if the Kabotchniks had decided to call themselves Audenreid instead. The affair stirred up considerable attention and thoughtful comment. A New York Times editorial suggested that the Cabots might better have followed the example of certain medieval lords of the manor who permitted and even encouraged peasants to borrow their "lofty names." An editorial in American Hebrew deplored the loss of "Kabotchnik with its rich, sneezing tonal effects." The most enduring comment, however, parodied the familiar toast:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells have no one to talk to
Since the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God.

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