In Jewish services, participants are often asked for their Jewish names, which are sometimes Hebrew names and sometimes Yiddish names. The distinction came to mind recently as I was attending services to say Kaddish for my sister.
My parents gave me the aspirational names Sandford and Fredrick because they hoped I would do something prestigious with my life. The corresponding Yiddish names they gave me – Shepsel and Froyim – were straight out of the shtetl. My sister Irene teased me about Shepsel, which sounded like Shopsy, then a sausage mogul in Toronto.
My first day of Hebrew school, when I told my teacher Mr. Halberstadt, then a young law student, my names Shepsel and Froyim, he responded, “you’re Ephraim.” Yes! I tossed off my shtetl name and embraced a bona fide Hebrew name. (Ephraim was a son of Joseph and one of the twelve tribes of Israel). Ephraim had a second cool factor because it brought to mind the actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., then starring in the hit television series 77 Sunset Strip. Mr. Halberstadt was a great teacher and I enjoyed and excelled in Hebrew.
The story of my surname is more complicated and more conflicted. The family name on my father’s side was Borinsky, which is unmistakably eastern European Jewish. My grandfather Harold had three brothers, Jacob, Joe, and Norman. Harold, Jacob, and Joe were all in business and didn’t change their names. Norman, the youngest, went to law school and, in the era of Jewish quotas and restrictive covenants, it was obvious that he would do better in the world if his surname was less identifiably Jewish, so he changed it to Borins. He began his career as a Crown attorney and then went into private practice, and ultimately became Queen’s Counsel, as well as President of Holy Blossom Temple.
In the next generation, most of the family either changed to the surname Borins (my parents Sidney and Beverley) or kept it (Norman’s sons Stephen and Edward). At various times there were six Borins lawyers: Norman, Stephen, Sam, Andy, Sharon (Borinsky) Shapiro, and Gwen. Consequently, the name Borins was well-known in Toronto legal circles.
As someone who went into a different line of work than practicing law in Toronto, I have mixed feelings about the surname Borins. Though the two syllables are common, the combination is unusual. I have been asked more often than not to spell my surname, and often the voice on the other side of the line hears it as “Borens,” “Borns,” or “Bornis.” I sometimes wonder why my ancestors didn’t choose a more common mid-twentieth century Toronto surname such as Burns (Scots), Barnes (English), or Byrne (Irish). Or perhaps they could have chosen Baron, like the ancestors of coreligionists Martin Baron (editor of The Washington Post) or the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen or actor Sacha Baron Cohen. I’m sure none of them were barons in eastern Europe.
I’ve never denied my Jewish heritage and identity and, when asked what kind of name Borins is, I would always respond that it was Eastern European Jewish, changed from Borinsky. I began publishing under Borins in my early 20s, and soon had a body of work under that name. And I thought and still think that the name honours my Borins ancestors and relatives.
All that said, if I could go back half a century to the point when I was starting my career, I might very well have changed my name back to Borinsky. It is more identifiably eastern European Jewish than Borins. By the early Seventies, the anti-Semitism of quotas and restrictive covenants had passed. Returning to Borinsky would have been a statement of Jewish identification, identity, and pride. Finally, Borinsky is more easily recognized by the person on the other side of the line than Borins.
Among the readers of this post are some of my Borins and Borinsky cousins, and I’m curious about their thoughts about the Borins(ky) name.
Regardless of my legal name, I can write my posts under whatever name I choose.
Sandford (Ephraim) Borinsky