Thatcher, Wilson, Brown, Johnson. All such very English surnames.

What about that quintessential Englishman and film star Leslie Howard? His original name was Leslie Steiner. So why the name change?

Pre-war, if you wanted to succeed on stage or in the movies (or anywhere really) you wouldn’t be able to do so if you had a Jewish sounding name.  With all the antisemitism that existed one of the first things a Jewish actor did was to reinvent himself or herself.

Hands up if you knew that Lauren Bacall was once Betty Joan Perske? Or that Laurence Harvey was born Laruschka Mischa Skikne?

Pretty understandable why a would-be actor with the name of Issur Danielovitch Demsky would want to change his name to Kirk Douglas.

And then there’s Gene Wilder – Jerome Silberman.  Harry Houdini – Erich Weisz.   Tony Curtis – Bernie Schwartz. Natalie Portman – Natalie Hershlag. And countless others. Who knew, for example, that Des O’Connor, the comedian, was Jewish?

On the other hand we have Whoopi Goldberg who isn’t Jewish.  Her original name was Caryn Johnson.  Whoopi changed her surname because her mother said that she would be more likely to succeed in Hollywood with a Jewish sounding surname! How ironic is that!

Today, of course, it’s OK to have a foreign sounding surname and many of today’s Jewish celebrities have kept their original names. For example, Rachel Weisz, Jerry Seinfeld, Lisa Kudrow and Ben Stiller.

It wasn’t just in the field of acting that Jewish people felt the need to change their names.

My late father, the writer R. L. Finn was born Hyman Feinman.

One day at his East End school, in the absence of the teacher, all the Jewish boys in the class wrote on the board the English name they would give themselves when they grew up. My father chose the name Ralph Leslie Finn. I imagine because he thought they were quintessentially English names. Ralph was maybe after the actor Ralph Richardson. And Leslie after Leslie Howard. My dad, like so many people, probably did not realise that Leslie Howard was himself actually Jewish!

However, Feinman was not our original name. In fact, I don’t actually know our family’s name!

The story goes that my grandfather came to London ahead of his family to find a job and home for them. When my grandmother arrived as an immigrant at the London Docks, along with her parents (my great grandparents) and her firstborn child (my dad came along more than a decade later) she was asked for the family name. She did not speak any English so showed them the letter she had received from my grandfather which said that he had found them all somewhere to live. The letter was written in Yiddish and said something along the lines of: “Ich bin ein feinman.”  I am now a fine man.  The officials took this as meaning that the family name was Feinman so that’s what we were known as from then on!

Nearly every Jewish family has an apocryphal story of how their name evolved. If your surname was something incredibly unpronounceable and unspellable the chaps at the docks would just say – OK you’re Levy, you’re Cohen and so on.

On the other hand my married name, Neidle, is almost the original name. The name is unusual and the few Neidles in the UK are almost all members of our family. OH (other half) is into genealogy and has checked out the family name.  Where his father’s family originally came from there were once many Neidles – or Nudel as it was then. The name literally means needle (!) but is translated as tailor. My late father-in-law’s parents came from two villages in what was for a time Poland, but are now in the Ukraine. He visited his relatives there in 1937 and passed on to us an evocative photographic record of the family at that time. Sadly, almost every one of them perished in the Holocaust.

On a happier note, let me tell you about my late father’s brother, my Uncle Ben who spelt his surname Fynn. Uncle Ben had a beautiful voice and became an opera singer. He was the principal tenor of Sadler’s Wells and the Carl Rosa Opera companies.  When he began recording it was suggested that he change his name to something more Italian so he became … Benvenuto Finelli!

Tomorrow is what Jewish people call the Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the date in the Hebrew calendar when my father died.  The English date was October 30, 1999. Tonight, according to Jewish tradition, I will light a candle in memory of my father. May his memory be a blessing.                                                                                    

Benvenuto Finelli (aka Ben Fynn aka Bennett Feinman or Finerman) 1910-1987

Ralph Leslie Finn  (aka Hyman Feinman/Finerman/Fineman aka my dad) 1912-1999

© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems


  1. Just wanted to wish you Chayim Aruchim (a long and healthy life) on the occasion of the yartzeit for your dad.

    Talking of changing names, Eric Blair wrote a book called Down & Out in Paris & London about poverty in those two cities. He changed his name to reflect two of the most diverse people, the richest person in the land (King George) and the poorest, the poverty stricken of Ipswich who gathered around the River Orwell in Suffolk. We know that writer better as George Orwell.


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