Mendel Letters 63 — How We Got the Name Singer (Maybe)

February 5, 2022

Dear Mendel,

In an opening scene in the movie Godfather II (1974), Vito Andolini, the future Godfather, arrives at Ellis Island as a young boy after fleeing from a bloody vendetta in Corleone, Sicily. Vito had been told not to speak to anyone, so when an immigration official asks his name, he remains silent. The officials look at a tag he is wearing and enter his name as Vito Corleone.

There is debate among historians over whether officials changed the names of immigrants at Ellis Island, either out of carelessness or because they were trying to Anglicize them. Some argue that the immigrants themselves selected new last names that they thought were more American. Felicia’s last name was Goldstein. Her family thinks their grandparents chose the name for that reason when they arrived in America.

It has been harder to figure out how we got to be Singer, but I now think I have a clue. Zayde Solomon and his brothers were from Galicia, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, later part of Poland, and now part of Ukraine. How that happened is another story.

Singer was the last name of Solomon’s mother. His father was Ben-Zion Prisand. The family legend is that Solomon took his mother’s name after she died because Solomon and his brothers Abraham and David were abandoned by their father when he remarried. Solomon was seven when his mother, who was born Esther bat Zinger, died and ten when arrangements were made for him to live with a family that needed a “boy” to help around the house. Ben means son of in Hebrew, bat means daughter of. Another explanation for the name is that it was a “mistake” or a choice at Ellis Island.

What has puzzled me about these stories is that the three brothers came to the United States at very different times, Solomon in 1912, I think Abraham was already here, and David about 1938. It couldn’t have been an Ellis Island mistake and it was not likely it was a coordinated decision.

Another explanation rings true to me. Jews in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire were not required to adopt last names until the start of the 19th century. These became their secular last names, but they still kept their religious names with their last name being their father’s first name. My religious name is Yishua-Heschel ben Menacham-Mendel. Zayde always called me Heschel and refused to use my American name. I think your religious name was Menacham-Mendel ben Zalman-Yiztak. Zayde’s religious name, which is the name he would have been known by in the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe, was Zalman-Yiztak ben Zion.

So where did Singer come from? Galicia was a rural backwater and Galician Jews in the 19th century followed religious traditions when they married, not civil law. Without a civil marriage certificate, Ben Zion and Esther’s children would have legally been assigned her last name at birth, Zinger, at least on legal documents, which is how when they came to America, we became Singer.

Singer turned out to be a very appropriate family name. You loved to sing and at Century Village in Florida you were part of a number of performing groups. I didn’t inherit your musical ability, but my son Solomon (Zalman Benyomin ben Yishua-Heschel) did. You and Solomon both performed at Heidi’s wedding. I asked if I could join the two of you for a trio, the Three Singers. You both loudly answered “NO WAY!”

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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