I have a non-generic last name. It’s easy to spell–like it sounds, shu-le-vitz–even though people always want to insert a German-looking “c” between the “s” and the “h” or double the “v” into a “w.” But common the name is not. It’s no Smith or Johnson or even Cohen or Schwartz. To the best of my knowledge, the Shulevitzes are an obscure family of Jews from an embattled corner of Eastern Europe who outlasted their variously Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and Belarussian rulers over the course of several bloody centuries mainly by escaping notice. Perhaps as a result, Shulevitzes are hard to find, at least in the United States: A search of Web-based U.S. phone directories turns up only five I don’t know personally.
This is why coming across my name in a book–a novel!--was a scary, even momentous, occasion. There it was, on Page 94 of David Leavitt’s latest novel, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, a college-and-after coming-of-age novel about a gay writer named Martin Bauman and his friends who strongly resemble Leavitt and his crowd (I should know; I hung around its fringes in college–how else would he have learned my name?). Granted, “Shulevitz” appears only once, in a 15-word parenthetical remark: Shulevitz was the last name of Bauman’s college roommate Jim’s Lithuanian grandfather, before the old man changed his name at Ellis Island. The name he adopted was Sterling, “in homage to British currency.” The monetary allusion isn’t accidental. Jim Sterling’s father is a rich, upwardly mobile Jew, a type that starts to seem tacky to Baumann once he meets his first WASP. She’s a down-to-earth editor who happens to work at (and whose family once financed) a magazine that is not identified but is clearly the old New Yorker.
OK, so it’s not the most auspicious entry into the annals of literature: Shulevitz as a name so unacceptable that it must be erased in order to become something equally unacceptable, although this time by way of revealing crass social aspirations. (You might think that Baumann’s feelings about Sterling vs. the WASP are a setup for a later debunking of his own Anglophilic overestimation of The New Yorker–whose original publishers were in reality German Jews named Fleischmann–but that emotional reversal never comes.)
I have no right to whine, however. I bungled a far better chance at immortality a year ago, when a former boss, Kurt Andersen, informed me that a minor character in his then-forthcoming novel, Turn of the Century, was named Cubby Shulevitz. I gulped and stammered and asked so many nervous questions about poor Cubby that the next time I saw Kurt he said he’d changed the name to Cubby Koplowitz. Alas for me! Cubby Koplowitz, ne Shulevitz, though not an entirely admirable fellow, would have shed more lasting glory on my name than Leavitt’s self-extinguishing Mr. Shulevitz did. Cubby, a rather moist and overemotional Midwesterner, isn’t the world’s best dresser:
Cubby’s shirt cuffs are unbuttoned and rolled with his jacket sleeves up past his wrists. He’s wearing an M.C. Escher necktie, and his argyle V-neck sweater vest is tucked into his Dockers.
But he’s a hell of a salesman:
“The business concept is cemeterial, but it’s really so much more than that, George [Cubby tells the hero of the novel]. It’s location-based entertainment that’s nature-themed, spirit-themed, love-themed. And with a major personal video component. … Our memorial marker is a video concept. We’re developing a weatherproof monitor, polymer casing, approximate size and shape of a conventional headstone. Right? So instead of just a chunk of granite … we’d have a loop of beautiful video scenes of your mom in life, dissolving, fading in, fading out–well, you know, George, better than I do, the show business possibilities. It’s mass customization. Right?”
Besides being amusingly vulgar, by the end of the novel, Cubby is extremely rich. He has come up with a brilliant scheme for beefing up religious attendance by turning standard ritual into Disneyfied entertainment packages and distributing them to churches, synagogues, and churches throughout the land, and he has signed up the Vatican as his first customer.
I could have had Cubby but hesitated and was lost! I suppose the Koplowitzes need the attention as much as the Shulevitzes do. Still, it raises the question. What is the point of coming to America and not changing your name and getting your children and grandchildren into good schools so they can go into publishing and brush up against people who may someday become famous authors–if literary incarnation is not to be the result? This is why I now issue this plea to Slate readers: If you should happen to be writing a publishable novel and want to create a character whose name seems to connote certain, um, Semitic qualities, why, feel free to borrow my name! I wouldn’t want to have lived and labored in vain.