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Why I’m Keeping My Name

I’ve been teased about it my whole life, but my name is a part of me. Getting married won’t change that.

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock)

My partner and I have been talking about marriage lately, especially since President Obama made his long-awaited announcement in support of same-sex marriage. I’ve been with Tony for 15 years, and we’ve talked about the possibility before—what kind of ceremony we’d have, who we’d invite (and not invite), where we’d take our honeymoon. But recently, as we walked our dog around Greenwich Village, Tony brought up something we’d never discussed: He wanted to know if I’d be interested in changing my name if we got married.

I know that I’m expected to be flexible as I think about the compromises that marriage entails. But when it comes to changing my name, the answer is no. Tony’s last name is very nice, but it’s not me. I’m not an Acosta.

I’m a Nishball. And I’ll always be a Nishball. Although I once resented everything about it, my name and I have been through a lot together, and I’m not about to let it go.

Growing up in Connecticut as a shy, awkward kid who manifested OCD symptoms as a way to deal with unresolved anger issues, I was bullied a lot. After all, I was Jewish, gay (though not out yet), not particularly athletic (a punishable offense on its own), and a Nishball (kerosene for the fire). My name was the bright red target that accompanied me everywhere. The taunting would often start with a derisively hissed, “Nish-baaaall,” or “Matzo-ball,” or the oh-so-creative “Jew-ball” and escalate from there. When we later moved 30 minutes away, I began telling the kids at my new school that I was Catholic, in the hope of removing at least one of my offenses from the list. But my bar mitzvah a year later made that one difficult to keep pulling off.

When I became an adult, scrunched-faced strangers would condescendingly ask, “What kind of name is that?” as if I should be horrified to be stuck with such a thing. I once received an impromptu marriage proposal from a very odd telemarketer who fell in love with the name and wanted it for her own. But she was a rare exception.

Although it’s completely phonetic, my name has always confounded people. I generally have to spell it slowly, as if it were a new word they were learning on Sesame Street. Yet, with every spelling came the same realization and joy of discovery: “Oh, just like it sounds!” When I lived in Italy, the locals were so befuddled that I temporarily Italian-ized it, and for two years I was Jeff Ballo, and occasionally Goffredo Ballo. The upside is that people almost always remember me. Well, maybe not exactly me, but my name. “Oh, right, we’ve met before, I remember your name.”

***

The surname Nishball didn’t even exist prior to my great grandfather’s emigration from Austria in the early 1890s. The story has gotten muddled over the years, but the name was supposedly born of a combination of the Austrian town of Kitzbühel, from which the family emigrated, their lack of English, and a confused and indifferent immigration officer at Ellis Island—thus, the name Knitzbol came into existence.

Apparently, being a Knitzbol just wasn’t acceptable, so the family began playing around with the spelling. It morphed from Knitzbol to Knishbol before arriving at the current spelling around 1915. The creation of this quirky, utterly unique last name has produced a club with very few members: After four generations, there are fewer than 40 Nishballs, all related to me.

My mother, though she loved my father enough to take his name in 1959, was an unwilling Nishball. She briefly lobbied for a change to Nelson or Newton shortly after they were married. (She didn’t win, but she found a way around it—deciding that she could not abide being called Mrs. Nishball, she told all my friends to call her by her first name, Marcia.) So, of course, from the moment I was born, she had been expecting the inevitable day when I, too, would demand a less objectionable surname. One afternoon, when I was 7, I defiantly marched over to her and announced, “I want to change my name.”

She readied herself for battle over why I could not be a Newton or a Nelson. “OK … what do you want to change it to?” she asked.

“Zeke!” I blurted out. I wanted to be Zeke Nishball.

I then refused to acknowledge anyone who didn’t call me Zeke. I thought it was cool and would give Nishball a much-needed hip factor. (It had never occurred to me to change my last name—I assumed that was etched in stone—and if I was going to be an oddball, I was at least going to be one with a cool first name.) But I was wrong. After five months, I went back to Jeff and accepted my future as the nerdy Jew with the funny name, and my fate as a regular dodgeball target.

When I was 12, I wrote a letter to the comedian Totie Fields, whom I had enjoyed for years on game shows and celebrity roasts. She was Jewish, rich, and famous, even with her crazy name. When I heard she was in the hospital having her leg amputated after a bout of phlebitis, I decided to send her a letter. I took out the blue-and-brown notepaper I had picked out at Klein’s Stationery. (Didn’t every 12-year-old boy have his own correspondence stationery?) I told her how sorry I was to hear about her health problems, that I hoped she’d get better soon, and that I thought she was very funny. I then concluded with a job query: By the way, I want to be an actor, so if you know of anyone looking for a precocious 12-year-old to star in their next show, please tell them to call me.

Nine months later, Totie was on Merv Griffin in her first post-surgery TV appearance. Ten minutes into the interview, Merv said, “You must have received a lot of letters and well-wishes while you were in the hospital.”

“Ohhhhh, yes, I certainly did, Merv,” she said with her trademark nasal, raspy voice.

“Are there any that stand out?”

“Well …” And with that, she went into her purse. “There is one letter that is my absolute favorite that I read to all my friends. I even recited it recently at a party. I’ve read it so many times, I can practically quote the entire thing from memory.”

She lifted her arm to display a tattered piece of paper.

“Hey, that looks just like Jeff’s stationery,” said my mother, who was needlepointing while watching the program with my father and me.

In Totie’s hand was my unmistakable blue-and-brown paper. “It’s from this 12-year-old boy in Connecticut who says he wants to be an actor.”

She proceeded to read the letter aloud to the entire nation—well, to those who were home on a Friday night at 8 p.m. and watched Merv Griffin.

“And it’s signed …”

She paused for dramatic effect.

“… get this, Merv … it’s signed … Jeff … Nishball.”

With theatrical flair, she spread her arms out, as if she were Mama Rose in Gypsy envisioning a Broadway marquee. Then with a playful, throaty laugh, she bellowed, “Can you see the name Jeff Nishball up in lights?”

Merv enthusiastically jumped in: “Well, with a name like Jeff Nishball, I’d certainly go see him.”

Totie looked out into the audience and instructed, “Remember that name, Jeff Nishball.”

Our local newspaper interviewed me and I became a minor celebrity at school. I loved all three days of it. After that, I began standing up for myself more and not taking crap from people who made fun of me. “Yeah, I’m a Jew, so what?”

A little over a year later, I heard that Totie Fields was slated to come to the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Ct., to do her stand-up act. My parents bought tickets, and I contacted her. She invited me to come backstage afterward and said she was looking forward to finally meeting me. Sadly, several weeks prior to her scheduled appearance, she died of a heart attack. I was devastated at never getting to meet the woman who told the world to remember my name.

Even though I eventually changed my career trajectory, and the Nishball name has not appeared in lights—yet—my name stopped being an embarrassment, and I eventually came out as a proud Nishball. (My gay coming out, unfortunately, took a bit longer; it didn’t happen until I was 31.)

Tony (left) and Jeff. (Courtesy of the author)

What I once viewed as a negative has become a strong positive. Like many things in life, once I stopped fighting it and apologizing for it, and stopped trying to fit in, everything fell into place. I’ve finally accepted who I am—all of it. And I now love when friends opt for calling me Nishball or Nishy. Now my name is part of my identity.

And that’s why, even if Tony and I decide to walk down the aisle, I’m keeping my name. I even suggested that Tony take my name, but he didn’t go for it. I understood. He’s got a good name. But it’s not Nishball.

***

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marjorie ingall says:

ROCK ON, NISHBALL. Great piece.

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Good on you Jeff! Can’t help but think what fate would have bestowed on you had you attended a Jewish school, matzah ball is as far as the goyim could go with their limited knowledge of Yiddish cuisine. Since you may have lost out on some good nosh, here’s Ms. Roden for you: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/2/Food/Ashkenazic_Cuisine/Poland_and_Russia/The_Knish/Knish_Dough_and_Fillings.shtml Enjoy, what could become a signature recipe. Knock ‘em out!

Mazel tov to you! And your intended! Great piece!

Nishball for the win! Tony is lucky to have you.

Um, these are homosexuals. Does this really have a place on a Jewish website?

I am completely sick and tired of the homosexual agenda trying to equate the marriage of a man and woman to single gender marriage. Why do the majority of normal Americans have to be expected to openly and willingly accept this societal aberration? Last I checked, what you do in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom, not be forced upon all unsuspecting and disapproving peoples. Enough already. Do you really have no other identity than that of what gender you have relations with? Is the homosexual community that narrow and uninteresting? Just live your life and leave the social agenda alone.

    whoffman says:

    It’s interesting that anyone would read this piece – which never
    mentions bedrooms or any kind of bedroom-related activity – and have this kind
    of response. It’s the homophobes who can’t stop thinking about sex, equating
    every minute of gay life with sex. Gay people, like straight people, spend most
    of our time outside the bedroom, working at our jobs, creating our families, and
    building our communities (including the Jewish community). The so-called “homosexual
    agenda,” as reflected in this piece, would seem to involve such nefarious
    things as watching Merv Griffin, writing letters to Totie Fields, and making
    lifetime commitments to our loving partners – all while maintaining a healthy
    sense of humor in the face of blind, uninformed hatred. A tremendous threat to
    the fabric of American society.

    Gay people in the state of New York, where the author lives,
    are finally free to marry their longtime partners. The overwhelming majority of
    New Yorkers support this move, and those who don’t probably won’t be invited to
    Jeff’s wedding anyway. But for those who think that being married is only about
    what happens in the bedroom, I can only say this: You clearly don’t know much
    about marriage.

William Winkler says:

Will Winkler
Very funny and very interesting !
Coming from Austria and still having family in Kitz (Kitzbuehel). I proudly
share a family tree going back 400 years.There is also some Yiddish in my gene pool,
but lucky for me ; my Dad was able to produce his baptism papers as a Catholic.
The Third Reich literally went over the population with a fine comb 74 years ago.
While I hardly met any jewish folks during my first 21 years in the country of my birth,
I was able to make up for it in the seventies here in Toronto, known as Hollywood North.
As a Tech I worked for 14 years in the Motion Picture and Television Industry , mingling
with many jewish actors , directors and producers. It was an entertaining time , a people with a golden heart and a great sense of humor.
Shalom to Mr. Jeff Nishball.

For whatever it is worth I support gay marriage. However, as the 2 comments above show this site may be a Jew’s only exposure to homosexual life. Knowing that you might reconsider publishing articles of this type. All it seems to do is portray gay people as shallow, superficial, and narcissistic.

R F Scherma says:

Hey Zeke!

What fun! This is a rollicking pieces of humor that had me smiling all the way through. The Totie Fields reference is a riot and I’m with you, the name Nishball is a winner! We need to read more of your work. Write on!

jamiesin says:

Wonderful! And, Nishy is a natural.

I just loved reading that you wanted to change your name to Zeke Nishball.

When I was about 11 years old, even though I went to a Hebrew Day School, I decided that I wanted to change my obviously Jewish name from Yaakov Cohn to…Jacob Quinn.

My late father, a Orthodox Rabbi, could be quite stern, But on this occasion, he listened, thought for a moment and said, “If you still want to do that when you’re 15, I’ll support you.”

He was a wise man.
Yaakov Cohn

May you and Tony have a long and happy marriage!

I feel your pain and revel in your acceptance. My nice Jewish last name is Streiff. “As in ‘trouble and,’ I learned to say to help people pronounce it. My father was 10 when WWII ended, and he still can’t accept that our last name is obviously German. He claims it’s Swiss. (The grandparents came here from places like Romania, Russia, and Riga, Latvia. We have no idea where we got a German name.)

So I grew up with a name no one could spell, no one could pronounce, detached from history and nearly unique. We were always the only Streiffs we knew. Even my Uncle (the one who married my aunt who grew up Streiff!) teased us about the damn name.

But when I married my sweetheart — a convert named Fraser — I could no more give up Streiff than I could have the wedding somewhere other than a synagogue. So we compromised and hyphenated.

And about 6 years later, when he confessed that he loathed having a hyphenated name, I said we could drop Fraser but I wouldn’t drop Streiff. (Hyphenation is a pain for anyone at this point in history, but it was worse for a man, because no one could seem to understand that a *man* actually HAD one.)

So now we’re both just Streiff. And so are both our younger kids. One of these days we will get around to legally changing our oldest’s last name.

So like I said, I revel in your acceptance. A weird name can be a curse, but it can also be a blessing. Everyone I went to school with can still find me on facebook, after all!

My grandfather changed our family name from Hirschburg to Burgh in 1944 when my father (of blessed memory) entered the army. Now I live as Mark David Burgh, a name that sounds like a Scots barrister. A mixed blessing, I guess. But Jewish names are pliable, many imposed on us by Austrian bureaucrats to demean us. These surnames have no real credibility. Founding Israelis understood this, freely taking Hebrew names to replace older, more degrading names.

I had been looking forward to jettisoning Epstein for so long. . .it always felt clumsy to me and there has always been the Epst-een or Epst-ine question. . .and there there was the immediately-identifiable-as-Jewish issue in my younger, identity issues days. . .but when I married my husband I just couldn’t become a vanilla Johnson, (no offense, Hubby), so plain, so gentile, (not that there’s anything wrong with that). For so long I had wanted something simple, easy to pronounce and write, short and elegant like Johnson, so naturally Epstein-Johnson was the way to go.

what a wonderful piece, I got sucked in as I usually do by the author’s stories.. I grew up with a terrible last name, which I know was changed through Ellis Island, and couldn’t wait to get rid of it! You go Jeff, and keep that Nishball rolling!

Deb says:

As someone who also grew up wanting a “fabulous” last name I found this essay to be a funny and poignant tale of acceptance and growth. A delightful account of the road to internal freedom!

Bobby says:

A wonderful essay on the trials of adolescence morphing into adult acceptance. Poignant, humorous, and truthful leaving the reader wanting more. Let’s have more,
Jeff Nishball.

Beth says:

I thoroughly enjoyed your account of “Growing Up Nishball!” Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to reading, “Flamingos in My Garden (Great title!!)”

Beth says:

I thoroughly enjoyed your account of “Growing Up Nishball!” Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to reading, “Flamingos in My Garden (Great title!!)”

Mazel tov to you both. Remember: Virtually all American surnames are patronymic so your choice of last name matters little whether it remains Nishball or becomes Acosta. But ZEKE is a great first name. Please publish your visions as the Prophet Ezekiel published his.

Mazel tov to you both. Remember: Virtually all American surnames are patronymic so your choice of last name matters little whether it remains Nishball or becomes Acosta. But ZEKE is a great first name. Please publish your visions as the Prophet Ezekiel published his.

Shari says:

That was a very enjoyable read, Im sure you touched many readers on different levels.
I look forward to reading more of your articles and…seeing Jeff Nishball in lights.
Great picture of you and Tony, you look like a very sweet couple. All the best

You didn’t mention in your article how you lied about having a degree from Northwestern when you lived in Italy.

Funny, you talk about getting married in your article and I was at your wedding ceremony years ago in Manhattan. What else did you make up in the article?

Saw your article in today’s NYTimes and googled you to read more about/by you. I think your grandmother (great grandmother??) was one of my grandmother’s best friend in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And my grandmother had a “challenging” name, too. Anna Garbelnick. Try spelling that!

Myles Lenaught says:

My friend’s last name is Cummings… it could have been a lot worse for you.

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Why I’m Keeping My Name

I’ve been teased about it my whole life, but my name is a part of me. Getting married won’t change that.