Photo by Ron Bennetts.
Photo by Ron Bennetts.

When I googled the meaning of my last name, I felt the same way I felt while visiting the museum at Gettysburg when a docent urged me to search the database and see if my ancestors had been involved in the battle. I tried to tell him no one related to me had set foot in America before 1920, but he told me, “just check anyway! You never know!” ignoring my assertions that actually, I did know; that I’d have liked my ancestors to be illustrious, but they weren’t even traceable. My father’s father, who passed through Ellis Island with his family sometime in the 1920s, was a Jew from the Russian Empire. All records are probably gone if there ever were any. I suppose information on the origins of my name might subsist somewhere even though its bearers have faded from history, but I feel rootless because my roots have gone unrecorded, and that seems to make all aspects of my family legacy matter less. I was always jealous of people who could trace their lineage back for centuries; fascinated as I was with history, my lack of family history seemed tragic, especially alongside classmates with last names like Clemenceau (not a coincidence of naming, but the real thing). In elementary school I completed a project on one of those folding display boards that followed the genealogy of European royalty from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis XIII; labyrinthine, dense connections soldered this family tree together. Off to the side of the board was my own family tree, untethered to any influential historical figure.

Ironically, when I search for my roots the Internet invokes an ancient past. “Lever last name meaning” turns up possible names that might have originated the last name of other families called Lever but have nothing to do with me. Most are Saxon or Anglo-Norman: Levre, meaning hare and by extension fleet-footed; the intriguing Leofhere, from leof (beloved) and here (army); and the poetic Loefer, a patch of marsh where reeds or irises grow. All evoke the green and brown English countryside, hares running through the rushes, genteel spring twilights. The nostalgia for this world I have never experienced is a heritage I could have felt even more keenly if it were mine: the idyllic England that never really existed outside of the thinly disguised fantasy worlds of Tolkien, Lewis, Carroll or Rowling, but that their writing has taught generations of children to yearn for. But my identity has no more to do with these beautiful images than with the results returned by a search in French: “Lever étymologie nom de famille.” Alongside the name Leve, which designates someone from an elevated place or a hill, and the idea that Lever means sunrise—both of which come from the French lever, to rise—I find the prosaic surname Lever, whose bearers were named for a tax they levied: the laide. These names bring to mind not a fantasy world but the imaginary of Flaubert, who set much of his work in the unperturbed towns of my mother’s native Normandy. I see an ordinary life made up of tax collecting and walking across hills, shot through with small moments of ordinary beauty, perhaps a beautiful sunrise.

But I know that none of these names are mine. Resigned to the fact that I do not descend from poetic English Channel dwellers but from blacksmiths and forgers who possibly inhabited what is now Moldova, I look up “Yiddish last name meaning Lever | Leber.”

I failed to realize until now that being descended from Moldovan blacksmiths and forgers is actually pretty cool. I’ve come to relish the small bits I do know of my family history: distant cousins dispersed from Tunisia to Argentina; a land dispute in Israel that I stand to gain a few square feet of property from; my crooked great-uncle Archie; the unsightly maiden name of a female forebear, Wasabonick, which I am abjectly grateful to have dodged. It doesn’t matter that my family could be called obscure: it’s peripatetic, mysterious even. I guess I only lament the obscurity because it means lack of documentation and I would so like to unearth more family lore. Or perhaps I’ve become reconciled to my roots because most of my friends, finding Emily too easy to confuse with other people, have taken to calling me Lever.

But, having arrived at this epiphany, I would still like to know what Lever means. My father has told me it means “lover” (no doubt drawing on the German Liebe). I’ve always found this embarrassing, so I’m relieved to learn he got it slightly wrong. What it might come from is the first name Lieb, which means beloved, or Liber, short for Liberman or free man. The Yiddish last name Lieber, meaning smooth talker, could also be the one. I’d be happy with any of these meanings, though none resonates much with me.

However, I suspect that of this collection of names as broad as the diaspora there is none that belongs to me. I recall a bit of Lever family lore: upon arriving at Ellis Island, a young boy called Mechel who was to become my grandfather had his name Anglicized into Max.

Given this precedent of Anglicizing, I took more easily to another bit of etymology I found on the web: I knew recently immigrated Jews eager to fit into new homelands modified their names, but I never realized that Anglo-Norman names like Levitt, Levin, or Lever might have been taken on to cover up the common Jewish last name Levy, which means “joined” and was borne by the priestly Tribe of

Israel. Hence the designation of the Jewish priesthood as “Levites” and the name of the volume of the Pentateuch that lays down religious customs: Leviticus, which in Latin means “of those of Levi”.

I had wished for an old, illustrious lineage, and that is indeed what I found. My ordinary last name thus took on quiet nobility. My family may not figure in the Domesday Book, but it’s even older than that, so ancient that it gave its name to a Book of the Bible.