My full name is Lily Rosalind Offit. It sounds relatively neutral in terms of nationality, but I am 100% Jewish. The Offit clan hails from Lithuania— Benjamin Ofceotowitz came to the U.S. in 1888, to escape persecution. Immigration officers changed his name at least five times due to misspellings: Ofsiowitz, Ofseoyowitz, Ofgeoyowitz, Owseverwitz, Ofsavitz…. Finally, in March of 1917, Benjamin settled on the simple spelling “Offit.” Ben’s son ended up being a very successful horse race bookie. This allowed them to live pretty comfortably, even during the Great Depression. This was extraordinarily illegal, but my family denies the name changes were due to criminal activity. I still house suspicions. Interestingly, there is still a huge branch of my family in South Africa with the original “Ofceotowitz” last name, and funky English first names like “Warwick.”
I know all of this thanks to a small, plastic half-inch three-ring binder that has been reproduced and circulated around the entire extended Offit family. Our family has collectively gathered pages of seemingly useless information and compiled it into a binder with the hopes of a future Offit child reading it (hey, it worked!). This compilation contains just about everything there is to know about Benjamin and his extensive, twenty-three page family tree.
My first and middle names are family names. I’m thankful for this, because some redheads have names like “Ruby” or “Ginger.” I find this offensive. In no other case is it acceptable to use the pet-dog-naming methodology on human babies. Aside from having to deal with seeing “Lilly” or “Lili” or even “Leelee” written on my Starbucks cup, I’ve grown quite fond of the name. I was named after my grandfather’s mother (the wife of the aforementioned bookie). I think she is a suitable namesake for me. My grandpa churned all of his childhood memories into a novel called Memoir of the Bookie’s Son. The last chapter of this book is about how Lilian scarfed down six chocolates in the hospital just before she died. While it was unsettling to read a bound book with the description of “Lily Offit dying,” this is a pretty all right way to die. If I had been born as a boy, I would have inherited the family name of “Barney.” The stigmatization I would have received from ages seven to eleven would have been emotionally traumatizing.
I dodged a bullet when it comes to my middle name—my mother and sister’s middle names are the maiden name of my great grandmother: Bland. I suppose in the excitement of a new baby, it didn’t occur to my parents that this is also an adjective that means tasteless, boring and vapid. My middle name, ‘Rosalind’ was my great grandmother’s name. My eighth grade English teacher asked me if my middle name was based on the heroine in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I lied and told her yes because I thought it would make her like me more (it didn’t).
Names are traditionally used as relics of family tradition and history (although nowadays it’s also become a form of self-expression and creativity—I am referring of course to last week’s article titled “Kanye West’s Top 120 Baby Names”). Thankfully, my name offers me a connection to my past. When reading my grandpa’s book, the blatantly obvious truth that my namesake was a living breathing human with quirks and feelings brought tears to my eyes. I often search for my identity in all the wrong places. Looking at family trees, and the cyclical progression of our family’s first names, I can gain a greater understanding of where I come from.