What's in a Name?

By Mordecai K. Rosenfeld ’51 / May/June 2011
June 10th, 2011

Last year was my 60th college reunion—I’ve never missed one—and despite a big gala to celebrate Brown’s mighty achievements  since 1951, my most vivid memory of that time is more personal. It concerns my diploma, and how it came to be correctly inscribed.

In the early spring of 1951, my senior year,  Dean Sontag sent a letter to all members of the graduating class advising how our names would be appear on our diplomas. If anyone had a problem, his office had to be contacted at once because our names were to be hand-printed by a calligrapher, which meant that no corrections could be made once that elegant, artistic inscription had begun.

My first name was listed as “Mordicai”, an obvious error. Following the instructions, I immediately advised the dean’s office, in a hand-delivered note, that the correct spelling of my first name was “Mordecai”.

I was soon summoned to University Hall, where the dean himself explained that the college’s spelling was correct because “Mordicai”was how my name appeared on the birth certificate that I had provided when I matriculated back in 1947. He even pulled it out of a folder to prove his point. I was embarrassed that I had lived with that error, unknowingly, for twenty-one years.

But it was really no problem, he assured me; the college would accept a statement from the registrar at the elementary school where I was first enrolled, certifying how my name was then given. I called Mom, and she immediately marched over to P.S. 152 (on Glenwood Road and East 23rd Street, Brooklyn) to obtain the document. But alas, school was closed for spring vacation.

I reported the delay to the dean, who was surprisingly unsympathetic. When I meekly suggested that my diploma should be put aside temporarily until the end of the weeklong vacation in Brooklyn, he took bureaucracy to a new level, asserting that my diploma, like every other one, had to be done in its proper alphabetic order. There were, he noted, about one thousand diplomas to be prepared, including those for masters degree candidates and PhDs.  Therefore, he concluded, no variations could be permitted lest the whole process unravel.

His final point was legal: “A diploma, Mordecai, is a legal document and we are unable to change the spelling from your birth certificate even if we wanted to.” But he reiterated that an appropriate letter from P.S. 152 would be accepted—if delivered in time.

I protested that after four dilligent years I was entitled to a diploma that spelled my name correctly. And where, I asked him, would I display a diploma with such a blatant error?

He would not budge. I asked him to open the Bible—any version of the Bible—to the Book of Esther, and he would understand that there was only one way to spell “Mordecai.” His response was that the Bible was irrelevant, that it could not, unlike the registrar at P.S. 152, overrule my birth certificate.

I next explained that I was an avid “Mordecai follower, and could recite the names of every famous American who bore that name, and that each one spelled it Mordecai. As quick examples I cited Mordecai Lincoln, the president’s uncle, and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, a distinguished theologian and educator—he was president of Howard University—and Three-Fingered Mordecai Brown, the  great Chicago Cubs pitcher. I recounted to him how I told the kids in the schoolyard that I had been named for that baseball Hall of Famer, and how I immediately rose in their esteem, although, of course, I confided, I had in fact been named for a scholarly rabbi from Vilna, whose knowledge of balls and strikes was quite limited. And there was Mordecai Kaplan, a famous Jewish scholar and philosopher. Feeling more and more confident, I noted that the Lincoln Family genealogy was filled with Mordecais over many generations.

None of that made any impression because, as he said more than once, he had no doubt how “Mordecai” was spelled.

I thought of going to President Wriston or Dean Kenny or Chaplain Robbins, or to my congressman or senator or the press or my own family rabbi in Brooklyn, but none of them, in my opinion, would be able to overcome the dean’s legal point.

I was about to give up, but was goaded on by his triumphant smirk. And then an idea:

"Sir," I said, "since a diploma is a legal document, I insist that it bear my entire name."

"Of course, Mordecai, that’s a proper and fair request. In fact, that is exactly how a diploma must be."

"My middle name chances to be my Mother’s family name, Katzenellenbogen. You can confirm that in the file."

"I did see that that is your Mother’s family name, but I didn’t know that it was also your middle name."

"But it is. Using one’s mother’s family name was, for some Jewish families, part of their ancient tradition. And since the diploma is a legal document I insist that it be accurate."

"I’m afraid that your entire name, Mordecai Katzenellenbogen Rosenfeld, will not fit on the diploma," the dean said, "no matter how small the lettering. And since we use only one size diploma, you will have to abandon your middle name."

"I can’t do that even if I wanted to. A legal document is a legal document."

There was a long pause.

"Mordecai," the dean said, "perhaps we can reach an accommodation. If I agreed to spell Mordecai the way it is spelled in the Bible, would you agree to drop your middle name, at least for diploma purposes?"

"Dean Sontag," I answered, "that seems like a fair and reasonable compromise."

We shook hands, and the graduation exercises went off smoothly.

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May/June 2011