Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What are You?

That's a question I used to hear several times a day when I drove a cab as I worked my way through college and law school for seven years. The question-er, usually a slightly inebriated Marina-type young hottie (we called them "Jennifers" as they were frequently named Jennifer or just had Jennifer Anniston haircuts), would pile into the back of my Ford, peer at the big yellow ID card I kept on the dash and sneer with a Valley Girl accent, "like, what are you?" as if I were some kind of bizarre specimen at the zoo.

I guess that's because I'm kind of dark-skinned, hirsute and a cute little guy, but my dress, accent and mannerisms tell you I'm a native-born 'Merican. And then there's that bizarre-looking last name: Ets-Hokin. WTF is that all about? Is it an amalgamated name from a Feminist-dominated '60s marriage, where Ms. Ets met Mr. Hokin? Did Ellis Island mangle the name in the 19th Century? Just tell me where you're from, so I can judge you properly, man. We don't want any trouble.

The problem is to explain it I have to get a little vulnerable. I'm a Jew, and although I hardly live in Nazi Germany, sometimes it's not a good idea to tell drunken Sunset thugs you're one of those. But that's what my name is: Ashkenazik Jewish origin.

Here's what I know:

"Ets-Hokin" is the Anglicized spelling of "Yitzchaki" or "Yitzchakin," which just means "Son of Isaac" or maybe even just "Of Isaac." The great and learned 12th-Century Rabbi Schlomo Yitzchaki--better known as "Rashi"--is the oldest possible documented ancestor. I read somewhere that a huge percentage of Ashkenazi Jews--the Jews of Eastern Europe who eat salty food and speak Yiddish--descended from him. So the irony is that my last name, as exotic as it looks, is actually akin to "Johnson" among European Jews.

As of this writing, there is a huge gap between Rashi and another Schlomo Yitzchaki, this one in Vilnius--called "Wilmo" by the occupying Poles--with a no-doubt lovely wife named Ella. In 1833, they had a son they proudly named Yitzchak--though it's possible he didn't have a last name and that was just his name. It's a good name, Isaac, no?

What kind of place was Vilnius from 1833 to 1882? Well, it was under control of the Czar, but was also sort of a center of Jewish enlightenment. The population was 40% Jewish and the proud home of the "Vilna Gaon" Elija Ben Shlomo, another great Rabbi, this one of the 18th century. I think it was also kind of a refugee camp for Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms and rampaging Cossacks.  For some reason, 49-year-old Yitzak, along with his wife Rebecca, son David (Zelig), daughter-in-law and 3 grandchildren left Vilnius, then went to Hamburg, then to Liverpool, where they boarded the steamship British Crown. The passenger manifest listed them as the "Yitzchokins," but who knows how they spelled their name in Yiddish or Russian or Hebrew? (Actually, my illustriously ovaracheiving cousin Sam Hokin does: Ицчокин)

SS British Crown, built by Harlan and Wolff in 1879 (the company that later built the Titanic), schlepped the Yitzchaki family across the Atlantic in about 2 weeks.

And then, tragedy struck. Not in 1882--in 1921. That's when there was a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington DC, where the 1890 census data was stored. Because of the resulting mess, we don't know where Yitzhak and his family lived until 1900, when we find David (Selig) Etshokin living in Kewanee, Illinois. He's married with four sons--Louis, Oscar, Barney and Samuel and ran a dry-goods store at 801 N. 8th St. (the building still stands!) until (I think) the Depression put him out of business. We don't (yet) know why David and his brother Herschel changed the spelling of the family name.

My grandfather Louis added the hyphen--again, we don't know when. His brothers dropped the "Ets" and changed their names to "E Hokin." Again, I don't know why!

All I'm sure of is around 1920--a year or two after Louis got out of the Navy--he started his electrical contracting firm with partner Galvan. In the 1920 Census, he's living at the YMCA in San Francisco (no, it wasn't like in the 1970's Village People song back then, I'm pretty sure) and the Census Taker misspelled his name "Etshoken." As a guy who gets junk mail with horrible manglings of my name, I know all about that.

Te 1921 SF City Directory lists him as "Etshokin," but working at "Ets-Hokin & Galvan," as if the hyphen were a professional affectation. But by 1930, it's all worked out, and though's software spells it "Eto-Hokin," we know what they mean: my family's freak flag is proudly flying as "Ets-Hokin." And a hyphen is forever.

And that's what I "am." It's also what my son is: in 2011 we welcomed Isaac Ets-Hokin into the world. The Hebrew spelling? Yithak Yithzki, of course.

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