There is nothing original about my name: Nathan Lang Eckstein. The titles are borrowed, purloined from three contexts, two deceased, and bequeathed upon a blank slate demanding some context. My names are people, so let me introduce you.
Nathan (Bernstein) is my maternal grandfather. It’s not Nathaniel, I often tell people—not on my birth certificate, not anywhere. My grandmother always told me Nathan meant “gift from God,” and I guess she had two gifts, not one. We are separated by 86 years, a 1908 baby compared to a 1994 one (while researching this article I learned that Nathan was the 137th most popular in 1908 and 40th in 1994, though I doubt my parents had the popularity in mind). When my grandfather decided to quit his job at a publishing company and fight in World War II, he was 34, past the ordinary age to be drafted. As a Jew, though, he thought service was his duty. This commitment took him through campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and Southern France. By the time he returned, married my grandmother, and settled in a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, he was 47. Upon his death, my mother was 21, and not thinking in the least about having a child.
My great-grandmother (Katherine) Lang was no American, but quickly found herself in Chicago. Married at 18, she came from a comfortable middle-class family with a father kind enough to build a house for her and her new husband, 28. Yet these Russians—descendants of Germans invited by Katherine the Great to Russia to farm—had chosen the ill-fated side of the war: Michael Lang was a general for the White Army. The well-worn trope in our family is Grandma Lang’s resilience. When the Bolsheviks entered the village, the women were lined up by a firing squad and asked where the men were. When the wives insisted the men were not present, the firing squad counted to three but did not shoot. As my father says, “Knowing the Bolsheviks, it’s amazing they didn’t get shot.” Resilience was a different kind after the journey from Russia to Poland to Berlin to Chicago. Michael worked in a factory—candy, my father attests—and Katherine worked for a “nice Jewish lady in a house.” That’s what I know of Katherine: displaced and hard working, ousted but resilient; and a little stubborn, but also a good cook.
(Herman) Eckstein, my grandfather, is not a descendant of Russian immigrants, but of Germans. You may be thinking the last name, meaning cornerstone, is Jewish (and it’s STINE, not steen). Don’t be fooled; directly, it’s Catholic. Yet, if one journeys to the German town where the Ecksteins are from, an hour south of Stuttgart, there are two sets of gravestones: the older half has stars of David while the newer half has crosses. At some point, they converted. Initially, my great grandfather Herman Sr. was Methodist, but as love often does he converted to Catholicism for my Great-Grandmother Teresa. At some point, too, they moved to Chicago. Perhaps, it was to get away from the memory of my great-great-grandfather, supposedly a horrible guy: abusive, alcoholic, or, as my father reminds me, “the town drunk.” The Ecksteins I know, and my grandfather especially, are anything but.
Sometime right before Grandpa Nathan went to the War, the well-mannered and charming second grader Herman Eckstein met the quiet, yet equally charming, second grader Frances Lang. Roughly ten years later, the two were married in the same heavily German-speaking neighborhood of Chicago that their parents had journeyed to (64 years later, the two are still happily married). In 1955, Grandpa Nathan married Elaine Katz some miles north. They share Chicago, and I share them.
Take these tidbits for what they’re worth. These aren’t truths, exactly, but something more important: they’re stories I’ve grown up with. They’re concepts, examples, and tidbits of what I should learn from my creation. No wonder my family likes to repeat it. That’s why when I’m asked to pontificate on and explain my name (whether for the Nass or elsewhere), I am required to chronicle someone else’s history. But by doing so—and through the very act of possessing that name—I take ownership of, and strive for, that history.
Last summer, I spent many hours organizing hundreds of my grandfather’s war letters. There’s something inscrutable about seeing letters signed in your name, photos that carry your resemblance, and stories about the War. I found myself taking a possession of that part of history more so than my sister or even my mother. Commitment to my country, and commitment to my religion, is a shared, aspirational, sensation. By sharing the name, I am Nathan, and I have a duty to uphold the context.
I’m also Lang, leaving my possessions, house, and homeland to escape the Bolsheviks; at least, I know this story. I am Eckstein, German immigrants experiencing the oh-so-stereotypical-but-also-very-real melting pot and “American dream.” In 2013, there are 29 Ecksteins with Herman Jr. as their patriarch. We all share my grandfather’s name. So they are me, or I am them, at least just a little. Above all, I strive for their best qualities, whether true or constructed, of those that came before me. The three I carry on my shoulder.
The facts and stories I know are background that I will tell people when asked about my name, but they are also my creation story, of sorts. And I like thinking that. When naming me, my parents were careful to construct a context of heritage and borrowed histories. Yes, there may be other names that could have done equally well—Bernstein or Katz, Herman or Ann. And yes, there may be some personal titles that have snuck in afterward—Nate, Nathy, or even “Monsieur P”—but my parents certainly covered all bases to contextualize their blank slate.
Nathan Lang Eckstein. It’s my three-word creation story.