“I think you’re gorgeous.” My acting teacher pointed a manicured finger in my direction. I blushed. “But… you look very Jewish.” The class fell silent. She continued: “Jewish men run Hollywood. And they don’t want to fuck Jewish women. Do yourself a favor — change your name.”
My birth name is Tamar Feinkind, pronounced Tuh-MAR FINE-kynd. I’m named for my grandfather’s favorite sister, Tziporah. When Nazis forced my grandfather and his family into the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, Tziporah snuck my grandfather her food rations when he was sick, and she stole newspapers for him to line his threadbare jacket with in the winter. He survived. She did not. A small hero, my namesake.
Despite this, I’ve always hated my name. Born in Brooklyn surrounded by ultra-Orthodox Jews who told me I wasn’t a real Jew, my father eventually got a job that transported us to the southwestern suburbs of Chicago where we were suddenly the only Jews. My sixth grade history teacher announced she had never met a Jew before, then asked me to explain Passover to the class. My family is what we call “secular” Jews — we replaced God and prayer with Jewish history, Yiddish-isms, and food. Twelve-year-old me didn’t have a lot to say about the holiday… but the matzah balls! Still, classmates questioned how one could be an American and yet not celebrate Christmas while exclaiming, “Both of your parents are Jewish?!” It boggled the blonde mind! And so many people mispronounced my two-syllable name that I came up with a debasing catch-phrase: “Tomorrow, without the ‘o’!”
Thus, when my acting teacher offered an out from the weight that was my name, I dove headlong toward belonging. I chose “Phillips” for my mom’s dad, Phil, who wanted to be an actor and played with T-A-M, which became A-M, and… voila, my non-confrontational, non- Semitic moniker was born: Amelia Phillips.
I like the name Amelia Phillips. It not only sounds pleasing, it allows me to write about American Judaism and my family from a safe distance. Yet, there’s no denying that Amelia is a rejection of thousands of years of Jewish ancestry. For a time, the guilt that I inadvertently disowned my entire culture propelled me down a writing path wherein I discovered my true self. I stopped acting, got my MFA in screenwriting, became a mother, and investigated my lineage. My award-winning scripts like Carla Margo explored my mother’s upbringing, Communism, and Jewish activism, while my feature, ACIDS, sprung from my father’s experience as an AIDS doctor in the Bronx in 1982 and his Survivor’s Guilt as a child of the Holocaust.
But after thirteen years of denial — a symbolic number in Judaism, actually — I’m ready to reclaim my name. It’s finally time to put Amelia to bed so that I can wake up as Tamar.