I’m sure it’s been there before. Did I not notice? But in the past issue, it jumped right off the “page” and into my eyes. It said merely, “Name Change.” Suddenly this story flew back into my mind, the story of a (attempted) name change in my family. Have a read…
My father was a mild-mannered man. That’s why that night at dinner was such a shock. But I get ahead of myself.
“Gralnick” actually means something.
In “old Russian” a Gralnick, sometimes spelled Guralnik, was an innkeeper or barkeep. It is centuries old and got attached to a clan of Jews, I suppose because of their profession, from the Minsk area of Russia.
Most kids don’t think much about their last names. It is what it is. That is until you became famous. Legendary comedian Jack Benny was born Benny Kabelsky. George Burns was Nathan Birnbaum. Eddie Cantor came to us as Eddie Itzkowitz. It was no different in the movies or television.
And if you were going to be an on-air personality in the news business, you needed a name that Americans could identify with—and pronounce. My brother, whose star had begun to rise quickly at CBS and in the field in general got the idea that Gralnick was not one of those names. So the scene is set.
Once my brother began covering stories, even pre-national news, the dinner table topics changed. Not everything was my mother’s idea of table talk but talk my brother did anyway: the crash of the Electra Jet on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn including a story on the body of a boy whose body was found on the sidewalk. Just like combat soldiers, journalists who repeatedly cover grim stuff develop thick skins and dark senses of humor. Dead boy jokes went around from those who had covered that tragedy and we heard them at dinner but only once.
Then there was the current threat, the “mad-bomber,” George Metesky who planted in New York’s subway cars what we now call IED’s, often separating people’s legs from their mangled bodies. More untold jokes.
Jeff went from the International News Service to an opening on the Walter Cronkite show. In baseball terms, he had gone from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the New York Yankees. Yes, both were in the major leagues, but there were major differences between the two. He came home one night with an idea that must have been percolating for quite some time, but maybe not long enough.
A journalist knows there are at least two sides to every story. What side did he miss? The impact that this tid-bit would have–that if he was going to wear the Yankee pinstripes of major league news broadcasting, Gralnick wasn’t the name to have. Grant was the name he hit on as in Lou Grant of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He didn’t know it, but we were about to have a dinner table explosion. The dinner table was a rectangle. My mom sat at the head of the table closest to the kitchen, a mystery since she rarely cooked dinner and more rarely served it. My dad did not sit next to her but sat at the other end of the table. My brother and I faced each other across the long sides of the table, probably so we weren’t within touching distance of each other. It began innocently enough.
“So” said my brother, “I’ve been thinking about changing my name.” Later I learned there was a whole rationale that was to follow, but my brother never got past the first sentence. It fact the first sentence was the only sentence.
Something began to happen down at the end of the table. Around mild-mannered Abe, the ground began to tremble, the table began to shake. A deepening, almost deafening sound arose from under his chair and envelope his 5’9” frame. Like the desert sky at sunset, his face turned red. Like the face of an astronaut dealing with incredible amounts of pressure on his body, his face began to contort, change shape. And all of this before he had said a word. I was maybe 15. I looked at him and thought, “Uh oh. He’s gonna drop dead right at the dinner table.”
He didn’t. But he came closer to becoming a murderer than a corpse. They don’t make a type size big enough to capture what came out of his mouth. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” CHANGE YOUR NAME? GRANT? SO YOU CAN BE A GOY?” (Sorry folks, that means gentile, its biblical Hebrew, but in common use it is not a nice term. And that’s what previously mild-mannered Abe yelled.There was even a F-bomb somewhere in there. Shocked was I.)
What followed were his responses to the dissertation that never got out of my brother’s mouth. It was stunning. It was like watching a tabby cat morph into a tiger. I sat stock still, nailed to my chair. Even my mother, who had been married to this man for several decades was amazed at what she was watching and hearing. Unusual for her, she said not one word.
And my poor brother? He sat there mumbling, “But…but daaad, but, but daaad…” These attempts were batted back like a pro tennis player leaping on a “meatball” coming right into his forearm swing. Bam!
Having finished his harangue on being Jewish, on Jews as a people, the name we Jews at the table carried, he stood up and threw his napkin, onto the table and I thought, “I’m about to become an only child.” But no, he wheeled around smartly, 180 degrees. It was about five paces to the staircase, which he mounted, and all this ended with the slam of the bedroom door that came down the stairs the same route he had taken up.
You can google my brother. He had a 57-year, brilliant career as a journalist, producer, and executive — all as a Gralnick.
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