On a December weekday, I entered the King County District Courthouse as Gregory Ryan Scruggs. Half an hour later and $181 poorer, I emerged as Gregory Gutterman Scruggs. After years of thinking about it, I finally swapped my middle name for my mother’s maiden name, the Jewish side of the family.
It was only when my new passport arrived in the mail that the change sank in. After 31 years of Gregory Ryan Scruggs staring back on every form of ID, I finally had something official — beyond the “change of name” legally certified document that will languish in a folder somewhere — with a different name.
My impending passport renewal was what prompted me to act on a move I had been considering for years. Passports stay valid for 10 years, and a decade is a long time to regret the road not taken. My previous passport was issued in 2008, shortly after the first time I went to Israel and began taking my Jewishness more seriously. I served as treasurer of my synagogue in Philadelphia, and while dating a Cohen, I daydreamed of taking her last name if we got married.
Carrying my non-Jewish father’s last name along with two generic male names out of a 1980s baby name book was never an impediment, per se, and even lent itself to comedic moments. The father of a college friend from Kentucky, an avid bluegrass fan, once spit out his beer and asked me, incredulously, “Scruggs is Jewish?!” — a reference to the banjo legend Earl Scruggs.
Rather, it was the experience of travel that spurred me to consider adopting a more Jewish name. In most parts of the US, and certainly Seattle, we live in a comfortable world that strives not to offend sensibilities. A guy named Gregory Scruggs says he’s Jewish? Who am I to argue?
Abroad can be a different story, where Jews are a much less integrated minority than they are in our country of Seinfeld-
loving bagels-and-lox eaters. My job as a journalist takes me out of the country on a regular basis, and finding a local Jewish community for Kabbalat Shabbat is a welcome taste of the familiar in a foreign land after a long week of reporting on diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations Office at Nairobi or chatting up world mayors about climate change in Mexico City.
At least until the inevitable grilling by an ex-IDF security guard. In many parts of the world, especially safety-conscious Latin America, a region I specialize in, you can’t just waltz into shul without prior arrangements. I made that mistake last year in Santiago, Chile, and was promptly turned away. I’m sure my childhood rabbi wished he’d had the problem of me showing up unannounced when we were required to have him sign Shabbat attendance forms during our bar mitzvah year.
Even if I contact the synagogue office ahead of time and send in my personal info, I still might be asked questions straight out of Ben Gurion Airport security. What synagogue do you go to back home? What’s the name of the rabbi? How often do you go?
My answers have always been sufficient, but I couldn’t help wondering if the decidedly goyish “Scruggs” surname gave them pause. At kiddush in a foreign land, I’ve introduced myself as Gregory Gutterman. It had a ring to it.
I’m still crossing out “Ryan” when scribbling my way through forms, but I know the next time I find myself awkwardly standing outside the gate of a synagogue in a foreign land, I’ll be brandishing my passport with pride.
Gregory Scruggs is a correspondent for Thomson Reuters Foundation and a coordinator of the Puget Sound chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.