In honor of the season premiere of Real Housewives of Orange County (#RHOC) and the return of one of my faves, Heather Dubrow, I decided to dig into her family history. Also recently, I seem to be spending extra time dispelling the myth that names were changed at Ellis Island through TikTok videos, which has (un)surprisingly caused a lot of pushback from people. There are plenty of articles out there about how names weren't changed at Ellis Island or other ports of entry, so that's not going to be the focus here, but in researching Heather's genealogy, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to marry these two recent projects.
In one of my favorite Heather storylines, she legally changed her last name to Dubrow, threw a party to celebrate, and also threw out a guest for "defiling" her cake by breaking off a piece of a bow and eating it. When discussing her name change with husband Terry, who was very emotional upon hearing the news, she noted, "I think in some ways we're defined by our name."
Heather Paige (Kent) Dubrow is the daughter of the Carole Lewis and the late Conrad S. Kent. Although there is no such thing really as a strictly Jewish last name, I was curious about the origins of both Kent and Lewis. Typically, the pattern would be that the first generation immigrant would assimilate by changing the surname. They might arrive with this surname because a family member preceded them in making the choice or change it as they settled into their new home. Interestingly, Heather's Kent and Lewis lines appear to have made these changes more recently.
Conrad Sheldon Kent was likely born with the original Kestenbaum on 28 November 1938 in Newark, New Jersey. The 1940 federal census shows Conrad living with his parents, Gustave and Dorothy (Friedman) Kestenbaum in Newark.
I can't pinpoint when exactly Heather's father changed his name, but he was still Kestenbaum when he graduated Irvington High School in 1956 and in the marriage announcement to Heather's mother in 1964, and the "Kent" surname was recorded in NYC marriage index in 1965.
Based on the New Jersey Death Index, Conrad's parents remained Kestenbaum into their deaths in the late 1970s-1980. Heather's great-grandfather, Samuel Kestenbaum, likely first immigrated at the end of the 19th century, probably from what is today's Lezajsk, Poland, which was part of Galicia within the Austrian Empire. It's important to understand that spelling variations aren't name changes, especially when transliterating from a different language, so I wasn't surprised to find a record for what appears to be Heather' great-uncle with the surname transcribed as KOESTENBAUM in this record from JRI-Poland.
The origins of Lewis took me a lot longer to figure out. Heather once stated that her initials H.P. were after her grandfather. Some digging led me to her grandfather Herbert P. Lewis, but I couldn't find any information on him before the 1940's.
That was until I utilized the "FAN Club," which means digging into family, associates, and neighbors of the target individual to answer a research question. I won't go into all the specific methodology involved, but figuring this one out is a perfect example of how social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook are integral to researching living people and going back in their tree. It appears that Heather's grandfather changed the surname to Lewis from Levin/Levine by the 1940's. I'm not sure how this works at Ancestry, but notice the name Herbert Lewis bracketed under the original (I'm used to seeing the source of the change, but Ancestry isn't readily providing it). Someone else in the family probably noted this change.
Herbert's parents and brother and sister never adopted the Lewis surname, so Heather actually has fairly close relatives with the surname Levine, just like on her Kent/Kestenbaum side. I haven't yet determined the exact origins of these Levines (among the most common Jewish surnames), but the grave of her likely great-grandfather Israel S. Levine tells me they are Levites, traditionally believed to descend along the patrilineal line of the Tribe of Levi.
I plan to keep digging into Heather's roots (really interesting stuff here for a Jewish genealogist), but her father and maternal grandfather are perfect examples of how surnames might change but absolutely not at Ellis Island. I obviously can only speculate as to why these name changes occurred, but in my experience, last names were regularly changed to assimilate, to seem "more American." If you have or suspect a name change in your family tree, move backwards in the records until you can locate it. Naturalization records and ship manifests can be critical to finding the original surname, so definitely utilize these records if you haven't already!
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interesting in exploring your family history. Free initial consultations.
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