When and why did Walter Rabinowitz take on our abbreviated last name? It was 1917. Diamond, Pearl and Safire were already taken. 

In 1912, Walter Rabinowitz completed his education at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. He knew that his future lay in sales, not in the garment trade like his older brothers. 

Walter had been raised in the traditional ways of his Russian Orthodox family in Jewish Harlem and then in the Bronx. But he felt an urge to assimilate into the mainstream of American culture.

He was  shaping a identity as a second-generation Jewish American.

Walter began his career working in the novelty shops on Broadway below 14th Street. It was near to the entertainment district where the best vaudeville acts played. 

Uptown in the Bronx, where the Rabinowitz family had relocated on Tiffany Avenue, the entertainment was less elaborate — a nickelodeon with live singers performing between the films. 

Nickelodeons had been all the rage in recent years. In 1912, there was a fresh new act, Ruby and Edwards, playing in at the most popular nickelodeon in the Bronx.

Ruby and Edwards was a duet piano player and male vocalist performing hit songs while the lyrics projected on the screen. They were actually just two guys named Harry, including the piano player Harry Rubenstein. The other one, Harry Cohn, later founded Columbia Pictures. 

Since Walter was a young man in the Bronx with a few nickels in his pocket from his sales job, it is not difficult to imagine him going out to the flicks. One can picture Walter taking notice of the intermission performer, the deboinairre piano player about his own age—the Ruby half of Ruby and Edwards. 

Harry Ruby's local celebrity grew, and by 1917 he was on the cusp of a storied career as a songwriter and motion picture composer. 

In March of that year, Joseph Rabinowitz, the patriarch of Walter's large family, passed away. It was a sorrowful time for his widow Lena and the nine Rabinowitz children, but in some ways it was also a blessing.

Joseph had been a force that bound the family to its Russian roots and traditions. His death might allow Walter and his siblings to strike their own life course, including in their ways of fitting into the American culture. 

Before Joseph's death, it was not possible for Walter to contemplate the idea of shortening the Rabinowitz name. It would have been as if he was renouncing his family history and values. 

But after Joseph's death in March 1917, Walter began thinking about changing his name. In October, the U.S. was preparing to enter World War I and all men of age were required to register for the draft. 

Walter was in Boston on registration day, on his route as a traveling salesman for International Silver. On the form, he gave his name and signed it as Walter Ruby Rabinowitz.

Walter served as a corporal in the 163rd Infantry in World War I, including seven months of service time on the war front in France. His military service record is under the name of Walter Ruby. 

All records for him after 1918—census records, business documents, news clippings—are in the name of Walter Ruby. Although we do not have a legal record of the name change, it is evident that Walter officially changed his name at the time of entering military service in 1918.

But why Ruby? It is a natural short form for a name like Rubenstein, but Rabinowitz begins with a different spelling and pronounciation. A more common shortening for Rabinowitz seems to have been Robbins, as with the famous famous choreographer Jerome Robbins and two children of Walter's brother Julius. 

Besides Harry Ruby, Walter might have also considered the gemological meaning of the word when weighing his decision. Ruby is not only a Jewish name, but it is consistent with other Jewish surnames evoking precious stones and metals: Diamond, Pearl, Safire, Gold, Silver and others. 

We know that Walter admired luxury accoutrements and though he was no expert in jewels, he must have felt the association with this rich red, valuable mineral to be a positive.


When and why did Walter Rabinowitz take on our abbreviated last name? It was 1917. Diamond, Pearl and Safire were already taken. 

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