Friday, June 11, 2010

Moshe Menachem Najdorf

Najdorf (right) with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Cuba 1962. Photo found here, credited to Shach und Kultur.

To illustrate the problem with Jewish names in chess history, let us take the player best known as Miguel Najdorf. He had changed his name to the Spanish Miguel (that is, Michael) as an adult, after settling in Argentina. According to Gaige's Chess Personalia: a Biobibliography, his birth name was Moishe Mieczslaw Najdorf (roughly; some letters in the name I cannot write here due to font problems -- see here for the exact typography). Wikipedia -- admittedly not the most reliable source in many cases -- speaks of "Mendel (Mieczyslaw) Najdorf". Then, Hatzophe (6.11.64) speaks of... "Moshe Menachem Najdorf" -- משה מנחם ניידורף.

Who is correct? They all are. Leaving aside small variations in spelling (Moishe/Moshe, Mieczsalw/Mieczyslaw), Najdorf's Hebrew given name was (probably -- see below) Moshe Menachem. This is the name he would be called in religious ceremonies. But like most Jews born at the time (1910) in Europe, he was also given an "everyday" name. The Yiddish name associated with the Hebrew "Menachem" is "Mendel" -- hence the common combination "Menachem Mendel" in Hebrew names and literature, such as Habad's late Menachem Mendel Schneerson or Shalom [or Sholem] Aleichem's fictional Menachem Mendl [sic]. Growing up in Poland, young Najdorf also would use the Polish version of "Mendel" -- "Mieczsalw".

There is one caveat. While Menachem is, indeed, almost invariably the "real" (Hebrew) name associated with "Mendel", Hatzophe's writers, like most writers in the Israeli press at the time, did their best to "Hebraize" non-Hebrew Jewish names. This meant that they might have, knowing that Najdorf was known as "Moshe Mendel" originally, simply assumed "Mendel" had to be associated with "Menachem". This is very likely, but would be hard to prove or disprove conclusively.

E.g., if Najdorf's birth certificate said "Moshe Menachem" it would be proof, but if it didn't, it would not be a refutation. The name "Menachem" might well be used only in Jewish religious ceremonies and not printed on an official Polish birth certificate. If anything, it's likely only the Polish "Mieczsalw" would be given by the parents for use on an official Polish document.

Naturally, the best evidence would be a statement about his various name changes from Najdorf himself. The interviews he gave when visiting Israel in the early 60s do not refer to the issue. Does anybody have more information?

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