Spivak: What's in a name?

Michael Bacall as Wally Spivak, in the movie Spivak (2018).

As if to confirm my experience of the inter-relatedness of events across time and space (as depicted in Nowhere Man), I recently watched Michael Bacall's latest movie, Spivak. If Bacall can continue in this vein, he is bound to be the next Woody Allen.

Although there appear to be no reviews from critics just yet, IMDb reviewers of Spivak are divided. I thought it was rather charming, and for a movie about a writer trying to write, it is somewhat inspiring.

Not so much the unlikely situations Wally Spivak (played by Michael Bacall) finds himself in, but that people can and do write novels, and they can and do give book readings and signings in Los Angeles, and the grind of it all looks no different than it would if one were doing the same thing at the Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka, Canberra.

But what is the connection between this movie and Nowhere Man

"Spivak" is a family name of Ukrainian-language origin, and it means "singer". There is more to this name than at first appears. Many Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe, for example. did not have last names until in some cases the early 19th century. "Singer" and its variants was one of the common names adopted.

Interestingly, the family name "Singer" is one that most Anglophones will immediately recognise as the name of the popular sewing machines. But whether Isaac Merritt Singer was Jewish appears to be a hotly debated topic. Apparently, his father was a German-Jew, but Isaac's mother had Isaac christened as a Lutheran. The name was not adopted from "singer" as in a choir, but from the German/Bavarian name "Reisinger".

Nonetheless, the family name "Singer" is a common Jewish family name, for example Yiddish author and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Many families, during Alexander III's policy of "Russification" of the empire's national minorities, including Jews and Muslims, adopted Slavic name endings

As a consequence, Muslims in countries such as Uzbekistan might have the Slavic suffix -ov added to what would otherwise be a Turkic or Arabic name. Further, members of the Mongol's Golden Horde did not use surnames, later adopting surnames which were Slavicized by adding the various Slavic suffixes to Mongolian names.

The question of adapting names to suit host countries continues to this day. In Nowhere Man, we never learn whether Jozef Pronek is Muslim, and he avoids the question each time he is asked.

Similarly, in Spivak, we do not learn about Wally's background. But I found the title of the film intriguing, and there is clearly more to Slavicized names in the former Soviet Union than I ever imagined.