Becoming Berlins

 Photograph by  Stefy Hilmer Photography

On June 24, 2017, Erik and I got married. In that moment, we became a family. For us, that meant taking on a new family name. And so: we’re now officially Diana & Erik Berlin!

Almost as soon as we got engaged, we started talking about what we’d do with our names. Erik’s original name was Erik Kenneth Michaels-Ober; mine was Diana Gail Kimball. Thinking about what was important to us, we came up with four goals.

  • Share a family name. We weighed the option of each keeping our original names, but decided it was important to us to share a family name. I love the vision of growing old together and having a goofy welcome mat in front of our home, sporting the name we share.
  • Question defaults. Our parents are feminists—that's how Erik ended up with a hyphenated last name in the first place—and we are, too. One way we try to stay true to that value is by questioning every default in our dynamic as a couple. If one of us had wanted me to take Erik’s last name, we would have talked about it and tried to get to the bottom of the wish and what it stood for. And then, if the reasoning felt clear and compatible with each of our values, we would have happily done it anyway. But, as it happened, another important goal overrode that one before it even had a chance to emerge…
  • Communicate with computers. We’ve both loved computers our whole lives. This love is tempered only by the grudge they’ve held against Erik: a lot of them just refuse to understand hyphenated last names. Like, say, Michaels-Ober. Automated passport control? Forget it. Printing out boarding passes by inserting your credit card featuring a hyphenated name? Good luck. Alphabetical characters or bust. With that experience seared into Erik’s memory, we concluded that hyphenating our own two original last names wasn’t for us, and neither was me taking Erik’s name.
  • Honor our backgrounds. Erik is Jewish, and we asked Erik’s childhood rabbi to marry us. Although Judaism isn’t the biggest factor in our day-to-day lives, it’s an important part of how Erik sees the world. Beyond that, both of us come from marginalized religions; I grew up Mormon, though I left the church along with the rest of my nuclear family when I was in my early teens. Something you hear over and over again when you’re a Jewish or Mormon kid is that even if not everyone understands, you can and should be proud of where you came from. To honor that history and the context of our marriage, we wanted to find a name that at the very least didn’t deny Judaism—and, ideally, celebrated it.

Brainstorming

After we got engaged in August 2016, “what will we call ourselves?” became a persistent background thread in both of our minds; we’d return to it from time to time. One autumn day, on a long walk home from lunch in San Francisco’s Japantown, we naturally gravitated toward brainstorming as we walked. We came up with a lot of silly nouns—like Ceiling, Door, Street. As we talked and laughed, it occurred to me that the simple act of choosing a name was unusual enough that for the rest of our lives, people would probably ask us for the story. The story could be about a long walk home and the sheer delight of word salad, or it could be about something more. Erik agreed, and we started throwing out words from our actual life together: things like Scuba, San Francisco, stuff like that. The lens of “places we’ve lived” brought us to the idea of Berlin. We both loved the idea right away, and when that didn’t fade, we knew we were onto something. As we walked, we kept “yes, and”-ing the reasons it was good:

  • Personal significance. We moved to Berlin together in 2013 and lived there for two and a half years. As Erik says, it’s where our love really cemented itself. Not because it was easy to live abroad together, but because it was hard. We loved that the name could represent adventure and resilience—and that the city itself was a model for owning your mistakes and asking for forgiveness, as Berlin has ever since the Holocaust.
  • Recognizably Jewish. There are at least two notable Jewish Berlins—Irving Berlin, the composer, and Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher. Good company to be in! Plus, Irving Berlin changed his own name; the precedent felt like another thread connecting us to creativity and reinvention. 
  • Bonuses that sealed the deal: 
    • Sounds good alongside both of our first names, Diana and Erik
    • Short and easy to spell
    • Pronounceable in every language, since it’s a capital city
    • Uncommon as a last name, but not unheard-of

The next step was telling our parents. We took our visits with them over the winter holidays as our opportunity, and told each set of parents over dinner. They were surprised but very supportive, and seemed to really see how creative and thoughtful we’d tried to be.

Changing

A few months before our wedding, one of us realized we’d been assuming we could just both change our names in a flash while getting our marriage license. Some internet research showed: not so! Streamlined name changes (just filling out fields in paperwork you’re already filing to get legally married) are only available in California if you’re taking “the last name of your spouse, the combination of both your last names with or without a hyphen, or a combination of the middle and last name of your spouse,” and we couldn't find a single state where our imagined easy-peasy process actually existed. So we dug deeper and found, yes, a WikiHow article about how to legally change one’s name in California. There were…a few steps. Including submitting a notice to a newspaper and making a court appearance.

We decided that I would be the courthouse pioneer, so I filled out the forms and took them to 500 McAllister St. in SF. We were then able to get a marriage license appointment for the day after my scheduled court appearance. After that, we waited!

Becoming

Erik and I made my court appearance together, which took less than an hour all in all. Afterward, we picked up a few certified name change forms, which we brought with us to City Hall the next day.

 Photograph by  Sumul Shah

Photograph by Sumul Shah

Since I was newly—but officially!—Diana Kimball Berlin, having taken a new name the hard way, we were able to use the streamlined process for Erik to take my last name. By lunchtime, we were both Berlins.

Being

We’re now officially Diana Kimball Berlin and Erik Michaels-Ober Berlin; DKB and EMOB. During our ceremony on June 24th, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler shared the decision and the story behind it with our guests. Now the real work begins: changing our names everywhere! I’m taking one step toward that today with the launch of dianaberlin.com. (Nothing’s really real until it’s on the internet.)

 Photograph by  Stefy Hilmer Photography
Diana Berlin