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Column: Three initials threatened to disrupt a marriage —and destroy a family legacy


In graduate school, I roomed with a guy named Kennedy — and my name is Ruby. One night, after too many beers, I scanned the phone book for an Oswald, called him up, and asked if he would move in with us. Just to complete the circle. He hung up on me, which was for the best. If history is any indication, it probably would not have ended well.

Even today, more than 55 years after that business in Dallas, when I say my name — Jeff Ruby — people invariably call me “Jack.” Some pantomime shooting me with a .38. I always take it in stride and think about my great-grandfather, whose name was Jack Ruby. Most every day after 24 November 1963, he had to say, “No, I’m not that Jack Ruby.” 

Illustration by Richard Mia

He was already an old man when I met him, post-stroke and inarticulate. All I remember about him was that he had a jar of candy corn on his coffee table and that his house smelled like Bengay. The bulk of his life and personality is a mystery to me. All I’ve got are facts handed down by my family, an obituary in the Chicago Tribune, and my own imagination during periodic trips to his grave. I was taught the Jewish ritual of placing a stone on his grave, the reasoning being that a stone never dies, just like your memory of the deceased. But I was a kid and my rocks were pebbles, wishes that I had known the man.

Born Jacob Marshall Rubinstein in 1892, he was 11 when he immigrated to the United States from modern-day Belarus with his mother and four younger siblings to join his father, who had come to Chicago a year and a half earlier to avoid military conscription. Jacob learned English on the streets. Made $6 a week stocking merchandise for an overalls manufacturer. He was slated to become a rabbi, but as a way of supporting the family he taught himself accounting instead. When he was 24, he and a partner set up 12 sewing machines in an empty warehouse and launched their own overalls manufacturing business.

And until the end of his life, Jacob Ruby basically never stopped working. His clothing company moved to Michigan City, Indiana, and became Jaymar-Ruby. At its peak, Jaymar employed 3,500 workers and produced 5 million pairs of slacks a year, including Sansabelts. Yes, my family gave the world Sansabelts, the preferred casual wear of golfers, referees, and math teachers everywhere, a pant so ingrained in popular culture that it was name-checked on Seinfeld. 

Through it all, Jacob Ruby was a reliable rock of a man with a quiet swagger, strict with his children and playful with his wife, Fay. “He wasn’t funny as in joke-telling or puns, but he was a kidder,” recalls my father, Tom Ruby, one of seven grandchildren who adored him. “When he was teasing, his eyes would twinkle almost in glee as he gently zinged you.” My dad recalls him as a lifelong humanitarian — a Paul Harris Fellow of the Rotary Club of Michigan City — and the building that houses the local chamber of commerce is named for him.

One other thing is named for my great-grandfather: me. At least it seems that way, since we share the initials JMR (my full name is Jeffrey Michael Ruby). When he died, I was 13, and I remember scores of family members hugging me, as if just by existing I was keeping a little part of him alive. This also heaped responsibility on my shoulders. As a JMR, I was expected to work hard. Keep promises. Be a mensch. In the end, of course, they’re just initials, three simple letters, but I have spent much of my life trying to earn them.

Fast forward to adulthood. I had been on a few dates with Sarah — a tough and whip-smart Chicagoan — and told her about my family, my initials, and my connection to Michigan City. She was impressed. “When we have a kid together,” she said, “I want to name him Jacob, and his initials will be JMR.” I was touched, but also creeped out. I didn’t even realize we were hitting it off at the time, much less ready to intertwine the vines of our family trees. (Jacob also happened to be her great-grandfather’s name.) Sarah and I proceeded to fall in love and get married, and she reminded me about this conversation repeatedly. 

She was seven months pregnant when my brother’s wife gave birth to a baby. The nerve. “Great news!” my brother said over the phone. “It’s a boy! His name is Jacob Chase Ruby.”

The blood in my veins turned to icy sludge. Somehow this possibility had never occurred to me. I like my brother and all, but his initials are KJR, which, as far I know, have no significance to anyone but him. And what’s more, the name Jacob obviously belonged to us. In my self-absorbed mind, it was my legacy. But the fact remained: My brother and his wife had gotten there first. They had dibs. And dibs, as any brother knows, is a binding social contract stronger than mere birthright.

Thus began the worst fight my wife and I ever had. When I said I didn’t want to drive a wedge between my brother and me, I instead drove a wedge between my wife and me. “Why can’t they both be named Jacob?” she asked. “There were six first-born Isaacs in my father’s family, and they were all cousins! One went by Irving, one Yitz, one was Ike, one Itchy —”

At my brother’s son’s baby naming ceremony, I tried to explain my situation to him. (My brother, not the baby.) A confused look crossed his face. “I think it would be weird if they were both named Jacob,” he said quietly. Some help he was. 

I dug in my heels with Sarah, and she dug in hers, chapped and bloated as they were. We spent the last two months of her pregnancy alternating between screaming matches and a dark and dangerous silence. The due date loomed heavy, as if in a slow-motion nightmare. We didn’t even know the gender of the child curled in her womb, but as a man who spends his life avoiding confrontation, I was praying for a girl.

Then Sarah had an idea. She called her father, the oldest of the six Isaacs, and asked if anyone in his family had a name that started with M. Preferably someone he liked. Sure, he said. Uncle Max. Everyone loved Uncle Max. Great guy. 

“What if we name him Jacob Maxwell Ruby?” Sarah asked me. “But we call him Max?” 

It was a brilliant solution. This would carry on my great-grandfather’s name and Sarah’s great-grandfather’s name, pay homage to this beloved Uncle Max whose existence we hadn’t known about 20 minutes earlier, and circumnavigate a possible cold war with my brother. (Max also happened to be Jacob Marshall Ruby’s father’s name.) I knew it was the only way. And I still said no.

It was a boy. Seven pounds, 11 ounces, all dimples, no hair. I don’t know if it was the euphoria of the moment, the desire to stay married, or a simple act of surrender. But I gave in. 

Sarah announced it at the baby’s bris: “This is Jacob Maxwell Ruby. We’re calling him Max. He is named after Jeff’s great-grandfather, Jacob Marshall Ruby, and my Great-Uncle Max.” If this arrangement bothered my brother and his wife, they were too gracious to say so. They had their Jacob; we had our Max. And we had claimed the precious family initials. 

Max is 11 now. He says his initials don’t mean much to him. He’s more interested in the Chicago Bears and rolling on the floor with our dogs. I understand. But I also don’t entirely believe him. The last time I visited the cemetery, Max came with me, and I placed a stone on my great-grandfather’s grave. The two of us were standing there — two JMRs at the grave of another — when I noticed that, next to my stone, was a pebble. 

• Jeff Ruby is the chief contributing dining critic for Chicago magazine. Read more stories from The Rotarian.