Today’s post is by דְּבוֹרִית one of our 2014 mensches! (That’s right, next year’s calendar is co-ed.) In today’s post she talks a little about her Jewish identity and her identity in general as a gal with an “unusual” name:
I have a Jewish name… a really Jewish name. But it’s not Sarah or Beth or Hannah. I’m willing to bet my Chanukah gelt that you’ve never met someone with my name, and double or nothing that you probably never will. The odds are equally as slim that you can pronounce it on the first try (or ever, though this is a Jewish blog, so I’ll give my readers here the benefit of the doubt).
In my name, there are consonants where vowels should be and sounds that even I can stumble over after all my years of practice. My dad says it one way, my mother someway else.
It’s the kind of name that makes teachers pause before reading roll call (and get classmates giggling when they do). The kind of name that makes noisy bar introductions require seven times a normal length of time:
“I’m sorry, can you spell that? Say it again, sorry. Wait, like, with an apostrophe or something? No. Ok, one more time, how do you say it? Right. So, do you have a nickname instead?”
Yes, of course, I do have a (hip! fun! pronounceable!) nickname that makes my life significantly easier. I’ve had it since the end of high school, for so long now that it’s a part of my adult identity; I have friends who don’t even realize it’s a decoy. (But, boy, do they think I’m hip and fun!)
Frankly, the anonymity of using a false name can be a relief if I prefer to stay under the radar—like one can, in the Internet age, if one were named something more common like Sarah or Beth or Hannah—when instead disclosing my given name increases my search-ability to 100%. For some people, that would be their dream, to be the first to pop up in Google because the links to their website http://www.johnsmith.com have been optimized just so. But that would be by choice, and, on the other hand, I have nothing to sell you.
So, what’s in a (Jewish) name?
The flip side of annoyance and anonymity is identity. Our names help define us to all whom we meet. The sounds and memories associated with any name have an effect on us all. In my case, the sounds are foreign. Furthermore, I’m never associated with someone’s ex, mother, or pet dog. For every introduction I’ve ever made in my life, I get to come in with a clean slate.
However, it just so happens that my slate is decorated with stickers of Jewish stars and Kiddush cups and sukkot and gefilte fish and comes in the shape of a square of matzo. It turns out that my slate is not so blank after all.
Even after I stopped attending services, my name still identifies me to the Jewish community as a member. Even though I don’t hang a mezuzah in my doorframe, a savvy mailman could still guess who lives inside. Even when Friday nights are spent on the town instead of at home in some R&R, I can still elicit a “Shabbat shalom” when I introduce myself to certain waiters and bartenders. It’s possible that I take my name for granted; it’s a secularist’s crutch to lean on when I want to be upheld by my past. But if that’s how it works, at least it works for me.
When “it works” with those who recognize the origin of my name, it’s like a little secret that we share between us, one that bonds us even when there’s no other information exchanged.
Now, do I need that connection with a stranger? Do I want the assumptions made about me that come with having such a Jewish name? No, and not really. But nevertheless, it gives me a sense of pride. For no matter how far I may stray from my heritage in my daily life, my daily life is nevertheless linked forever to the traditions of my family, and to hundreds of generations before me. And all I have to do to conjure up that legacy is to meet someone new and introduce myself.
“Hi,” I say, “nice to meet you. I’m דְּבוֹרִית.”
“I’m sorry, can you spell that?” they say.