These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What’s in a (Jewish) name?

Posted on February 10, 2013 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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From my blog:

With the tenth of February just around the corner, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Israel for a month already. I have big plans for my time abroad, and while I’ve mostly been happily consumed with Jewish studies at Pardes, I feel like there’s still just so much for me to accomplish and experience in the short months that I have here this time around. Either time really does fly by too quickly when you’re enjoying your life, or I’m just not taking the initiative to make it all happen in the allotted time that I have to be a Jerusalemite, until that distant, undetermined date of aliyah arrives. More than likely, it’s a bit of both.

Now that I’ve returned to Jerusalem, several of the things that I had planned to do or decisions I’d planned to finalize have crept up on me and now stare me in the face as they remain unresolved. Moving abroad for five months takes some serious planning, and hopefully I’ve learned a thing or two from my previous trips abroad, like how to not run out of money; turns out, you need the stupid stuff to live on. For me, most planning involves crossing things off of lists that were hastily made in a late night panic after unsettling nightmares that remind me that things need to get done–things to shop for, things to not forget to pack, and things to take care of before leaving the country and find you should have done too late, such as notifying your bank that you are leaving the country, and will use the ATM while you’re gone, so please, please, please, don’t block access to my account and then tell me that I need to physically sign papers that I don’t have and fax them to you in order to confirm this when I call you up in a state of agitated confusion at the airport in Montreal without a dime on me (not that I ever did that, or anything…) Other things require mental and emotional planning, such as dealing with missing loved ones, homesickness, and the possibility of escalating tensions in a country such as Israel. Lately though, I’ve been thinking of this seemingly trivial thing that I was considering before I left the States: should I go by my given name, or my Hebrew name while I’m in Israel?

This might seem like an odd consideration to take into account for some, and it’s admittedly unique to Jews who travel to Israel and have the option to introduce themselves as, in my case, either Megan (the name I was given at birth) or Maayan (the name I chose for myself as I came out the mikveh, reborn in a sense). It’s something of a tradition that some Jews like to partake in when we step into the Holy Land. It’s not just about blending in, especially when you may very well receive unexpected attention and compliments on your “exotic” name if you stick with your non-Jewish, non-Hebrew one–I’ve met a number of Israelis who have oohed and ahhed over my “interesting” and “beautiful” name, which is immensely flattering, since when I was born, Megan was in the top ten baby names for girls in 1985 in the United States. But what does it matter, anyway? What is in a name, after all?

Choosing a Hebrew name for myself wasn’t easy, and I went through a long list of names before finally settling on one. Actually, that is to say, before settling on two names. For a while, I thought I’d settle with Emuna. Phonetically, I love the way it rolls off the tongue, and the meaning of it, “faith,” seemed like a good fit for an enthusiastic new convert such as myself. When I excitedly told everyone about what was to be my new Hebrew name as soon as my beit din could get it down on my official conversion papers, I was not met with the favorable responses that I was expecting.

Emuna, I was told, is a “settler name,” one that makes me sound frum, and would immediately give off a certain kind of impression to any Israeli that I might want to, not be friends with, but actually date. Emuna is too pious, they said, and really, who was I trying to kid with the sudden piety schtick? It would be a perfect name, I was told, if ever I decided to move to Meah Shearim (the infamous ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, where not dressing modestly can get you spat upon or called names…though, that’s never happened to me there, and I once shopped around there all tarted up in a t-shirt–you could see my arms past my elbows!) and get married to a Haredi man, chosen for me by a matchmaker and decided after a couple of coffee dates to test our compatibility as a couple. Yes, I’d better start shopping for my modest curtain skirts and ask myself if I’ll be covering my hair with a snood or opt for shaving my head and wear the fashionable sheitel, a wig of someone else’s hair, once I’m betrothed to a bearded, sidelocked, black-hatted man who will spend most of his days at shul and yeshiva, pouring over the Talmud (because Talmud scholars are sexy).

Exaggerations aside, since I had yet to experience Israel for myself at that point, I took everyone’s advice seriously, and searched for another name. In retrospect, the warnings I received seem utterly ridiculous now; I can think of no one I have met in Israel, religious or secular, who would give a damn that my name would have been Emuna. But naming a person is serious, and once you have it, you’re stuck with it. You can’t go naming yourself something in a foreign language that might give everyone the wrong impression, especially if you’re going to possibly want to live amongst them for good at some point. And for the record, with a better, more nuanced understanding of term, I don’t care if I’m perceived of as a “settler” these days.

Maayan became my next choice. Totally secular, Maayan is a unisex name that means “fountain,” or “spring.” It has a nice symmetry to it with Megan; both start and end with the same sound, and are similar enough to compliment each other: Megan, Maayan. You see? They even look good sitting next to each other.

Everyone agreed that Maayan was the better choice. Still, I couldn’t let go of my attachment to Emuna. Finally, someone asked why not just hyphenate the two names, and choose Maayan-Emuna? I have a middle name too, after all (Dolores actually, which is about as non-Jewish as Christina, and the point was really humorously driven home to me last Good Friday when I decided to walk down the Via Dolorosa with a bunch of Christians during their procession to the Holy Sepulchre). Besides, what a neat meaning the two names would have when put together: “spring of faith.” It sounds about ten times more religious than Emuna ever did on its own (and a friend of mine recently pointed out that “spring of faith” would make a great name for a band, and I have to agree), but I loved it, and that’s what is written on my conversion papers: Maayan Emuna, bat Avraham v’Sara. Or, in English, Spring of Faith, daughter of Abraham and Sara. Okay, now that’s just really religious sounding, don’t you think?

But recently, my Pardes friends have been calling me Maayan, after an Australian teacher of mine called me “Meegan,” and even though I automatically responded with correcting him, I didn’t mind, given his charming accent, but he wanted to know my Hebrew name and if he could call me that instead. Turns out, Maayan is a name he has long since loved and wanted to name a daughter (but alas, his wife has never been keen on the idea), and a good number of my classmates wanted to know if it was okay for them to call me Maayan as well. The topic came up again in another class, and since it’s Pardes, people are enthusiastic about these Jewish things (go figure!), so more and more people have come around to calling me Maayan. And I have to say, I quite enjoy it.

On a related note, after studying chapter 15 of Genesis last week in my chumash class, we discussed a portion of the text where Avram (before becoming Avraham, or for my non-Hebrew speaking readers, when Abraham is still referred to as Abram) tells God that his inheritance of the land and being blessed with wealth and a great name for himself is meaningless without an heir, and God comes to Avram in a vision and tells him to go outside and count the stars, for that will be the number of his descendants. Rashi comments that God changing Avram’s name to Avraham not long after this during the covenant with the circumcision, and the renaming of Sarai to Sarah, is related to their fortune changing when God blesses them with a child. What this has to with God renaming them was lost on me, until our teacher explained to us that there is a practice in some observant Jewish circles, where people who have been sick or especially down on their luck will change their name in order to change their “fortune” or lot in life. It’s not exactly a surprising practice–the name of a newborn baby boy is not often announced until their bris, eight days after they are born, and in many other traditions, a baby girl’s name isn’t announced to a community until the Torah is read at services in shul–Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat morning. Even though there is some superstition surrounding this practice (warding off the Evil Eye or the Angel of Death by not identifying the new baby, especially a boy before a bris when he becomes “complete” in his initiation into the Jewish people), it also does have to do with God renaming Avraham at his brit millah, according to some commentaries on the text (Zohar – Lech Lecha 93a, Ta’amei Minhagim 929, to be precise…I looked it up!) And in Ashkenazi circles, it’s considered bad luck to name a child after a living relative. So this whole name business in Judaism, to put it mildly, is a big deal and does have significance.

While I’m hesitant to get all mystical and suggest that changing one’s name will affect their lot in life (Rashi and other commentators also put stock in astrology, and while I respect our great biblical scholars who are vastly more knowledgeable than I am when it comes to the Tanakh, it is hard for me to not make a derisive scoff at the mention of astrology…but I digress), I do think that something as big as changing one’s name can change a person’s mindset, and there’s a lot a of power in the human mind and how it perceives something. Becoming Maayan since I’ve been here has had a positive effect on me. Perhaps there is something in it that makes me feel more wholly accepted and welcome into my still relatively new Jewish life. And since my Pardes community has “renamed” me in a sense, I do approach my studies and interaction within that community with a different point of view. Collecting new perspectives and experiences is all a part of the reason to keep doing down this unlikely path that I’ve chosen, after all.

So, I’ll cross the whole, “what name should I go by?” issue off of my “List of Things to do While I’m in Israel,” then. Now, onto learning how to speak Hebrew with any real proficiency, and to put those travel plans for Pesach break into motion…