What’s in a Name?

When we first began this journey, 7 years ago, a lot of our focus was to hold on to everything we could.  I had originally sought conversion and in the midst of beginning that journey with my children, we suddenly found ourselves dealing with my husband’s unexpected issues with his own halakhic status.

It was as if his Jewishness was a fragile box now holding so much of his memories and identity and the only way to repair that box was for our entire family to undergo Orthodox conversion.  In that fragile box that seemed to be turning to dust in his fingers were things like his bar mitzvah, his memories of day school, every aliyah he’d ever proudly been given, his first tallis, his awareness of his place in the world as a Jewish man.  It’s difficult to put into words the crisis of identity I witnessed him go through in those early months.  It was much like a grieving process, where first he was in denial, looking for some way this could not be true, then angry, then full of dispair, and finally…a kind of acceptance.  It’s taken years, really, to work through all the stages and, like any loss, there are still moments where the pain and struggle becomes fresh again, but those moments become fewer and have less power to disrupt his life.

Among the things we were trying so hard to hold onto…was names.

Jewish men are called to the Torah by their Hebrew name and also by their father’s name.  This ties them to their family and where they have come from.  When a Jewish person is ill or injured, they are prayed for by their Hebrew name and their mother’s Hebrew name.  When we hurt, we all become our mothers’ children again.  In the case of converts, once converted they are adopted by the spiritual parents Avraham and Sarah.  My husband was horrified that he might lose his tie to his biological, Jewish family in this way.  He had a Jewish father already and a beloved Jewish grandfather before him.  His mother’s name, Sarah, made conversion less problematic functionally, but he didn’t want to be called to the Torah as a son of Avraham when his father’s name was Yitzhak.  Converts are also urged to choose common names…and my husband’s Hebrew name was anything but common.  In fact, neither of us have ever met a Jewish man with the same name.  After 40 years of holding these names, it seemed that they were soon to be taken from him…another casualty of the conversion process.

Due to the delays we experienced, he’s had more time to sit with this and more time to dig into why he was named what he was and more time to process what might be to come.  We still don’t know if he’ll be undergoing a full gerus or a gerus l’chumrah, so there’s still a chance he might get to keep his names, but just like so many other things, as he processed his grief, his grip on those names became less and less firm.

Perhaps at some point, he realized that he’s no longer the same boy who stood for his bar mitzvah, afraid he’d be winged in the head with a hard candy as he struggled with his voice, afraid it would crack during his reading.  He also discovered that there was no reason behind his unusual Hebrew name…it had simply been a suggestion from a Rabbi and his father had been disinterested in choosing a name.  He realized his father, now Reform, really hasn’t been a spiritual father to him, unable to pass down his traditions or faith and that most of the Jew he has become is due to his stepfather and mother.

Maybe he realized that being Jewish itself was more important to him than losing this link to generations of Jews that came before him.

Whatever the reason, just this year, after 7 years of struggling with this loss, he finally decided that he is fine with it, that this is an opportunity for a new beginning with a new name and a new father.  His old names didn’t save him from everything he’s gone through and, with new names, it’s believed that there’s a fresh chance at mazel, that shifting idea of luck or fortune that somehow flows through the idea of free will and prayer without contradiction.

I love him and am so proud of him…no matter what his names are.

One thought on “What’s in a Name?

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