What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

21 comments on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I have always been known as Marty or Martin. Only in shul (of course) and with a few other people, am I called Moshe. I don’t mind it, but I’m so used to Marty…I even like being called that over Mr. Fleischer, which a lot of my daughter’s (both of them) friends call me…but I guess that’s respect.

    Regarding Grandparents, I had 2 sets (actually, 1 set and 1 Grandmmother). My Frum grandparents I called Bubbe & Zaide, and my non-Frum was Grandma. My mom wanted all of them to be called Bubbe & Zaide, but to me, it was easier for me to know whom I was talking about!


  2. We did a combination. My wife comes from a MO Jewish family where all the kids had Hebrew names only (but for 2 out of 3 of the kids, the Hebrew names were pretty much equivolent to English ones). I come from a conservative family where we have English names, Hebrew names were only used for Aliyahs. So our kids have English names on their birth certificates and all the official paperwork, but are almost never called by their English names, even by non-Jewish friends. The reasoning we had at the time was if they choose to, they can have their name legally changed to the Hebrew name (and I’ll keep Azriela Jaffe’s warning in mind). If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d probably just give them their Hebrew names without the English ones. Hindsight being 20/20 and all.

    It was a struggle at the beginning. My older daughter’s name is Yiddish (after my grandmother), and my wife’s family kept trying to make it Hebrew. My aunt (daughter of my grandmother) kept calling her by her English name. But now my daughter corrects people on her own, so they’ve all adjusted to using the Yiddish name.

  3. Oh! Hahaha, sorry, that was just a little shout out to the friends I spoke about in my post, in case they were tuning in (I invited them to read here). I call them “Penanshel,” a combination of their two names.

    Moshe, you heard that I want to manufacture NIKE workout snoods for frum women (yeah, in my dreams.)? “Just do it” – the NIKE slogan – is perfect! It can come with a little graphic of a matzoh or a dust mop. :-D

    On a serious note, a strong family structure and support system is everything. My DH (dear husband) Eliahu is my rock and my anchor. Without him, I daresay I’d be floating off in the universe somewhere still trying to figure things out. :-)

  4. Leah,

    I don’t know what “penashel” means…help me here!

    Somehow, some way, Hashem makes things happen in ways we don’t know how, but He does!

    Yes, Leah, Pesach is a scary time, but I find the best way to take it on is what I said when I started my path to return…”just do it”. I don’t think too much what we’re going to do, because I would think it’s too much…I just go ahead and help set up Pesach in our home. It helps that I have my wonderful wife, Fran, and my 2 girls, Sharon & Laura, to help out!

    Marty (aka Moshe)

  5. Shalom Marty!

    Pesach is a scary time — that’s all I’m saying. ;-D

    I wanted to add one critical thing regarding “learning styles.” I was “adopted” by a wonderful family here in Toronto when I first started out on my BT journey.

    I have been their guest for many a Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as family simchas, and have had the special privilege and delight of meeting different generations of their prodigious “dynasty,” watching grandchildren grow up, marry and have children of their own.

    They opened their hearts and home to me, and after I married, to my husband as well, and I can think of no better way to learn about Jewish life than from people like this.

    I was able to learn by “seeing” and “doing” — a close up immersion course that continues to this day, because they not only model Torah values and a shomer mitzvos life, they also model a superbly wonderful marriage and family interrelationships that are a marvel to behold.

    I’m not sure where I’d be today, had Hashem (and my Rabbi) not made the shidduch that brought us all together.

    Penanshel if you’re reading this — a big koros hatov!

  6. Leah,

    Shalom to you too! Hope your Pesach prep is going well…

    I know of a Yeshiva in NJ not too long ago that would expel a student if he had the Internet hooked up @ home…UNLESS it was used for business. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is/was so. That is tough, in a way…but it depends on who is using the Internet, and how.

    Hashem gave us the different ways to learn….what you, I and all the others on this site, and others, are doing, is just using another gift the right way.


  7. Shalom Marty,

    We’re definitely on the same page with this. I know some Yeshivas do not allow their bachurim to go on the internet, and some families might react in shock that we advocate it, but that isn’t our experience and we need to take a mature approach to it. It’s simply a tool.

    Everyone has different learning styles. I learn more from sharing information in a forum like this than in a structured classroom or learning with a chavrusa. It’s just the way I am.

  8. On the flip side though, sometimes parents choose to name their kids jewish names I wouldnt name a wilted weed or spent petunia with. Its a little hard bordering on exceedingly difficult to embrace jewish names that sound like common eating disorders and or related negative imagery

  9. Leah,

    I agree with you 100% re: the Internet. Hashem give us tests in life, and you have to know how to use the Internet in the right way. There is a lot of bad stuff on it, but there is so much good, clean things on it, like a wealth of Frum material, such as this site; without it, there would be so much we would not know, and people we would not meet, if there were no sites like this one.


  10. On this topic, a short funny story and a warning to all who chose to change their first names. 15 years ago I changed my given name of Linda to Azriela, which means G-d is my helper in Hebrew. I was never given a Hebrew name, yeah for me, so I went out and bought a jewish baby naming book and chose my own name. The process of doing so, and changing my name was extremely powerful for me. It took a year before I really was comfortable with it and about 5 years till I stopped turning around every time i heard anyone say the name “Linda”. Predictably, my family freaked at first, and we went through a very long process of them eventually calling me by Azriela, we’re talking maybe ten years. It was very painful for my parents, predictably, and I didn’t push it with them. So, for the funny story.

    When I changed my name, at that time I was in a different career than my current one of book author. I was the Human Resource Director for Lutheran social Services of New England! I was the only noticeable Jew in an organization of 700 people, and i had to write a memo to the whole organization explaining my name change. We Jews are familiar with the idea of chosing and using a Hebrew name. Not so in the Lutheran world. I’m sure some of them thought I lost my rocker, and others admired it. At least back then I didn’t also show up at the office with a wig. Okay, to a more serious warning. . .

    If you are serious about changing your first name, do so legally. I went through the process of legally changing my first name, including social security, and going through the local court system and getting an official document for name change. At the time I think it was more ceremonial for me than anything, to make it real. Well, when I moved to NJ, I had a heck of a time getting a driver’s license. I was now going by Azriela on all documents, but my birth certificate read Linda. They would not give me a license unless I produced a certified and raised sealed document from the court that I had changed my name from Linda to Azriela. Unfortunately, I had long ago packed away that sentimental document in a box somewhere in my basement, so before I could drive legally in NJ, I had to go back to the courts in MA where I did it, and get a new sealed document. So, my strong advice is — if you are just trying this out with your friends, don’t worry. But if you intend to change your name for any kind of official purposes, make sure you have a legal paper trail. . . or don’t move to NJ!

  11. Ron-IIRC, both RMF in Igros Moshe and Yivadleinu LChaim Tovim R Asher Weiss in Minchas Asher discuss the halachic issues involved.

  12. I asked the Yiddish name question of a rebbi I had in Kol Yaakov. My real Jewish name is Henech — not Chanoch Henech, just Henech. You can have a Yiddish name as your Jewish name. Many famous people do, such as the bookseller Zundel Berman, for example — the brother of my rebbi — and Leib Tropper, who is the rosh yeshiva in Kol Yaakov and is just Leib Tropper.

  13. Shalom Menachem!

    I don’t know why, but I have in my head the song Kermit the Frog sings, “It’s not easy bein’ green,” probably because I was looking through the wonderful Absolut Haggadah.

    Sing it with me (I’ll sing in my head — kol eisha):


    “It’s Not Easy Bein’ BT”

    (Apologies to lyricist Joe Rapposo)

    It’s not easy bein’ BT,
    Feelin’ each day a little ill at ease,
    Not really sure where I’m fittin’ in,
    Am I Hareidi, Litvish or Misnagdim?

    It’s not easy bein’ BT,
    I’m a little different from so many FFBs.
    And people tend to pass me over ’cause my name is Mark or Michael, and I’m not shuckling like a black hatter.
    It’s not easy bein’ BT.

    But BT’s the way I am.
    And BT is as devoted to Hashem as any man.
    And being BT can be big like an ocean, or important like meforshim, or tall like a tree.

    When BT is all there is to be,
    it could make you wonder why?
    But why wonder? Why wonder?
    I am BT and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful!
    And I think it’s what I want to be.

  14. When I made Aliyah a couple of years ago I decided that it was time for me too to start using my Hebrew name.

    To be honest, it’s been a little difficult at times. Moving to Israel involves a lot of changes. In the midst of all these changes I let go of my “identity” of the previous 45 years. It still sounds odd hearing people call me “Menachem”.

    The advantage of changing your name in this situation is that you meet a whole slew of new people who now only know you as you introduce yourself to them.

    Many of my old friends still call me Michael. I don’t make a big deal out of it especially since it does provide me with a little old world comfort.

    Even though I know it’s the right thing for me to be using my Hebrew name here in Israel, your post definitely gave me some extra chizuk. Thanks!

  15. Shalom Neil,

    Thank you. I have to admit I needed a lot of help with that. I got lots of pep talks about the need to be more forgiving and understanding of my family, and did a lot of analysis about WHY they would be so hostile to the idea.

    Eventually I came to the realization that my BT journey was *MY* BT journey. I made the choice, I launched it on them, and I’m the one that has to live it. I really had to do a fair bit of growing to understand that. As soon as I did, things got a lot better.

    Now I enjoy watching my mother shop kosher for the first time in years and see little inroads here and there. The important thing is they’ve taken their fingers out of the ears because I’ve stopped my hyperzealous nattering. ;-D

    Leah L

  16. Leah,
    What a great posting. Thanks! While I’m pretty impresesd by the gematria part at the end, the following quote from your posting really struck a cord with me:

    “I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.”

    You hit on one of the ongoing challenges most of us who accept Torah Judaism into our lives deal with. It’s always nice to see in print what most of us think!

  17. Shalom Mark,

    Thank you for your feedback and for encouraging my husband and I to post here.

    I get a little mini-spike in my blood pressure when I read the strong arguments against the use of the internet. As much as one must be cautious and wary of the bad stuff out there, one cannot discount it as the most perfect tool for us hip, savvy techno-junkies who get a lot of our information online.

    It is a critical tool for kiruv and learning that cannot be overlooked, but must be used wisely and judiciously.

    Just perusing the reams of material there is for Pesach preparation and the yomim tovim tells you a lot, not to mention the very many fine Rabbis writing columns for the weekly parshas or answering “Ask the Rabbi” type questions. Not only does it build bridges for BTs, but also for the gentile world seeking to better understand Jews and Judaism.

    On a side note: I very much appreciate BeyondBT giving us an opportunity to share our stories here. I really feel like NOW I’ve come home — finding like-minded Jews who never lost the spark of their Jewish neshomos, but needed a little jumper boost.

    It’s one thing to immerse in a frum community and be exposed to a frum life, but it’s quite another to find people who truly understand what it’s like to turn your world upside down, and sometimes even walk away from family and friends to embrace a completely new life.

    It makes me that much more sensitive to the needs of gerim.

    Thank you again Mark and David and BeyondBT.

    Leah L

  18. It is indeed a beautiful story. However, can anyone give some advice re someone with an English name whose “real” name is a Yiddish name, as opposed to a name that is purely Hebrew?

  19. Leah, Thanks for sharing your beautiful web outreach story. It gives tremendous chizuk to those who believe in the power of the Internet for making human connections.

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