When my husband and I made aliyah last August, I was looking forward to bringing my name with me to Israel. I felt confident that my name would feel at home here immediately, even if I did not. While "Minna" is not a common name in Israel, it's easily understood and certainly not the oddity that it is in the US. Unlike the stories of immigrants having their names mangled at Ellis Island, I was pretty sure mine would survive its transition through Ben-Gurion Airport intact.
Keeping, or losing, our names as we move from country to country -- and from home to exile and back home again--is an ancient trope in Jewish tradition. This week's Torah portion, Shemot -- which is also the name for the entire book of Exodus -- means "names." This great story of the enslavement, liberation, and then desert wandering of the children of Israel begins with a recounting of the names of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt. This one-by-one naming of the men who would pass their names to the tribes of Israel is seen by Rashi as a mark of singling each one out as loved. He compares it to the way that God is said to know the name of each star in the sky. One midrash praises the fact that the children of Israel held on to these names through our long enslavement, listing it as one of the reasons we were eventually redeemed: "[They were called] Reuven and Simon coming [to Egypt] and Reuven and Simon leaving" (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5).
This midrash and others like it are often used to advocate "Jewish continuity", and in some circles it becomes part of a prescription for maintaining Jewishness by not dressing or speaking like non-Jews. But for me, the lesson is that -- whether the journey is personal, familial, or national -- we need to be mindful of having something to hold on to in times of great change. Put most simply, our names help us remember who we are.
So much was up in the air. What would this transition hold? How would being new olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) be different than being students or tourists? Some things we could count on from past experience: we knew how to buy groceries, find an apartment, and use Google to try to decipher the symbols on the dials of an oven or washing machine. But how would we navigate all the bureaucracies that were new to us: health care, taxes, driver's licenses?
Holding on to my name was one thing I took for granted in this swirl of newness. Here my name would easily belong even as so many other aspects of my identity underwent changes beyond my control. What is the place of a female rabbi in a country where Orthodoxy rules? Who am I when I am speaking a language in which I struggle to fully articulate myself? At least I would still be Minna.
Then began the encounter between my name and the people who fill out forms. Because my American passport includes my middle name, "Jeanne," it didn't occur to me not to use it on my Israeli ID. But unlike "Minna," "Jeanne" is not a familiar name here. And whoever was filling out the form for my health insurance left off the last letter in the Hebrew spelling of my middle name. Consequently, in every doctor's waiting room, I am now summoned by someone calling for "Minna Jee."
At first -- I was surprised to realize -- I truly felt hurt by this. As I'd expected, so much was (and still is) new and raw in my everyday life here -- but at least my name was supposed to be a safe haven! While in the U.S., I often had to repeat or spell my name; here people usually not only get it on the first try, they even have other Israeli Minnas (or Minas) to tell me about (like Mina Tzemach, a well-known pollster and statistician). Minna was the Yiddish name of my mother's mother's mother, and bringing it here to a Jewish state helped me feel like I could hold a thread of continuity through an otherwise jarring transition. Like Reuven and Simon, my great-grandmother was Minna going to the U.S., and I was Minna coming to Israel. Now, by mistake, I had been given a new name by someone who didn't know me at all. Is there any real reason I should care about this typographical error? Would this new name change the way I was treated by the medical personnel who called it out? Did it signify anything at all about me? No, no, and no. But my upset was a good reminder of how thin the threads of our coping mechanisms can be. One long skinny Hebrew letter, a final nun, left off the end of my middle name and suddenly I feel unseen and truly lost in translation.
And then one day I heard it differently. "Minna Jee," called the white-coated phlebotomist, and all of a sudden what I heard was "Minnaji." I felt a little tickle in my heart. "Minnaji" was a name I had heard before, but where? Slowly coming into focus in my mind's eye, I saw the shining face of my yoga teacher back in Reading, PA. It was she who called me "Minnaji" -- using the Hindi honorific "-ji" as a term of respect and endearment. Thousands of miles and many cultural twists and turns away, I realized I could choose to hear this mistaken name as a sign of affection. A random phlebotomist on Agrippas Street in Jerusalem was calling to me like God calls to the children of Jacob, or to the stars--as to a beloved. (She also did a fantastic job of drawing my blood.)
We cannot always control what we lose or gain in life's transitions, and even the happiest transitions (like getting married or becoming parents) can be jarring. I don't always get to choose how my name will be spelled or said. But sometimes, I get to choose how I will hear it. May I choose to be called with love.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.
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