Ger Tzadik (Sorta)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Picking My Hebrew Name

I have to admit that this is the part of conversion that has been anticipated with the least excitement of any. Yes, less than milah! Thankfully, my parents had me circumcised in the hospital after I was born, and the idea of a little pinprick, even on the most precious of body parts, isn’t a big deal. Guys are designed to be macho after all. Physical pain? Pah!

A new name though? That turned me into a bit of a mess. I did some quick research and found out, fortuitously, that my name actually has Hebrew origins! While this seemed like a stroke of luck at the time, I was told that it’s really not a “name” among Jews, except as a surname. It’s more of an object/location. So with that seemingly simply solution shoved sideways (apologies to those with lisps) no further thought was expended on the topic.

As time went on though, more and more people started asking some pushy questions: “Have you picked a name yet?” “What name are you leaning towards?” “You obviously have a name in mind. What is it?” It’s almost unconceivable to them that a person wouldn’t decide as soon as possible on the new name for their life. I know some other converts “in process” who decided that before almost anything else!

I, on the other hand, had yet to even turn a critical eye to the REASONS for avoiding the topic, let alone the answer. With the realization that decision time really was looming, a starting point was needed. After a bit of reflection, the cause of the mental roadblock became clear: I like my name. My name represents a lot about me. It represents the tradition of my family: eldest sons among siblings named for their paternal grandfathers. It represents the place of my ancestors. It represents the values of my family. Simply, it was a gift from my parents.

It amuses me to even say that because the name causes no end of grief sometimes! People have a hard time pronouncing it. Spelling it can be a challenge for those not familiar with ethnic names. It can generate some gender confusion for others who THINK they know ethnic names. I’m sure anyone who only has a Hebrew name can relate to those problems as well. Maybe the 13-year-old me would have ditched it, but the much older and wiser version writing this blog loves everything about it. It’s mine, and it’s a central part of my identity.

At the core of resistance to choosing a new name is the feeling that I’d be rejecting something of great value that was a birthright. I realize that it is supposed to reflect the ideals of life begun as a newborn Jew, not of the life one has led to that point. Just use the name of one of the forefathers, or perhaps the name of a true ger tzadik, right? None of these inspire me in the same way as the name I’d be leaving behind.

Before anyone comments, I do realize I get to “keep” my given name, and will be called by that name for the rest of my life. That isn’t what’s at issue here. After an entire life of taking names for granted, being presented with a choice to make about my own has forced meanings to the forefront, not just sounds. Glibly picking any name won’t do, and using the criteria of great men of past generations doesn’t resonate.

So this was the unhappy state of affairs heading into Shabbos this weekend. No name, and no interest in thinking about the problem at all. At this very moment though, while writing not long after Shabbos, there is a solution! One which has me grinning from ear to ear and feeling exultant, even jubilant! What is it? Well, I’ll save that for the next post…

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