When our latest cat came into our lives two years ago, there was much discussion about what we would name him. I thought of the name Elul, aka Luli (top), to represent the month he came to us. We are a couple of educators and rabbis and to my partner, the month of Elul, which falls in late August-early September, represented a time of stress and craziness. While I didn’t disagree, I also saw Elul as a time of joy and new beginnings. So, little Luli joined his brother Zali, short for Mazal.
Names are of monumental importance to the Jewish people. Parents often hold back on sharing Hebrew names before a boy’s bris or girl’s baby naming. Families are concerned about how previous generations will be remembered by the perpetuation of their name. In modern America, children are often given a first and middle name in English and in Hebrew. Their last name might be their father’s, their mother’s, both, or a combination of the two. And even then, this carefully planned name may be changed. It may be shortened or manipulated: Jonathan becomes Jon or Jonny. Alexandra become Allie or Lexie. They might have red hair and are simply called Red. They may be a left-handed pitcher and be called lefty. Many people choose their names and they may change as they grow. I wouldn’t call my cousin Susie anything by Susan now.
We also have a Torah tradition of name changes. Avram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel. People are anointed, becoming kings and prophets. In the book of Ruth, Naomi, in her deepest despairs says, “Call me Mara!” She changes her name from one “pleasant” to “bitter.” Naomi doesn’t suit her anymore.
The Midrash, in Kohelet Rabba, says:
“A person has three names:
one that he is called by his father and mother,
one that people know him by,
and one that he acquires for himself.”
In the last week, there has been a ridiculous amount of coverage the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner. I have been pleasantly surprised to hear and see a great deal of positive media. Although, as I’ve said, I do live in a liberal New York, NPR, MSNBC bubble. I have mostly tried to avoid the negative press, but what I’ve seen has not been nice and I won’t give credit by quoting.
I would like to think of Caitlyn’s transformation in terms of the Midrash.
Bruce, the name given by his parents.
Olympian, Wheaties-box boy, American hero, and later, American reality show star, the name given by others.
Caitlyn, the name Bruce decided to finally acquire!
Most of us are lucky. The name our parents gives us seems right. We can work with it, even if there are some awkward moments where it doesn’t seem right. For some it takes years to figure out what name is right for them. Kol hakavod to those who are willing to take the risk to share that name with their loved ones and the world. Bruchim HaBaim – Welcome!
What’s in a name?