In an art gallery where I’m attending an evening event, I see a man whose nametag reads “Zachari.” I can’t resist, and I stop him and say, “Your name, Zachari, from the biblical book?” He says yes, and goes on to tell me his middle name is Ephesians.
“That’s some name to live up to,” I smile.
I’ve been thinking about this man’s name ever since, and wondering about his parents—did they think such a name would encourage their son to be a godly sort of a man? Personally, I have often blanked when it came time to naming anything or anyone. Our youngest son turns 15 this week and at his bris, when the mohel prepared to announce “And his name shall be…” my husband and I were still whispering, “What should we name him?” “Daniel” was the only name we both liked, and so Daniel he became.
Our daughter was called “baby” for several weeks after her birth. My husband’s much-loved grandmother’s name was Chana, but I am not a fan of that guttural “ch” which sounds like you’re clearing mucus from your throat. Finally, with a slap against our foreheads, we realized that “Anna” is a derivative of Chana, but without the throat clearing. Our oldest, David, is the only one whose name we were confident of, because we were naming him after my husband’s beloved grandfather.
The act of naming implies ownership of, dominion over, as when Adam named the animals. In the Bible, names indicate one’s character or relationship to God or to an event. Isaac (Itzhak, “laughed” in Hebrew) is named thus to recall that Sarah “laughed” when told that at her advanced age, she was going to have a child. Naming someone is a serious undertaking because it can impact how you see yourself and how others might see you – playful or serious, exotic or plain, ethnic or mainstream…
Psychologists have discovered what the Bible knew long ago–that children’s names affect how others treat them and, as a result, their name affects their own self-image. In that sense, your name might very well be linked to your destiny. Mystics will absolutely assert that your name is your destiny, and by translating the letters of your name into numbers, you can come up with your soul’s expression, your soul urge and your life path. So, you know, there’s a lot at stake when you name your child. No wonder the enormity of it paralyzes me.
I like my children’s names very much and I think they suit each one of them. “Anna” was a prophetess in the Temple; the name means “grace” in Hebrew. My daughter has a graceful manner and she can give the prophetess a run for her money, the way she cuts to the heart of a matter and sees how things are bound to unfold. “Daniel” translates as “God is my judge” and that is absolutely true – for Daniel, there is no earthly authority. David means “beloved.” My children have become their names.
However, I tend to call each of them by nicknames more often than I do their given names. Perhaps this is just family tradition. Within my own family, my parents gave each of us quite respectable, lovely given names, but in daily life they used their nicknames for us. Those pet names place us firmly within our family, as they identify us more uniquely as the “child of” than any name could.
My sister Liz’s nickname is Bone, because she was quite skinny as a child. My nickname, I’ll confess, was Tater. A face as round as a ‘tater, said my parents. When Liz and I were young, our neighbors once asked if Tater and Bone could come out to play, and so my sister, Wanda, brought out a plate of chicken bones and mashed potatoes left over from supper.
When a person changes in the Bible, his or her name often changes as well. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai Sarah, and after Jacob wrestles with the angel, he is re-named “Israel.” I’ve been re-named many times, from Angela to Angie to Ang to Tater and Pumpkin and Punkin’ Head. (It’s actually kind of cathartic to admit to all of these sort of shameful names.) All of my aunts, uncles, cousins and my parents still call me Tater. My feelings would be hurt if they called me Angela. I thought, though, by the time I had grown up, I was done with new names. But when I converted to Judaism, I had to choose a Hebrew name.
Coming out of the mikveh dripping wet, I wrapped myself in a towel and robe, and was guided directly to the rabbis who converted me. They asked me what my Hebrew name in Israel would be. I hadn’t given it any thought whatsoever. None. I blanked. Then, I felt a Divine smack on my forehead, and I said, “Ruth.” Not only was Ruth the first convert, but it was also conveniently my middle name. My mother really does know how to name ‘em. And by the way, Angela means messenger, and as a writer, that’s exactly what I am, a messenger, even if Bone would say I’m little more than a tattle tale.
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