What’s in a name? Shakespeare thinks it’s not much. But I’m Jewish, and time has shown us that our names are the only thing we have to hold on to. That and whatever we can carry in our pockets.
So we Jews have been very protective of our names. Sure, in adapting to new worlds we have tried to disguise ourselves by assimilating. Isidore Dempsky became Kirk Douglas, Allen Konigsberg is Woody Allen. And Belle Silverman of Crown Heights, Brooklyn sang at the Metropolitan Opera as Beverly Sills. But deep down, in a special place that really matters in the most profound sense, we carry our names like precious jewels because we know this is what ties us to our heritage, our history. Our family. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s family that counts. When it’s time to circle the wagons, the only thing inside the circle is family.
Over the centuries Jews have jealously guarded their family names. There is a midrash (a rabbinic tale) that says one of the reasons the Israelites survived slavery in Egypt was they did not change their names. When a person is called to the Torah in a Jewish service, he or she is called by name: so-and-so, son or daughter of so-and-so. It says where you came from is very important. It says that’s who you are: the son or daughter of someone.
So I rejoiced when my son decided to take back the original, historically significant family name and bury the one that had been insensitively foisted on our family in the new land. And when our daughter did the same for her own, equally valid reasons, it made me believe they both understood how crucial it is to carry the family forward.
A long-standing, cherished Jewish practice is to name a newborn after a respected relative. Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and the West give the child the name of a beloved member of the family who had passed on. Sephardi Jews, who draw their heritage from the eastern part of the Jewish world, name babies for living relatives. For both, this is a way of saying, I am not here on my own; I treasure the ones who come before me. And they live on through my children who carry their names forward.
Our names define us because they say who we are and where we came from. And who we came from.
No, Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, and he may have been a pretty smart guy, but he would have made a very poor Jew if he thought our names are meaningless. They are not.
Not my name.