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What’s in a Name?

Contribute to Liana Finck’s ‘Tell Mitzi’ column

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(Liana Finck/Tablet Magazine)

Check out Liana Finck’s fourth installment of “Tell Mitzi” today. She considers Lot’s wife, salt, and the dangers of nostalgia.

Now it’s time for you to help her out again. This week, Liana wants to know: What is your name? Where does it come from? What does it mean to you? Leave your answer in the comments, and maybe she will respond to yours in next week’s “Tell Mitzi.”

Related: Ingrained Habits [Tablet Magazine]

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Isabel Ringer says:

My name comes from my non-Jewish grandmother but the actual name is Hebrew. Yitz’avel. Unfortunately, the only Biblical character with this name is a non-Jew labeled Jezebel in English.

The meaning of the name is ‘dedicated to El.’I take that meaning seriously. I amI believe my name was G-d-given in the womb. I am dedicated to ADONAI and doing all I can to be a spiritual light in my community.

I knew G-d existed when I was 5 years old (not from any help from my parents, who were non-religious). At first I worshiped nature and later switched to the Creator of nature.

I teach 6th grade in my shul (combined Reform/Conservative) and teach an adult Torah class weekly. People call me for prayer. My rabbi asked me to select Biblical passages that he could use with the dying (the liturgy is about recovery). I was happy to help. I have trained and worked as a chaplain.

Isabel, Boise, ID

Isabel Ringer says:

My name comes from my non-Jewish grandmother but the actual name is Hebrew: Yitz’avel. Unfortunately, the only Biblical character with this name is a non-Jew labeled Jezebel in English.

The meaning of the name is ‘dedicated to El.’I take that meaning seriously. I believe my name was G-d-given in the womb. I am dedicated to ADONAI and doing all I can to be a spiritual light in my community.

I knew G-d existed when I was 5 years old (not from any help from my parents, who were non-religious). At first I worshiped nature and later switched to the Creator of nature.

I teach 6th grade in my shul (combined Reform/Conservative) and teach an adult Torah class weekly. People call me for prayer. My rabbi asked me to select Biblical passages that he could use with the dying (the liturgy is about recovery). I was happy to help. I have trained and worked as a chaplain.

Isabel, Boise, ID

Isabel Ringer says:

I believe I was named by G-d in the womb. The name is Hebrew and means ‘dedicated to El.’ My grandmother had this name. The only Biblical character with this name is a non-Jew named Jezebel. Sometimes people will mention Queen Isabella of Spain but I identify with the Jewishness of the name.

Since childhood, I have known there was a Creator. I received no religious training from my parents but sought it out on my own.

I have dedicated myself to G-d’s work my entire life. In my shul, I lead 6th grade religious school and teach a weekly Torah study for adults. I trained for and served as a chaplain. My rabbi turned to me for advice on a better liturgical response to the dying (prayer for their recovery is absurd).

I have started two 12-Step meetings in various places I have lived, because I believe in creating places for healing. One’s work out in society should echo one’s work within the walls of a shul.

So I take my name seriously, as my personal calling.

Isabel Ringer says:

Excuse 3 postings. I tried to clarify #1 and ended up with 3.

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

My real name is Theresa, and I was named for my great-grandmother, Theresa Arndt. Everybody always pronounced it Ter-EEE-SA, which I hated. For a while I told people my name was TER-AY_ZA, but it never caught on. When I was 14, I was writing out my name and started with Theresa and finished with my nickname Terry, and it came out Therry. Therry always amuses me, and it’s always mispronounced.

Moshe Gershon says:

Wow, big question. The first thing I think of is the Annie Dillard line from Holy the Firm, “A name, like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone.”

The second thing I think of is Genesis 2, where Adam is given the task of naming creation. I read this as Adam’s search for love. In naming things he tries to find himself and cannot, until he discovers Eve, and gives her his own name (see Genesis 2:19-23).

I also think of the Burning Bush story in Exodus 3. Moses asks, “Who am I…?”, and God answers “Eheyeh Imcha” (“I am/will be with you”). Interesting, I think, that this somehow answers Moses’s question. A few sentences later, Moses asks, “Who shall I say sent me?”, which is odd, because God has already identified himself as the God of the Hebrew ancestors… apparently that introduction wasn’t enough for Moses. So God answers, “Eheyeh asher Eheyeh.” I think that this is beautiful because God uses the same name for himself as he does for Moses—”Eheyeh.” This is what makes names so special, that in naming something we identify with it. Sharing a name is like sharing a destiny.

The other stories I think of are Jacob and the Angel (Genesis 32) and Manoach and the Angel (Judges 13). Jacob and Manoach each ask the divine stranger for his name, and neither get an answer. In both cases, the angel tells the protagonist that his name is too wonderful for them to understand. In these stories, I understand naming as the human way of asserting control—a very special power, but one with limits. Textual tradition lists 72 names for God, each implying a unique relationship, and yet we are told not to name God in vain, which really drives home the weight of our power. And of course the holiest name is unpronounceable… what are we supposed to make of that?

So yeah. What’s in a name? A lot. Our power as humans. Our ability to connect with the world. Our ability to assert control, for better of worse.

Malachi says:

Malachi=Messenger of the Lord?(not even really a name but a description) I was the first born 1977, when my brother came 1979 his name was to be Levi but my grandmother said no, “they’ll both be rabbis” So he was named Ashley (Gone With the Wind -Red Head) My next older cousin was Shannon, my next younger Joshua, and Jessica. However somewhere in-between 1976 and 1979 as in my family our names stopped coming from the bible although there was a Seth snuck in there in the 80′s! These were not family names, but just pulled out of the Bible.
I often wondered if this was a sign of the idealism of my parents and aunts and uncles generation eroding as they matured? Did these names shape us? I don’t think as much as the lingering idealism that was imprinted onto us as it faded into the 1980′s in this case.
Personally, my name involved an amount of a “Boy Named Sue” quality growing up and being picked on constantly, never having a dean, teacher or doctor who was able to pronounce it correctly. Spanish class was fun too my name being shortened to Mal and being regarded as bad. I’ve have potential employers pass because they were too embarrassed to call and get it wrong. I’ve often considered using my middle name Mason to really test this but can’t bring myself to do it I am Malachi. And in some sense I supposed the taunting endured, made me sensitive, perhaps mean and forced me to point out inequity once I had the wherewith all to and in a way I became what I was called 33 years ago. However, I’m no longer idealistic as I think my parents were in their 20′s but rather have become misanthropic and no longer surprised by the world, and sometimes wondering how my namesake made out in the ancient world.
I never became a rabbi, I have 4 degrees and can’t get work as anything but a security guard. My brother is training again too, this time to be a welder.

Adrienne Lassman says:

My name must have been plucked out of whatever French novel my Mother was currently reading; Biblical names were not “fashionable” when I was born. However, my Hebrew names are those I acknowledge proudly – Hadassah Rachel. I believe I am a true and genuine “daughter” – not of only my parent (of blessed memory) but of Israel, my country and my community. I have Rachel’s devotion to my people, my heritage and my family.

Katherine says:

My parents gave me the name Katherine Anne; this soon became Kathy after the emergence of the Chatty Cathy Doll in 1960; I used that name until college in 1977 when I decided to go by the gender neutral “K”; after that I moved to San Francisco and became Irene (my non de guerre after joining a Marxist Leninist party); then back to Katherine again for a while, now Kineret bat Sarah for many years. All this is true. My husband says: “Katherine with a ‘K’, that explains everything.” Looking back at the names I was given, the names I chose for myself, and more recently the names I chose for my children is a like looking at a map of my life. (P.S. My secret super hero name is Aqua Vixen.)

I love Moshe Gershon’s comments All the more reason to sympathize with those nameless ones – Noah’s wife, Jacob’s other daughters, the woman of Shunam, Manoach’s wife, the mixed multitude… What were they called?

Katherine–I love hearing small details from you in different weeks. How did you land on Aqua Vixen, and does it come in handy sometimes? I never heard Kineret as a name before, that’s so beautiful, very aqua. Which complements the pink pills. Malachi–I think a Malachi could make more than other people out of being a security guard, elusive and watching. What’s your job like? I so much enjoyed the story. Moshe Gershon: that Annie Dillard quote is great. Maybe a name and a face (and for you art fans out there: a style) are shorthand for something too complex, in its full prose, to love or own. We’re not ourselves when we’re alone. We’re everything else. The self is a courtesy package for other people. Maybe also: the unpronounceable name of God is a riddle, to which the answer is very simple. I’m getting rambly.

Gideon says:

I love my name so much. My favorite part of being named Gideon is looking in the back of Gideons Bibles and finding the page that says something like, “if you’d like to find other Gideons in your area, call…”. That never stops being funny.

But I also love the special role that naming plays in the Gideon story. Throughout the story, the text switches back and forth, referring to the hero sometimes as Gid’on and sometimes as Yeru’baal. Gid’on is somewhat ambiguous in meaning—’On’ means Might, and Gid may refer to a body part (in the hip-region? see the Jacob/angel story). Don’t really know what to make of it. I once found a baby naming website that translated Gideon as “Destroyer” or “Feller of Trees,” which I think is hilarious and awesome. But Yeru’baal definitely means He Who Fears (in a worshiping sense) Baal (God’s biggest biblical rival). By giving Gideon these 2 names, his faith in God is called into question. He is caught in an internal crisis of faith, even as he leads God’s army into battle. This has always been interesting and a little bit problematic for me: how can you lead people into a violent battle without being sure of your cause or yourself? Doubt is not something you want to hear about in reference to military leadership. And at the same time, I wonder why both names are included, considering the audience for whom the story is written. Why does the author want this to be a part of Gideon’s character? I like to think that the Torah is telling us that sometimes what seem to be flaws are actually the source of our power. Maybe Gideon couldn’t have been the warrior-hero that he was without his secret struggles to drive him. I like to think that he is a character not unlike Jacob, who is told that his divine name is Israel, or ‘he who struggles with God.’ To me, it seems that when the angel gives Israel his name, he is telling him, “your internal struggle is not something that you need to get past. On the contrary, it is what makes you great.

gideon, love your writing! what i said to moshe gershon about god’s unpronounceable name as a riddle was a distillation of the part of borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths (which i know you’ve read?) where the cinologist says: in a riddle whose answer is time, what is the only word that cannot appear? time. ,, the riddle in the story is a gigantic unreadable novel. maybe the Haggadah is a riddle, too, and maybe god is a riddle himself. i miss rabbi segal! will write back soon to your post.

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What’s in a Name?

Contribute to Liana Finck’s ‘Tell Mitzi’ column

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