What’s in a name? Over 30 years ago, I walked into Shabbat Kiddush lunch one day, and walked out knowing what my Hebrew name would be. Harvey Kaplan says to me, “You know what your Hebrew name is, right?” I said, “No.” He said, “Susan means Shoshanah – a rose, a lily – that is your Hebrew name.”
I was 23 years old. Deciding to convert to Judaism as an adult, I knew I would work with my rabbi to pick a Hebrew name. But now Harvey had done it for me! I would be known as Shoshanah bat Avraham v’Sarah – Shoshanah the daughter of Abraham and Sarah.
Why Abraham and Sarah? The rabbis teach that someone who converts to Judaism is regarded as if they descended directly from our first ancestors Abraham and Sarah. Lest you think this leaves born Jews with any lesser status, remember that converts were vulnerable to being treated as “not really Jewish.” The rabbis knew this and so they safeguarded the dignity of the convert by granting this Hebrew name to all converts.
Many people have asked me through the years, if it is odd for me to bear a Hebrew name that does not include my birthparents’ names? Did it feel like I was abandoning my family when I converted to Judaism?
If anything, converting to Judaism strengthened my bond with my parents. The values they taught me and the person I am is their gift to me. Being the daughter of Avraham and Sarah does not replace being the daughter of Rod and Nancy, but rather it speaks to my covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, a relationship that I have found deeply complements my ongoing relationship with my parents and with my entire family.
Many born Jews were never given a Hebrew name for one reason or another. But Judaism provides for adult Jews to rectify that! It is as simple as reaching out to a Kol Shofar rabbi, choosing a name together and then coming to the bimah for an aliyah to the Torah on Shabbat morning, when you will be blessed with your new name! This name accompanies you throughout the Jewish lifecycle – through marriage, even divorce and prayers for healing when you are ill. The name escorts you to the end of your life when the Memorial prayer is recited for you and your name will be memorialized on your gravestone. For those Jews who have children, your name will forever be linked to theirs in the structure of the name which includes the phrase, “ ben/bat (son or daughter) of your Jewish parent or parents. “
In Jewish tradition, names are not taken lightly. We don’t make up Jewish names on the spot. For example, if you were born Jewish and don’t know your parents’ Hebrew names, we use their given names. For example, if you choose the Hebrew name Yitzhak (Isaac) and your Jewish parents’ name were Philip and Lisa, then your Hebrew name would be Yiktzhak ben Philip v’Lisa. (“v’” means “and” in Hebrew).
Another great idea is to take your Kol Shofar nametag home after services, and after Shabbat is over, write your Hebrew name on the back of your nametag. That way, when you are called to the Torah for an aliyah, you will always have your Hebrew name handy.
If you don’t know or remember your Hebrew name, get in touch. We will work together to locate your Hebrew name, either in your own or your family’s documents such as a naming certificate, Bar/Bat Mitzvah certificate, Ketubah (marriage contract), Get (divorce document) or using even photographs of gravestones to locate your parents’ Hebrew names!
Bearing a Hebrew name is a source of connection to the Jewish community and another strengthening factor in building a Jewish identity. I hope to hear from you as we help you find or cleave to your Hebrew name.