Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller's Sonnets.
Honoring My Mother
"I have the perfect name for you," Rabbi Sirkman told me, as I slid into the booth across from him and signaled the waitress for a cup of coffee.
It was two weeks before my conversion ceremony, and we were meeting at the diner to chat about the details, and, finally, to choose my Hebrew name. "I've been thinking about this for a while," he said, "and I hope that you'll agree with me." I smiled and waited for him to speak. With a flourish, he announced it: "Hadassah."
The name hung between us like the choice between a blessing and a curse.
"What do you think?" he asked me. "When you think about your family history, it seems like the perfect choice, for you to carry on your grandmother's name."
He was right, in a way. Hadassah was the Hebrew name of my father's mother Esther, who had also converted to Judaism as a young woman in order to marry my grandfather. He left her a widow at the age of forty-three. Ovarian cancer killed her five years later, leaving four orphaned children, all of whom had become estranged or alienated from their Jewish upbringing. It was, I thought, not exactly the legacy that I had in mind.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "You don't like it?"
"You know, rabbi," I sighed, "she died so young. And you know about what my father went through, losing his parents at such an early age. I think it would be really painful for him. I just don't know if that's a shadow I want over my Hebrew name."
He seemed to understand immediately. "OK," he said. "Why don't you tell me what you had in mind?"
Choosing a Hebrew name--ironically--brought back memories of choosing a confirmation name, when I was thirteen years old. I was brought up as a Catholic--the religion of my mother. The rule for choosing a confirmation name is that it must be the name of a saint. Having become interested in my Jewish heritage, however, I wanted to choose one of the names of the biblical matriarchs--Rebecca, Rachel, Sarah, or Leah--to honor my father's birth religion.
When it came time to confer with the priest to discuss a name, he flatly refused to allow me to choose--as he called it--"an Old Testament name." Angry at what I perceived as an insult to my Jewish heritage, I ended up selecting a secular name--Diana--and told the priest that it was derivative of my maternal grandfather's name, Daniel.
The choice of that particular name was in no small way an act of rebellion--especially since I knew that the origin of the name Daniel was Hebrew. It was the best choice I could make at that time, to secretly honor both parents and a heritage that would otherwise have been forced to remain unacknowledged.
But when the time came for me to choose a Hebrew name, everything was different. For one thing, choosing Judaism enabled me to redefine my religious identity, and in doing so, I understood that the act of choosing a name would confer upon me a heritage that obligated me to act with moral authority. As Jews, we read in the book of Numbers (v. 22-27) that through the priestly blessing, God links his name to his people Israel. As I prepared to choose my name, I thought about how upon becoming part of the Jewish people, I would link my name to God. It was a process that I had looked forward to for months, researching the meanings of Hebrew names, trying to make sure that my choice would reflect the meaning of my journey.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself confronting nearly the identical situation that I had all those years ago: the denial of one parent's identity, as reflected in a choice of a name.
When becoming part of the Jewish people, many converts to Judaism choose to symbolize their new lineage by calling themselves "ben/bat Avraham v'Sarah" (the son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah--the first "converts" to Judaism). But my case was different, because even though my father had not practiced his Jewish faith for decades, my Hebrew name could still be linked with his. I still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, however, when my rabbi told me that no such link could be made to my mother. Thus, whatever name I chose would only have one parent--as if my mother did not even exist.
While at some level I understood the logic--my mother, as a Catholic, obviously was not part of the Jewish people, and thus, could not be considered as one who stood before Sinai, my heart ached, and still does, at the idea of excluding her from a choice I considered to be so meaningful.
It was ironic, then, that my father, who was born Jewish but remained silent on the subject, and did not raise us with any sense of our Jewish identity, would be honored at my conversion when my own name became "bat Aryeh" (the daughter of Leo), symbolizing the generations. And yet, when I told my mother that I wanted to convert, she was completely supportive of my choice. Her spiritual generosity made the conversion process a joy for me. Didn't my mother, who at some level sacrificed her intentions for my spiritual choices, deserve to be honored, as well?
Unlike my response years before, I did not want the choice of my name to be one made out of anger or a sense of rebellion.
I chose Micah for three reasons: first, because of the words of the prophet of the same name, words that guide me every day as a Jew: " . . . to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." (Micah 6:8).
Second, because in the fall of 2001, my dear friend Inbar gave birth to a baby girl named Mika--a beautiful, brown-eyed baby who was a constant source of laughter and hope during that terrible time of darkness for those of us working in downtown New York City.
And finally, I chose Micah to share an initial--the letter M--with my mother, Marie, to honor her as she honored me, through her love and her acceptance.
In my heart, I am sure that my grandmother Hadassah--of blessed memory--would have approved.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.