Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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Originally published September, 2008. Republished February 21, 2013.
Rina Elisheva is a name I chose for myself when preparing for my formal conversion to Judaism in 1995. My given last name, Faught, is associated with Jewish merchants or ancient Norman fort dwellers, depending on the historical spelling or pronunciation one might examine. My father's family was Jewish and my matrilineal line is Christian, Irish Protestant to be specific. I was not raised as a Jew.
I came out as a lesbian in my teens. This was not relevant to my conversion in any way except that "coming out" as Jewish thereafter seemed like no big deal, comparatively. My gayness was the deal breaker between my non-religious father and me. He told me, at the kitchen table when I was 18, that he was embarrassed that I carried his name. I have kept the name anyway, because it is my birthright and I am proud of it, though I am still estranged from my father after all these years. It is a kind of prayer for me, and for him, and it ties me to my ancestors.
Because of our estrangement, I have had cause to reflect on the power of naming ourselves and what the real power of my Hebrew name is juxtaposed against my given name, Renee, and "Ren," the nickname everyone calls me in my personal life. Renee means "rebirth" and Ren is the root of the word renaissance, which means "new start." If I observe the symbolism in the names "Renee" or "Ren," then the symbolism of the name "Rina Elisheva" represents that rebirth, that renaissance, for me.
My Hebrew name, Rina, translates from the Hebrew as "song" or "joy." It may have come from some ancient word describing the happy little sound of birdsong. I chose the name Rina, originally, because it sounded close to my Christian name, Ren or Renee, and because it was something suggesting music. Music is a core part of my spiritual experience and also makes me gratefully remember my mother (who is deceased) and her lovely soprano singing voice. I also liked a fictional character named Rina, the wife of detective Peter Decker in Faye Kellerman's mystery novels. In retrospect, that part of my thought process wasn't very weighty, but it still turned out to be a fitting and meaningful name for me for the long term. Many people who select Hebrew names for their children will opt for a particular name because of similarity to the Hebrew name, meaning, or sound. Or they might simply select a name with the same first letter as the English name, or vice versa.
The second name, Elisheva, I understood to mean "consecrated to God." It sounded like the truth to me, and also just plain felt right. As a lawyer and a convert, this name had real heart and mind pull for me. Even today, when I see this name written it reminds me of the day I stood holding a Torah scroll that had been rescued during the time of the Holocaust from a burning synagogue in Eastern Europe. The name feels to me like that Torah scroll did: substantial and momentous, incalculably precious and also somewhat vulnerable. It is something to be regarded as important and to be guarded and carried very carefully and with great respect for how it came to me.
My Hebrew name, spoken altogether, and understood as "a happy song, consecrated to God," is a prayer for me. Every time I hear it spoken or see it written it reminds me of my commitment to live my way into its promise. Over the years, I have considered changing my Hebrew name several times to rearrange the letters of Rina to Rani, which would translate to "my song." But each time I have concluded that Rina Elisheva is the right daily prayer for me. The name represents a kind of spiritual balancing that I hope to achieve: joyous and musical, but not focused on "my" song, and not taking myself or my struggles quite so seriously, except where God is concerned.
Ancient Jewish folk tradition holds that a person's destiny is recorded by name. There is a ceremony, for example, wherein a person who is incurably ill receives a change of name in the hope that the decree of destiny will be altered along with the name. Scripture is opened and the first name that appears randomly is given to the dying person to replace the other name. Many people in religious Judaism, whether progressive or Orthodox, will consider a name change or addition at a major life milestone or awakening.
In the Torah, beginning with Genesis, we see examples of name changing at momentous times. Abram, "father of Aram" was changed to Abraham, "father of many tribes." Sarah also had her name changed from Sarai, "my princess" to simply "princess," denoting her elevation to tribal matriarch. Jacob, "the heel," was changed to Israel, "to struggle or wrestle with God," after wrestling with an Angel or messenger of God. Ben-Oni, "son of my suffering," was changed to Benjamin, "son of my right hand." In these stories, the naming prophetically pronounced the person's destiny, and thus carried enormous expectation.
What we call ourselves can be an assertion of our own worth and an articulation of what or whom we hope to become. I have attended beautiful religious naming ceremonies, for babies and for adults. In my professional life as an attorney, I have also been a part of legal name change proceedings for adults and children. I have been moved to tears just as a witness at such events. In each instance what strikes me is that somewhere in the name is reflected a prayer, a hope, a memorial, an expectation — some baggage for good or for ill that the individual being named will, or will not, come to carry. It is also no wonder that there are so many books and websites out there devoted to helping parents and individuals sift through the possibilities. Destiny is a big deal.
On the day of my conversion, the third part of my name given to me was "bat Avraham v' Sarah," "daughter of Abraham and Sarah." It is the traditional suffix given to converts, symbolizing the adoption of the lineage of Abraham and Sarah as patriarch and matriarch. It reflects the Jewish legal ideal of conversion as adoption. In most modern adoption law, the adopted child has the same birthrights as a child born naturally of the adoptive parents. I recently dropped the "bat Avraham v' Sarah" in favor of "bat Tzion," "daughter of Zion." I adopted this name after my 45th birthday and a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel in December 2007. To me, taking "bat Tzion" was the Jewish equivalent to Haj, the term given Muslim pilgrims who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The rabbi who journeyed with me throughout my conversion process, Eric Bram, told me once that ultimately, "all Jewish souls come home." There is a lot to contemplate in that sentence and the concept seems to me to be inextricably bound up with my name. What does it mean to me to carry my Jewish faith, my Hebrew name and my Christian heritage and names simultaneously? How can I honor both without rejecting my birth family and its heritage and the love I carry for them? I can only hope to carry them honorably by keeping both with pride, due respect and prayer. My names, all of them, represent my birthright, my spiritual homecoming and the unique characteristics I aspire to achieve.