Whose Daughter?

By Charlotte Honigman-Smith


There was a space on the rabbinic school’s registration form for my Hebrew name, and it read ________ ben/bat _____________. I spent several weeks during the summer I turned twenty-three trying to figure out exactly what should go into those spaces.

The first blank was easy. My Hebrew name is Sharon, suggested by the rabbi of the synagogue my parents attended at the time I was born because it sounded modern and Israeli, and because the initial sound matched that of my English name, chosen in honor of my Irish Catholic great-grandmother.

At my baby naming, the rabbi announced my arrival from the bimah. In a traditional style, it was the baby’s father who was called up to be honored on the occasion of a daughter’s birth. My Catholic father accepted the congregation’s congratulations and heard my Hebrew name made official in the synagogue.

Being an interfaith family, especially in the eighties when I was growing up, was not exactly simple. My parents and I worked through a series of issues and problems relating to anti-intermarriage attitudes in our community, Bat Mitzvah plans, and other things. Through all of this, my father was highly active in a number of Jewish community activities, particularly the Soviet Jewry movement and the movement to get his daughter through religious school. My father even fasted at Yom Kippur until I was an adult, not for religious reasons, but to give me an example to follow.

Still, when I went off to a year at rabbinic school in London, the question of exactly what went into the blank after bat became a tricky one. Traditionally, people are called to the Torah by their name and that of their father. More recently, the egalitarian form is for them to use both their mother and father’s name. My father does not have a Hebrew name, of course. My mother and I debated exactly how we were going to work around this.

Option one: I use just my mother’s name. This felt awkward to me. I have a father. He simply doesn’t have a Hebrew name, because he isn’t Jewish. This didn’t seem like a sufficient reason to leave him out of the credits when I was recognized as a Jew.

Option two: I use my grandfather’s name. This dubious proposition came up when I hit the books to find out if there was a traditional precedent for my situation. The closest I came was the discovery that if a child is illegitimate, it’s traditional for “him” to be called to the Torah by his grandfather’s, rather than his mother’s, name, to spare him embarassment. This seemed out of the question, since my actual father was present and married to my mother (and busily planning my career as a Jewish professional). Next option?

Option three: my Catholic father could adopt a Hebrew name… my mother recalled that he’d used one many years before when they took a Hebrew class together. That seemed like pushing it. I couldn’t see being called to the Torah as Sharon bat Tsviah v'(alias) Shmuel.

I went with option one on the form, and even received a few aliyot as Sharon bat Tsviah. The obvious solution, the one we hadn’t even considered, however, was revealed to me by some Russian classmates with two Jewish parents. These students’ parents had, of course, grown up under the Soviet regime and had never been given Hebrew names. When a woman from my school was called to the Torah as Rivka bat Olga v’Leonid, it dawned on me that it is not actually mandatory to have a biblical Hebrew name in order to be mentioned in the synagogue. The one option that had never occurred to me was that I could mention my father simply by his name.

The next time I was asked for my Hebrew name in a context that required more than my given name, I told the rabbi “Sharon bat Tsviah v’Gregory,” and knew that was right.

This is a small detail of my Jewish life, but it represents for me the challenges and the rewards of a Jewish identity derived from an interfaith family. It took time for me to find an exact answer to that simplest of questions, “What’s your name?” simply because there wasn’t an answer that applied to my family in the books (yet). But in classic Jewish tradition, it was a question that led me to look for an answer, one that took into account my mixed heritage and my actual family, and still stitched neatly into my Jewish life. It took me a few months to determine what came after the bat, but the answer, when it came, was simple, satisfying, and Jewish.


About Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.