Two Rabbis, a Book, and Lots of Names

May 6, 2014Jane E. Herman

During last week's "hallway Kiddush" following Shabbat services, Marlene, a longtime member and regular at our congregation, handed me this short column by Rabbi David Wolpe that she'd clipped from The Jewish Week after reading my recent Ten Minutes of Torah essay. I had not seen Rabbi Wolpe's short piece about names, and I appreciated that she had saved it for me.

Later, toward the end of Torah study, Rabbi Jonathan Stein told the group that because he'll be retiring at the end of June, he's in the process of giving away the books in his library. He invited us to stop in to see what might be of interest to us. Many of us followed him down to his office, which is overflowing with shelves of neatly arranged and well-organized volumes.

After a few minutes of browsing, I asked the rabbi about a book I've seen referenced many times that always sounds interesting, although I didn't know its exact title.

"It's about names," I said, which was enough of a clue for him to pull a well-worn red volume from the shelf: The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names by Alfred J. Kolatch.

"I've been using it for 40 years," he told me.

Indeed, the binding is broken in a few spots, and a whole section of pages containing feminine names - from Billie, a feminine pet form of William, to Elya, from the Syriac and Hebrew, meaning "dirge, elegy" - is full detached from the rest of the book.

Nonetheless, after just a few minutes of flipping through the book's 400-plus pages (and a second, more scholarly work, also about names), I told him I'd take the former and thanked him for this unexpected gift. I'm not only grateful to add this particular volume to my own collection, but glad to have it as a keepsake from a rabbi who has been exceedingly kind and caring to me, and from whom I have learned much during the last four years.

Only after I left the synagogue did I read Rabbi Wolpe's column as I waited for the bus. Titled "A Name, A Soul," it begins with this sentence:

The Book of Exodus, in Hebrew, is called "Sh'mot," or names.

Rabbi Wolpe goes on to talk about the value and importance of names, before closing with this paragraph:

The crown of a good name, teaches Pirke Avot, is the greatest of all crowns.  In a graveyard, whatever other inscription a stone bears, it invariably records the deceased's name.  Tyranny seeks to erase names.  Memory and love restore and preserve them.

I am honored to be the keeper of Rabbi Stein's copy of Alfred Kolatch;s book, into whose worn red cover I have slipped the clipping of Rabbi Wolpe's short essay. I believe it's the perfect spot in which to keep it.

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