On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Sh'mot: What's in a Name?

The first portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Sh’mot, introduces the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob. Citing other Jewish texts as well as examples throughout Jewish history that highlight the significance and pride associated with names, Rabbi Rick Jacobs considers why some people keep their Jewish names, and others change them.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion, in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Sh'mot, and he wonders what is in a name, and what does it mean?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Sh'mot, the first Torah portion of the Book of Exodus, so it actually gives the whole book its Hebrew name. The name is not Exodus, in Hebrew it's Sh'mot, from "shem," which means "names." The book begins "e'leh sh'mot B'nei Yisrael." These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. And tt names -- first one -- Reuben, [then] Simeon, Levi, Yissachar, Zevulun. And then [it] goes on to name the rest of the sons of Jacob. Now, I just think this is a moment for us to think about names. I bet you everybody listen to the podcast, I bet you have a name. Bet you have a first name, many of you have a middle name, and many you have a family name, and many of us have names that actually, you know, were given to us, and some names that we have changed. My Hebrew name, Reuven, is right here in the opening verses of the book -- and he was a biblical character. I remember when I was told my name was Reuven. I looked up the story and I thought to my parents, like, really, like the guy's not like a superstar. He's not the most admirable person. He said, "Well no. Rick, you're named after." And then all of a sudden, my name, as with your name, became far more meaningful.

We know in the Jewish tradition there's a beautiful midrash about, frankly, why we were led out of Egypt. So, it's actually an amalgam of two different midrashim but the amalgams says: we were led out of Egypt because we kept three things intact: our names our clothing and our language.

Now if you think about what is it about those three that would be significant and so significant they would actually lead the Exodus is the return of our people to Israel. And they're saying about not changing your name, something that requires a certain moxie, a certain defiance, particularly when you're living in a predominately non-Jewish community, and one where maybe your group, the ancient Israelites, were slaves, so it's not a high-status thing. So, by keeping our names and not losing our language and our distinctive clothing, those showed Jewish pride. And the Midrash says that's the reason we were able to leave. But [it] turns out changing names is also a pretty big category. We know the most famous ones, Avram and Sarai, become Avraham and Saraa. We know that others have their name changed. You know the great Ya'akov becomes Yisrael, so changing a name doesn't always have a valence of becoming less or more Jewish -- sometimes it's just indicative of one's growth.

So, let's think if we could about some of the names. So, I was thinking particularly about some of my Israeli friends and some of the Israeli leaders who changed their names when they went to live in Israel, all right? One of the famous [ones] -- Golda Meir. She wasn't born Golda Meir. She was born Golda Markiewicz, and [her] married name was Meyerson, but when she went to live in Israel, she wanted to have an Israeli name -- so she became Golda Meir. Gruin became Ben-Gurion. Skolnik became Eshkol. These are prime ministers. Perlman became Ben-Yehuda, the founder of the Hebrew language and on. And the great modern Jewish leader Anatoly Sharansky, when he finally was able to leave the gulag and make his way finally to Israel became Natan. So very often, the change of one's name for aaliyah, for leadership in Israel, is to identify with that whole segment. But I also would point out that here in North America, many people felt they had to change their names because they weren't going to have career advancement if they didn't. So, if I asked you if you know who Bernard Schwartz is, you say well my uncles Bernard Schwartz -- and I mean a famous person, Tony Curtis the actor. Or maybe you want to know who Alan Koenigsberg is -- actually that was Woody Allen's original name. How about Betty Joan Perske – betcha that's one most of us aren't going to get: Lauren Bacall. These are all Jewish people who change their name to go into entertainment. Winona Ryder was Winona Horowitz, Mel Brooks, which already sounds as Jewish as you can get -- Melvin Kaminsky. Gene Wilder -- Jerome Silberman. And the Seinfeld star Jason Alexander -- Jason Greenspan. Now, I'm not criticizing, I'm just saying it's indicative of a certain time in in North America that Jews felt, you know what, it just wasn't good to have too ethnic a name. And maybe I'll just do better if I'm Lauren Bacall, and maybe, you know, Tony Curtis, Bernard Schwartz is not going to have a kind of big marquee type of feel.

Well it's interesting to look at some of the names that we give our kids today. I'm always amazed when I do baby namings and, you know, ask people not just what the name is but why. Very often, there are beautiful reasons why and some of the new names, some of the names that frankly may not be the names that many of us were given, or our friends or our siblings, but there are names that are becoming much more common today. So, here's a list of some of the hottest Jewish baby names in 2018. And don't worry if you are using these names for your own family. Doesn't mean you're losers, it just means, OK, there's just a trend. So, you have names for boys Raziel, which means God's secret. Very popular, Solomon, Jeremiah, Asher very big. And Matthew, you can say woah, woah, Matthew is not a Hebrew name -- but it turns out that Mattityahu [means] gift of God. Benjamin. Ethan is very popular. Ezra. Uri. So, these are all new names. Many of them familiar. Some of them less so. How about girls -- Saidy. Eliza, Laila, Hanna, Eli, Eliana. So, some of our biblical names are becoming very popular, and some of the less well-known biblical names are very well known.

Now in Israel it's interesting that some of the Hebrew names obviously very typical to give a Hebrew name to a child in a Hebrew speaking country. But you have some of the names that have a kind of a new, and I think, a growing popularity. Uri, Ittai, Eitan, Lavie. Obviously, Joseph, David, Daniel, these are staples I can't see how many girls I meet in Israel named Noah or Yael or Avigail. Of course, they're always familiar and wonderful Tamar, Miriam, Sara, those kinds of names so sometimes the names actually give us a little bit of a window into, sort of, generations. You meet someone named Max. You know that they're probably either someone who lived in the early 20th century or someone who's born 15 years ago. Because, again, the names have cyclical feelings.

So, here's here's just a thought. Synagogues also go through kind of naming cycles. When someone tells me their name or synagogue is Kol Tikvah, or Kol Ami, or Kehillat Tikvah, or Congregation Shir Hadash, what I know and you probably can take a guess as well, these are fairly recent congregations, because these are newer names. These are more contemporary names for synagogues. And if you know the name is Agudas Achim, which is again the name of a number of our Reform synagogues and some more traditional synagogues. You get a sense that we're probably going back into the 19th century. Some of the Reform synagogues that we treasure in our movement began as Orthodox synagogues and then became [Reform.] Some of them changed their names, they changed names to be more modern using geographic markers. The congregation [in which I] used to serve is Westchester Reform Temple -- not a Hebrew name, but a location an orientation. Or if you have the word "center" in the name -- Bay Ridge Jewish Center, it's probably a Conservative synagogue or maybe Orthodox, but influenced by Mordechai Kaplan. It's a place for not just prayer and study, but also could be arts and maybe has a swimming pool and a gym. It's indicative that, you know, sometimes the name not only locates it in time but also maybe gives a bit of its core.

I have to point out that the Reform Movement, we changed our name. We used to be called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, that's the name that Isaac Mayer Wise gave to our umbrella organization of our Reform Movement back in 1873. And three different times we attempted to change the name because we thought it didn't really define us. If you think about the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it doesn't say Reform. And Isaac Mayer Wise meant this to be the umbrella organization for everyone. He thought it was just going to be the American umbrella, and all would be a part of it. It turned out denominations grew pretty soon after, but in 1946 he tried, 1973 we tried, 1985 we tried, and then in 2003 we successfully changed our name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Why did we do it? Because we wanted to be proud. We're Reform Jews, we want that to be in our name. And we also thought that it was a really clear way to state that our youth groups, our camps, our Israel trips, our congregations, our everything in our movement, our seminary, were part of Reform Judaism, and we are proud to be that way.

So, in conclusion, I can't help but think of the great contemporary Hebrew poet Zelda who taught us "l'kol ish yesh shem." To every single person there's a name. One given by God and given by our parents, given by our stature and our smile, and given by what we wear. Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls, and on and on. I think it just gives us the sacred power of a name. A name links us to someone in the past, or also someone in our future. It links us to a people that links us to a text. So, we begin the book of names-- "eileh sh'mot B'nei Yisrael". These are the names of the Children of Israel. And today those names are varied because nobody has a Jewish-sounding name. We come from all different ethnic backgrounds and some of us from very different religious backgrounds, and we are gathered as one because our names and our commitments and our links draw us into a collective that is powerful that is passionate and that is partners with the Holy One. So, whatever your name is -- maybe it's the original name your parents gave you. Maybe you chose a new nickname, or maybe you go by a Hebrew name, maybe you don't have a Hebrew name. Maybe that's an opportunity. But whatever your name is, the name of your community, the name of your movement. Let's think about the power of names. Think about the generations of names and lets in so doing. Let's see if we can capture and discover some of the deeper layers to who we are and how we represent ourselves by these names. And in English people call me Rick Jacobs, in Hebrew I am Reuven Ya'akov ben Huna v'Yaffa. Let each of us think of the names and let us be proud and not afraid. I think today sometimes we think that by being too assertive of our Jewishness, with the resurgence of anti-Semitism, maybe we need to be more low-key about it. But I hope we will be proud and clear and strong in our Jewish identities and also in our Israeli identities, because very often the Israeli-Hebrew names that we bear link us to the state of Israel the people of Israel. So, let's be proud, let's be strong let's be learned, and let's be together.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!