Lolling in the bathtub (site of some of my most fruitful pondering) the other night, I got to thinking about names. Specifically, I got to thinking about the name of a woman I read about in a publication on dot-com life. Seeing her name in print gave me pause.
I won’t mention the name here, but it might as well be Gertie Gildenstein or Hilda Hechelbaum — in other words, it’s safe to say this name falls into the “Jewish grandma from Florida” category. I’m not knocking Jewish grandmas from Florida; I wish I had one. It’s just that rappers have their names, privileged politicians from Texas and their oilmen cronies have theirs, and Jewish grandmas have theirs.
Only I’m assuming this dot-commer is no grandma. I haven’t run into too many of those in the dot-com world. More likely, “Gertie/Hilda” is a hip 20-something with a belly-button piercing and clunky black boots. Yet, going on name alone, one might expect a smiling senior with a plate of mandelbrot.
And so it is with all of our names. They evoke images, assumptions, expectations. People give endless thought to what to name their children and plan elaborate ceremonies for announcing their offspring’s names to the world.
Names can be a source of great pride — and unspeakable pain. Throughout history, people have faced persecution because of their names. Drop a suffix and the world sees you differently.
My friend Sue says she has always felt a little disenfranchised because her last name doesn’t sound Jewish. Her family name, Berdachevsky, got de-Jewified when her grandparents came to the new country. Now Barnett, it sounds more Scottish than Ukrainian.
But while Sue’s name got uprooted at the border, she chose to give her older child a moniker (Noah) that identifies her family’s heritage. She’s not alone: A whole generation of Jewish Lindsays and Michaels is naming their children Max and Sam.
Names, my rabbi says, evoke consciousness of who we are and where we fit in the world. They evoke the soul. Human beings are the “naming animal,” he points out, the first species to assign titles to each other and the objects around them. In so doing, they follow God’s lead. God, says the book of Psalms, named the stars.
With all this in mind, I asked my mom why she and my dad chose to name me Leslie. I was hoping for something dramatic, literary. A reference to Virginia Woolf’s father perhaps? “We just liked ‘Leslie,'” she said. I’m writing a column here, Mom. Work with me!
While I like my first name (it’s a boy’s name too, so it’s not too frou-frou), I’ve always thought of Leslies as dark-haired British lasses on horseback.
My middle name, Sarah, delegated to me in honor of my great-grandmother, has always felt more like me. Sarah…now that’s a name for a curly-topped Jewish girl obsessed with Philip Roth and klezmer. I’ve even thought of changing my name to Sarah, but I’m not sure how that would affect my writing career — or my identity crisis.
Then there’s my last name. As a child, my friend Miranda always wanted to be a Katz because she loves felines and the letter “z.” I, on the other hand, detested my last name for years. Getting called Leslie “Kitty-Katz” or Leslie “Meow,” after all, wasn’t exactly easy on my meager third-grade ego. Why couldn’t my Lithuanian ancestors have been named Davis?
Then I got older and discovered my last name carried cachet in the Jewish world: Katz is an acronym for kohen tzaddik, or righteous priest. My former husband and I used to joke that I trumped him in the ancient hierarchy. In biblical times, Levis washed Cohens’ feet, I’d remind him as we eyed the ever-heightening pile of dishes in the sink.
Over time, I developed great pride in my last name. But just as I started to revel in my priestly status, I learned that Katz is not our real name after all. If family lore is correct, we’re related to Abe Fortas, one of the first Jewish Supreme Court justices, who, by the way, was forced to resign under fire. A bad trade for giving up the righteous priest standing, but a sacred part of my history all the same.