In synagogues all over the world, gathering for Kiddush after Shabbat morning services forms a central part of a community’s identity. Coming together on a weekly basis affords us a much- needed opportunity to connect with each other and to speak, or shmooze, with people we don’t already know. You never quite know what is going to happen at a Shabbat Kiddush, no matter what the food spread looks like.
So one day, more than 25 years ago, I found myself after services making the rounds, shmoozing at Kiddush. New to Judaism, I was still grasping the importance of this Jewish institution of Kiddush, slowly realizing that what I learned there was at times more critical than attending my Judaism 101 class with the rabbi.
Harvey Kaplan, an elderly transplant from New York, was lovingly present in my face. With his piercing eyes drilling into me, he said, “Susan, you know what your name is in Hebrew, don’t you?” I sheepishly looked back and said, “No, Harvey, I don’t.” He deliberately said, “It’s Shoshanah. Do you know what it means?” Even more sheepishly, I replied, “No, Harvey, I don’t.” He peered intently at me, once more drilling his eyes deep into my soul. “It means ‘lily’ — that’s your Hebrew name. You are Shoshanah.”
Several weeks later, I eagerly met with the rabbi to talk about the Hebrew name that I would take upon converting to Judaism. People choose all kinds of Hebrew names when they convert. The name can be etymologically related to their English name or not. But I realized I had no real choice in the matter — Harvey already had fatefully named me at Shabbat Kiddush. I was Shoshanah. My new Hebrew name had taken root and was beginning to be a part of me, thanks to Harvey Kaplan’s presence at that Kiddush on that particular day.
In naming me, Harvey was simply taking his place in the long line of Jewish tradition. The addition of names and the transformation of names are hallmarks of the Torah. In this week’s parashah, Jacob’s name is transformed to Israel as he struggles with the angel. Rachel names her son Ben-oni, and Jacob gives him a new name, Benjamin.
As Jews assimilated into the cultures of the world, we named our children Mitch instead of Moshe and Helen instead of Hannah. Even during the days of the Greek empire, Jewish parents may have chosen the name Jason over Joshua. These non-Hebraic names often are how we are known to the world.
But our Hebrew names can accompany us through the ritual journey in our lives — they are the names by which we are called to the Torah and by which we are married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, and they are the names etched into our headstones at the end of our lives. They are an enduring link to our Jewish identity, and they can anchor us in tradition.
Some of us know our Hebrew names but don’t know anything about why our parents chose them for us. Baby boys are granted a name during the traditional brit milah ceremony, but some of us raised in less traditional homes were never given Hebrew names. The naming ceremony for girls, pioneered by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, is less than a century old and provides a portal for parents to mark this sacred moment in a beautiful and creative way.
I am grateful for Harvey Kaplan’s gift in naming me that day. My name has carried me spiritually through many joyful moments — my wedding day, the birth of my three daughters and their becoming b’not mitzvah, and my ordination as a rabbi. This Hebrew name will accompany me to my grave.
If you don’t know your Hebrew name or don’t have one, I invite you to reach out to discover it. There may be a Harvey waiting for you at a Shabbat Kiddush somewhere!
But in the absence of a Harvey, you can always reach out to a rabbi to help you find a Hebrew name that will accompany you on your journey. It is a joy to take on that name in the presence of a spiritual community. Just as significant names accompanied our ancestors through their lives, so too can we be named in our spiritual tradition for life.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.