I have long passed silent, playful, judgement on the people I come across who change their names to be more culturally or spiritually relevant. In the Jewish community where I learned to farm, this practice was somewhat commonplace- as so many were deeply influenced by their experiences, and emerged hoping to repair the break between their upbringing (or, rather, their parent’s Jewishness) and their own “authentic” Jewish selves.
I have long remained on the boundaries of these two states of being– I have absolutely chosen to break from much of the Jewish culture in which I was raised, but I have yet to figure out how to fully embrace another Jewishness. This is in part because I feel I owe it to myself and my history to find a balance between these two realms; as knowing where I come from (my upbringing) is a part of knowing myself that cannot be discarded. And yet the Jewish self I’m seeking to understand seems often to reside more in a communal narrative I was raised without, and thus, have set about reconstructing for myself.
The tricky business of name-changing, and of rediscovering where we “come from,” thus, is that in retrospect, we are able to pick and choose. I can assume my hebrew name, Bara (which, strangely enough, means “to choose”), or I can look up Hebrew names on the internet and choose the one that seems to most fit my sense of myself. I could, but is there any guarantee that I could better capture myself in another name? And what would I lose if I became Bara?
I think I would loose the opportunity to always be in a state of striving towards wholeness.
And I would also be creating another break in my lineage. Though my non-Jewish name creates a schism between myself and my community, changing my name would create a break between my family and myself, my past and my future.
Ok, ok, enough of this name babble– let me look at this from another angle; that of Jewish Knowledge.
I was raised with relatively little. I’ve been slowly absorbing Jewish prayers and the hebrew alphabet over the last few years, but I haven’t taken a very proactive role in learning. Meanwhile, I am startlingly aware of just how much I don’t know.
I recently finished Chaim Potak’s The Chosen, and was amazed by the role of Talmud in this story. Oh my god. The centrality of these characters’ ability to engage critically with these ancient texts is something I actually envy. Not because I want my life to be more rigid religiously, but because I want to be able to have true access to one of the scripts that has long informed Judaism. Think of it as a primary source.
I was captivated, recently, by a discussion I attended about Jewish spirituality. The rabbi teaching was discussing the move in Judaism from Priestly to Rabbinic leadership, and I was astonished to realize that I had never before understood what Rabbinic Judaism was at its inception. As far as I can understand it, it was an early experiment in public education (of, by, and for Jews). Rabbi’s becoming the educators in an attempt to wrestle Jewish knowledge from the priesthood and place it in the hands of the people. Sadly (?) much of the mainstream Jewish world is defined by rabbis who play more of a priestly role (the keepers of Jewish knowledge for a less Jewishly literate congregation).
In The Chosen there is a tension between Jewish knowledge and western knowledge. In school, it is reconciled through the pursuit of both– one alongside the other. In the two central individuals, splitting equally between both isn’t so simple. There is a desire to be full, not to split the day between two selves, two cultures, but to somehow merge the two.
I don’t think there are answers for how to do this. But I do think the quest for wholeness is a worthy one– a necessary one.