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Friday, 25 December 2015

Is it okay to use my gentile name?

Daf Yomi Gittin 11

We were redeemed from Egypt on account of our commitment to three practices: We maintained our Hebrew clothing, we spoke the Hebrew language, and we kept our Jewish names.  The great American halachic decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was once asked the following question: ‘My mother passed away and we want to name our newborn daughter after her.  However, her name was Gittel Draizel.  Is that a Jewish name?  It certainly doesn’t appear in the Tanach.  On the one hand, we want to name after mother, of blessed memory.  On the other hand, we don’t want to delay the final redemption by using a gentile name!

Divorce documents that come to Israel from the Diaspora with signatures of witnesses, even though their names are gentile names, they are kosher.  Why?  Because most Jews in the Diaspora have gentile names. 

You hear that?  Most Diaspora Jews have gentile names!  Even those of us who have Jewish names, how many of them are biblical?  Many are Yiddish and really don’t have Jewish sources, either.  Even back in Talmudic times, when the leading Jewish community was in Babylonia, many great rabbis had Aramaic names!

Rabbi Feinstein explains that the aphorism about keeping our Jewish clothing, language and names in Egypt was specific to that exile.  As soon as our forefathers descended to Egypt, they went to live in Goshen.  Why?  So that they would not assimilate into Egyptian culture and life.  Each Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), we bless Hashem, “Who separates between Israel and the nations.”  The three Hebraic characteristics of clothing, language, and names ensured our distinctiveness in the land of Egypt, thereby avoiding assimilation.

However, explains Rabbi Feinstein, that was all prior to the Giving of the Torah.   When we lacked six hundred and thirteen mitzvos to distinguish us from the nations around, we needed concrete symbols of our ethnicity, and those were our three Hebrew cultural signs.  Once we received the Law and all the commandments, the observance of Torah and mitzvos is what sets us apart from everyone else.  And so, back in Egypt we maintained our Hebrew names, because that’s all we had and that’s what made you Jewish. 

Nowadays, maintaining your Judaism requires so much more than cultural symbols.  Sure, you can wear a Chai necklace to demonstrate your Jewish pride.  Certainly, you can give your kids very Yiddish sounding names and send them off to Israel to immerse in Hebrew language and Israeli culture.  But that’s not what is going to protect them from the onslaught of assimilation that is ploughing down our beloved nation.  What keeps us unique and distinctive today is our commitment to Torah and mitzvos.

Rabbanit used to work for a boutique financial firm in Boro Park, New York, preparing reports for Merrill Lynch.  You and I may know Boro Park as the Hasidic centre of America.  But non-Jews aren’t necessarily familiar with the place and the clients they dealt with probably didn’t even know they weren’t located in Manhattan.  And so when she was first hired by the firm, the bosses told her that she would need a more “goyish” sounding name.  She looked around her and sure enough, Feivish was Freddie, Gittel was Gertrude, Yankele was Jack, and Zlata was Sally.  Thus, Batya reluctantly became Bonnie. 

But then she would get on the phone and deal with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of weird and wonderful names.  And she thought, ‘This is ridiculous!  Why do they get to use their real names while I need this silly alter ego (speaking of which, Alter was Alan!)?  And so she put her foot down.  Batya would be Batya.  Lo and behold, she felt completely vindicated when the forty-fourth president of the United States of America was elected – Barack Hussein Obama! (Incidentally, he also finds it difficult to find his name on a mug or decal in the souvenir store!)

I tell this story, because it just goes to show that while using our Jewish names is very important, it is not what makes us culturally distinctive.   In the western world today, it’s no longer strange to use an ethnic-sounding name.  Actually, it’s kinda cool!  If you want to assimilation-proof your kids, there’s only one way.  Not Chai or Star of David necklaces, not Yiddishisms, not kugel and kishka; but an honest commitment to mitzvos.  When you teach your children that they will have to leave work early on a Friday afternoon in winter, or that even at a high-level business lunch, they’ll have to order special kosher food; that will guarantee they remain committed Jews.

Jewish culture is wonderful.  It’s what makes your kids excited and proud of their heritage.  But if you want to keep them in the fold, you need more than just pride, you need commitment.  May you instill in your children the joy of devotion to our holy Torah!