It’s terrible to feel like you don’t stand out. Like you could fall in to chasm of Jewish people at shul and never be identified because your parents thought it was beautiful to make your name sit amongst many. It’s the way we work as a people. A baby boy clearly has a chance of being named Josh, Ari, Dan, Issac, Jacob, David or Matthew. A baby girl also has a risk of commonality: Rivka, Leah, Sara, Rachel or Miriam. Some of us have been blessed by getting both a first and a middle name that are common, almost stripping us of our individuality at the core.
For years my mother bragged that she had given me a very Jewish name. She said she wanted everyone to know with a name like Rachel Sara that I would be a strong woman. At shul she could yell my name and thought it was a sheer delight when 20 other girls would turn their head to a thick Brooklyn accent yelling for her daughter. Little did she ever know she would have to direct her voice to the other Joshes and Davids of the world because that’s where I was, playing football during breaks at shul.
Everywhere I went someone had my name. It made me feel like I was swimming in a world of Rachels and I had nothing special in my name to offer. I met a Merav once and nearly wept at the fact she had such a different name than most. Even dating got awkward since I have had a fair share of dates with Davids and Daniels. Speaking to my friends, we would have to name them attributes of their character, to distinguish one from the other.
As I got older there were so many Rachels at one particular shabbos table that I had to become “Schiff”. Now I not only had a first name that was so common we had to come up with something new for me, but I felt like a line backer for a major football team. What girl gets called by her last name? Like being a member of the tribe was a team and I had a jersey that read “Schiff” in large letters on the back. I was like all the others, but now had a new issue of feeling masculine. People introduced me by my last name, like I had no first. This name thing was really getting to me.
Just recently, I decided to read “The Boy in Stripped Pajamas”. A young boy name Shmule is in a death camp. He’s around 7 years old and talks about how everyone on his side of the fence has his name. He complained that his name was nothing special and that he was one of many. I bawled. What a way to identify with people. To have a name that binds you culturally, historically, and shows understanding on such a deeply rooted level. Then, I finally realized what my mother had been so proud of. It took me 27 years and a book with a 7th grade reading level to get it, but I think it did.
A name is like an onion. First, at the center (for my name), is Rahel, who is buried in Israel at the side of a road. Ever since her, there have been other Rachels in Jewish history, each making a layer around the original. My name adds to the many generations that have come since then. I stand on the shoulders of strong women who have come before me.
It is an Ashkenazi tradition to name your child after a family member who has passed away. My mother continually tells me that all Jews are family. That when one is hungry, we all need food and that when one needs help we should give as though they are our flesh and blood. By giving me a name that seems so unoriginal, so plain, she was giving to those women who had come before me.
Although I still find it frustrating to thumb through my blackberry and try and distinguish one Jewish name from the next; I have found some humor and pride from it. Funny enough, I owe my comprehension and appreciation of my name to a small, fictional boy in stripped pajamas.