Naming yourself is a daunting task. It involves spending a good amount of time staring at yourself in the mirror and asking, “Who am I, really?” and other existential questions about your identity. You start to feel a growing sense of sympathy for parents or soon-to-be-parents, overanalyzing the sounds of every vowel and hoping that this name will grow up with you.
Thankfully my parents gave me a first name and even a middle name. However, they did not give me a Hebrew name, a reflection of the interfaith family they were building. That task would be left to me, some 23 years later, after meeting with my rabbi monthly for over a year in order to carry on an entire family legacy and restore Jewish practice after it had been lost for two generations. No pressure, obviously.
Choosing a Hebrew name was part of the overall culmination of my affirmation process, alongside meeting with a beit din and taking three quick dips in the mikveh. Though similar to a conversion, the goal of this process was not to become Jewish. I have always been Jewish. The prayers my rabbi chose for the mikveh were not the traditional prayers for conversion. Rather, they were specific to an affirmation, altered to honor that my history has always been present. Going through this process was to prove to myself that I always will be Jewish, regardless of my educational background, childhood traditions, or even my own waffling religious beliefs. This was an opportunity to re-establish myself within my identity and feel some sense of ownership over my own sense of Judaism.
Though I had several months to choose a name, the date loomed and it became a near paralyzing task.
I couldn’t help but think of my father, who didn’t know his own Hebrew name when the rabbi asked before my godbrother’s wedding. I was 10 years old at the time, and I remember listening to my father on the phone with my grandmother, shouting incredulously, “Mom, my Hebrew name CANNOT be Shlomo! Mom!”
Alas, it is. My father’s Hebrew name memorializes his two great-grandfathers, who were both named Samuel. These two men immigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century from Eastern European countries, fleeing increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence. Their wives made the journey on their own, children tucked under their arms and attached to their hips. My father’s Hebrew name honors those families who made an impossible decision, like so many immigrants have done and continue to do. While his name may not be phonetically beautiful in English, it carries a legacy of beauty and pain within it.
Ultimately, I decided to choose a name that sounded similar to Samuel — a family resemblance, so to speak. Because so much of my interest in Judaism stems from recognizing my own family history, it felt right to have these two men memorialized yet again, this time with perhaps a more appealing sounding name than Shlomo (no offense). If I was going to carry on the family history, it felt important to have my family’s immigration story encapsulated within whatever name I chose.
I started scrolling endlessly through the “S” section of Hebrew baby name websites, spending enough time that my Facebook ads suddenly were all about newborn supplies, variations on What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and Jewish-themed onesies. Months went by as I parsed names together, sounding out Hebrew against my last name, scribbling letters on the back of CVS receipts, and texting my friends lists of names at odd hours. I almost called my Catholic mother and asked her to name me again, desperate to hand the responsibility of my identity back to her. I couldn’t find the right sounds, the right meaning, the right name to hold my culture, heritage, religion, and identity.
Then I realized that was quite a bit of weight for letters to hold. How could I expect a single word to bear that weight which I can barely hold myself? How could I encapsulate what it means to be Jewish in just one name? Why did anyone think I was capable of naming myself?
Then I found it, my Hebrew name, in an old bible with a crumbling binding.
This past Christmas — yes, we are those Jews — my father and I combed through family memorabilia: his early days as a photographer, my first and only Baby Gap headshots (yeah…), love letters sent between my great-grandparents. And then, I stumbled upon on an incredibly fragile Hebrew bible that rested under a stack of papers, heavy amongst the smaller paraphernalia. It almost felt like I needed an extra pair of hands to handle it, fearful its pages would start to fall away.
On the inside cover, two names were carefully scripted in cursive. The first was Johanna Ziegler, accompanied by the date 1875. Above that, another name and date: Rosa Ziegler, 1843. I knew Ziegler was a family name, but I couldn’t figure out who these women were and how their bible ended up in a cardboard box in a closet all the way in New Mexico. After shuffling index cards labeled with family members’ names on the Ping Pong table for several hours, creating what either looked like a family tree or the beginnings of a conspiracy theory, I figured out that Rosa was my great-great-great grandmother and Johanna was her daughter-in-law. Johanna left Germany, married to one of the aforementioned Samuels. Rosa likely never left Germany, but her bible did, and it somehow found its way into my hands nearly two centuries later.
Suddenly, I had a new name.
Still, I didn’t know if I could live up to it. It felt more like an alter ego, a representation of a more fully Jewish self that I hadn’t quite achieved — the Jewish self that knows Shabbat prayers, that promises to raise her children Jewish, that knows how to prepare a seder plate, that fasts on Yom Kippur. I don’t know how to perform most traditional Jewish acts. I don’t know Shabbat prayers without searching for them online. I don’t plan on raising my children Jewish without question. I can’t fast on Yom Kippur. I hear the whispers of other Jews critiquing how I pray. I hear myself whisper, “Why do you pray? You don’t really believe in God.” The majority of my partners have not been Jewish. I decorate my home for Christmas. Israel is not a place I call home.
Suddenly there seemed to be a perpetually growing list with all the ways I wasn’t Jewish enough, and I was constantly afraid of not living up to the Hebrew name that I chose for myself.
So, I did the most Jewish act I could think of: ask questions.
And then I followed that up with a debatably less Jewish act: get a tattoo.
I’ll be honest, I was looking for an excuse to get another tattoo, but this felt like the right moment of confusion and conflict to cement my identity. Settled nicely onto my right hip, it’s a daily reminder of who I am in totality, beyond just my Jewish identity. I needed to prove to myself that I am not inferior just because I don’t know everything about Judaism. That doesn’t make me any less of a Jew. In fact, it is an opportunity to delve deeper, make choices, to continue to ask the questions that scare me, trouble me, confuse me, and to foster that curiosity, in Judaism and elsewhere. And now I have a small touchstone to remind me of just that.
So, hello! My name is Blair, which means, “field” in Gaelic. My parents picked that name for me because it is monosyllabic and easy to spell, despite not being at all Irish.
And my name is also Shoshana, which means, “rose” in Hebrew. I picked that name for myself because it honors my great-great-great grandmother Rosa, the two Samuels who brought my family to the United States, and the commitment to bloom, wherever I’m planted.
You can just call me Blair. Don’t worry, though. Shoshana isn’t going anywhere. And neither is my rose tattoo.