“What about a Hebrew name?”
The question from an Intro student seemed routine.
“You choose your name,” I explained, ” but it is the custom to use ‘bar or bat Abraham v’Sarah’ for the second part of a convert’s name.” I focussed on the usual question (“Why Abraham and Sarah?”) but before I could trot down that line of thought, he pulled me up short.
“No, I mean, how do you pick the name?”
A n old memory stirred.
“Well, let me tell you how NOT to choose a name,” I said. “I had read in a book somewhere that ‘All female converts to Judaism take the name Ruth.’ So when my rabbi asked if I had chosen a name, I figured I’d give the right answer and said ‘Ruth.’ He said, ‘Great choice!’ and it was done. It was only later that I found out I had had a choice. But I was so intent on impressing him that I missed my opportunity to think about it with his guidance.
“Later, after thinking on it for a while, I decided that Ruth was actually the right name for me. The Biblical Ruth is my role model. But after that, I learned that with Judaism, questions and discussion were more valuable than ‘right answers’ and showing off.
“New Jews can choose their own Jewish name. It might be a name from a role model, or a quality you want to nurture in yourself. It might be an homage to a dead relative. It is a highly individual decision.”
He nodded, and the class flowed on. My younger self, the one who was afraid to look ignorant, who was afraid to ask questions, gradually faded back into memory.
“The shy will not learn,” said Hillel, in the 1st century BCE.
Yes, I thought, but they can learn not to be shy.