What’s in a Name? … for a Jew.

My given name is plain. Absolutely generic. I’m okay saying it here in the blogosphere because it is that plain: Amanda Edwards. Even my middle name is plain. I didn’t get through my senior year of high school without having another Amanda in my class. I graduated with five or six other Amandas, two who had the same middle name as me. When I went to get some film developed at the local Wal-Mart, the girl behind the counter was named Amanda Edwards, and she wanted to know why I wasn’t returning my library books; turns out they were confusing her for me. So what does this have to do with being a Jew by Choice?

During the process of conversion, I often lamented that my given name poorly defined who I really was. It was a name that attached me to my parents and my family, but it had no recognizable culture or history. It was just another American name. Not only that, but my parents can’t even remember why they named me Amanda. I was often told that although my surname didn’t sound “Jewish,” it would now fall in line with all the Cohens and Levis in the eyes of G-d and the Jewish community. As for my first name, it had beauty and grace, but my entire childhood I’d had a plaque on my wall that defined Amanda as “worthy of love” and in Biblical prose, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I struggled with a Hebrew name, because I clung to the idea that I should find the Hebrew for “beloved” or “worthy of love.” My rabbi helped me with a few choices, and I eventually settled on Chaviva. I liked how it had the quintessential “ch” sound that so many struggle with, but it still had that piece of the first 20 odd years of my life.

My Jewish friends began calling me Chavy, and the blog I created to document and develop my academic and spiritual curiosities — Just Call me Chaviva — took on my Hebrew moniker. I had grand visions of adopting the name entirely on a day to day basis, I felt it defined me more than Amanda, despite that the two mean nearly the same thing. Amanda had a Christian undertone to it from my childhood, and Chaviva was who I had become, rather, who I had searched so long to find in myself. But there was that whole Edwards thing. Chaviva Edwards. Chaviva … Edwards?

I began telling myself I needed to marry a nice Jewish boy with a great Jewish last name, I needed to come full circle. I needed to have the name to fit the mind, the heart, the soul. Because a name is the first thing that people collect when they meet you, after of course the obvious physical aspects of a person. A name has power, it has the power to conjure feelings and ideas and thoughts about who a person is. Those powers being negative and positive, but inspiring none the less.

Growing up with a generic name taught me that a person is more than a name, but that was before my Jewish soul came out. It was never a problem when I was a girl from the Midwest with the background noted by friends and family alike as “European mutt.” But the moment I began exploring Judaism professionally and really throwing myself into my soul, I found that Jews have certain names — or, at least, we think they do.

It’s taken me some time, and some patience to be okay with my given name. It’s taken lots of conversations like this one I had a few days ago: Someone was trying to reach my boss, and had been e-mailing me about how to get in touch with him. We were speaking via e-mail very late in the evening and the moment we’d begun talking, I wanted to connect with the fellow on the other end. He was — without a doubt — Jewish. Let’s just say his name was very biblical, both his first and surname. I wanted to find a way to say “Hey! Me, too!” but I was struggling with how to do it. Finally, after I’d answered him as best I could, he thanked me and said good night. I had another tip to offer him, so I e-mailed him back with the tip and “Laila tov,” which is Good Night in Hebrew. After about five or 10 minutes, he e-mailed me back with “Thanks. How do you know Hebrew? Your name doesn’t sound Jewish …”

I smiled, but also cringed. I sat back in my chair and thought about how to answer. Inevitably I responded “Actually, I’m a convert.” I’m never sure how to “break it” to a person that I chose this path, this people. It’s something I struggle with daily, wondering whether it’s necessary or whether it’s mandatory. No one ever took the time to explain to me that this is one of the hardest parts about converting (at least for me). In the past, I’ve worried that I might be misleading a Jewish gentleman who is flirting with me, but then wonder whether he, himself, is a convert. If there’s anything that gives away that I could be a goy or a Jew by Choice, it’s my name.

The fellow’s response back was a simple “Interesting.” and nothing more, and I haven’t seen or heard from him since then.

I spent a long time studying names and the meaning of names and etymology when I was in high school. I wrote a very large paper (okay, so 20 pages!) on it for a gifted English course, and I was surprised by the outcome that naming your kid Sargeant or giving him a “Jr.” suffice. But I never thought that I’d be analyzing my own name, debating how to approach it as a Jew, whether a name really does define a person or can shape the way we view ourselves or our peers — Jew and non-Jew alike.

I’ve found that many of the converts I know have adopted their Hebrew name, choosing to blog or sign off e-mails with it. I do the same oftentimes, even using it as my moniker on my Yelp.com (a restaurant review site and networking community). I still have dreams of becoming a Chavi Cohen or Chavi Levi or Chavi Goldenblatt or Leviweissenstein, but I still always introduce myself in person to friends, strangers and foes as “Amanda Edwards.” I don’t think that will change anytime soon, though as I continue on my path I see myself adopting many of the things that — in my mind — will fill my Jewish soul.

Until then, know me as Amanda, Chavi, or that girl who is learning what it is to have a generic name in a world where names can say so, so very much.

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  1.  Tamara says:

    Chaviva/Chavi/Amanda: :) What a wonderful post. You’re a terrific writer. I, being an English teacher, am jealous…well, not jealous, but admire your skill in articulating what you feel.

    Thanks for sharing your story. Perhaps I’ll write about my own name, though it will be 3/4 the length of your’s :)

  2.  Sarah in Lincoln says:

    I know you as Amanda AND as Jewish, so don’t let anyone tell you that “Amanda Edwards” isn’t a Jewish name. It is now! Keep up the search for a nice Jewish boy, but don’t feel like you need his name to define you. You’ve already defined yourself, and done a swell job of it too.

  3. Shalom Chavi,
    Yeah, name issues can be a bit testy at times. I was asked about mine at Ben Gurion airport on my way home from Israel in May… I wanted to use my Hebrew name, but my passport has my English name, and while it is not a Christian name, the response I got from the security person in broken English was “Ehhh… that’s not a synagogue name…” But I knew what she meant. Then I told her that I was a convert, and she looked at me curiously, and said, “Why?” She was truly perplexed as to why anyone would convert to Judaism, which is probably the same thought that prompted the response you wrote about to your “Laila Tov” sign off. Anyway… good post!
    kol tuv,

  4.  Chaviva says:

    Tamara: Thank you so much! I didn’t mean for it to get so long, but oy … I just kept writing!

    Sarah: Ahh! I’m so glad you saw this. I miss you dearly, especially the congregation. I missed Lincoln so much during the High Holy Days. Gigantic synagogues, I’ve come to decide, do not do the holidays justice, not at all.

  5.  TikkunGer says:

    Hey there, I agree with Tamra, you sure know to write! Also, I really connect to what you wrote “it had no recognizable culture or history”. I really feeel the same way about my own birth name and thats one of the main reasons I use Avi where and whenever possible.

    Great post!

  6.  Yael says:

    What can I say? Online I am Yael. I never use my given name when I write; I never will. I suppose I am fortunate that my surname is also a Jewish name, not obviously Jewish such as Cohen, but certainly common enough not to raise questions.

    I, too, think of changing my first name someday, but….I don’t suppose I will at this late date. I don’t know if that would make it easier anyway. Then I’d probably feel guilty and obligated to explain…I suppose it’s just best to be who I am, whoever that is!

  7.  Daniel says:

    I suppose I was lucky. My given name is Daniel, which raises no eyebrows, and my surname is Polish which also allows me to fit in with very few problems.

    For a Hebrew name, I chose Yochanan. I wanted something to balance out “Daniel” — El [the attribute of justice] is my Judge.” “Yochanan” is “Hashem [the attribute of mercy] is gracious.”

  8.  Yael says:

    My youngest son is Daniel. Daniel Yosef ben Yael. I always told people his name means ‘God, and only God, is my judge. No one else had better try telling me what to do!’

  9.  Chaviva says:

    Yael, that’s magnificent about your son’s name :) It made me smile!

  10.  avishalom says:

    Indeed, this is a terrific post! I have been meaning to address my own take on naming for a convert over at Ararat Scrolls, and one of these days (soon, I hope), I will do so.

    There are days when I really want to use AviShalom in everyday life, but I have been [my English name] for so long that it would be a bit too weird and difficult.

    My last name is one that people often say “could be” Jewish, and indeed I found the name in a Jewish surname dictionary, though it said it was a name taken by some Jews in Galicia from Christians in the country of the name’s origin. That there “could be” born Jews with my last name has not stopped my wife and me from once in a while musing about both of us taking her (clearly Jewish) maiden name. But as someone who has published and is well known in his field with his current last name, that would be an even more difficult step than changing my first name.

    And there are certainly some Jews with my first name, and while the name is associated with a New Testament figure, it also has a Hebrew origin. So, [my English name, followed by my Northern European last name] will do, for now.

    But I do like that I picked my own name as a convert. I just wish I could find a way to use it more. For now, blogging will have to suffice!

  11.  Leah says:

    I was about to say I don’t go by my Hebrew name… but, um, I guess I do.

    My given name was Leah Marie and my chosen Hebrew name is Leah Meira.

    And my last name? Jones.

    It’s a Jewish name now.

    (Is this Amanda from the ol’ blog Therapist & Patient?)

  12.  Leah says:

    Nevermind, I just realized which blog is yours. So I guess that means I know two Jewish Amandas!

  13.  Michelle says:

    Great post – but why say “I’m a convert”? Why not just “I’m a Jew”? You underwent conversion to become a Jew, not a ‘convert’.

  14.  Chaviva says:

    Michelle — Are you a convert yourself? I never walk up to someone at shul and say “Hi, I’m Amanda, the convert! Shalom!” But it is an issue, and it does come up in conversation. People ask questions, give curious looks. And I feel that letting people know — in that instance — that I am a convert is important. It can be empowering, but more importantly it explains why I didn’t become a bat mitzvah or go to camp or that my bubbe didn’t have a special recipe for matzo ball soup. I can’t just ignore that I’m a convert :) I’m proud of it, and it plays into who I am as a Jew.

  15.  Bobby says:

    I would like to know if jones a heberw/jews name

  16.  Dena says:

    As someone studying to convert to Judaism, I have also been wrestling with this issue of outing myself as Jewish without….being so obvious as to say “Hey! I’m Jewish.” Obviously having a more Jewish name would make it easier.

    I found this article to be funny and enlightening:


  17. Bobby:

    I probably could answer your question but I know of someone who, I suspect is a much better choice. Hopefully she will show up in the next day or so, to share her “unique” insights on your question.


    Thanks for the link.

    Care to share a little more about your struggle with this and how you have been, thus far, dealing with it?

  18.  Leah says:

    Is Jones a Jewish name?

    It is now.

  19.  Sarah says:


    People are very short-sighted to base things on last names. My dad’s last name is Becraft, but he is a born Jew, despite the UK last name. Though for some reason he never gets questioned on it… His mother’s last name was “Oiknine” before marriage which is blatantly Sephardic, so, maybe that’s part of why, though I doubt anyone knew her maiden name.

    In any case, it’s Jewish now, just as Jewish as “Edwards.”

  20. hi amanda  my name is edwards in australia my forbeares changed it from moses in 1793 england and had been stromg with the faith till me i married outside if you have    hart,way back ????   bryan [email protected]

  21.  Chavi says:

    Bryan, thanks for the note. I’ve traced the Edwards line back to the 1600s or so and unfortunately it carries on back quite some time!

  22.  Amitai Natan says:

    I’ve been having trouble with this as well but, as I work as a musician and writer and have been published and recorded albums under my very goyish name, its difficult to change it. Thus, I’ve established some clout based on it and it would be nearly career suicide to completely jump ship and embrace the two Hebrew names that I chose while converting that I feel truly convey my essence, and that of the people with whom I’ve cast my lot. Also, my parents named me a Spanish name, Andrés, after one of their favorite musicians and, because I am of mixed ancestry (Afro-American, Irish and Polish Jewish) everyone mistakes me for a Latino, which I am not comfortable with. Latino culture is wonderful, but it simply isn’t mine. In addition, I don’t really know my father’s side of the family from whom I take my last name. I am about to marry a Jewish queen, and my kala will not take my pre-Jewish last name because she doesn’t see it as even representing who I am, but won’t take my Jewish last name because it is foreign to her and doesn’t represent the man she is marrying. I’ve begun more and more to introduce myself as “Amitai” in Israel or Jewish circles but the duality is something that I’ve been struggling with.

  23.  Amitai Natan says:

    P.S. My last name is “Wilson,” as whitebread American as you can get :)

  24.  Chavi says:


    We have generic names! Score! But seriously, thank you for sharing your piece. I can imagine it would be hard to adopt a new name if you are already known well with one name. When I go off to grad school in the fall, I’m hoping to be able to fully adopt Chaviva among new people I meet. I think it’s doable, and it has me so very excited!

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