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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