Women's Whispers: Naming Rights

Provoking a philosophical dispute every time I introduce myself would be tiresome.

July 23, 2010 15:36
3 minute read.
synagogue 88

synagogue 88. (photo credit: )


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One of the lighter diversions during my engagement to a rabbi was the debate over how I would be addressed by my fiancé’s congregation. I did not plan to change either my first or my last name after marriage, but how would my bridegoom’s congregants take to this? The world seemed clearly divided between those who could not imagine why one half of a couple would change one half of her name upon entering into the holy bond of matrimony, and those who could not imagine why it should not be so. The members of my fiancé, Aaron’s, congregation fell into the latter category, and so after I agreed to wed both Aaron and his position, we discussed how I should introduce myself without unduly violating their sensibilities.

“Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss,” was my aunt’s brilliant suggestion.

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It was after the fashion of the British royalty, à la Sophie, the duchess of Wessex. This was somewhat of a mouthful, and soon deteriorated to, “Hello, this is Viva, errr... the rabbi’s wife.”

There was always a hesitation after the “Viva,” as if I had to remember to delete my last name, in deference to the feelings of the congregant on the other end of the phone.

The members of the community, in their consummate wisdom, renamed me Mrs. Weiss. This particularly annoyed my spouse, “If you’re here at all, it is purely in the capacity as my rebbetzin. You certainly would not have entered this elevated community had you been untitled, a mere Mrs.!” I never corrected anybody, though, whatever they chose to call me. Keeping my name is not a moral crusade for me. My name has always been Viva Hammer and I could not see any sensible reason to change it.

My in-laws were in disbelief that they had chosen a daughter who would not take on their name. My father-in-law had written a well publicized article denouncing the practice of keeping two names in a family. He cited the verse: “mishpahotam l’vet avotam,” “by their families according to the houses of their fathers” (Numbers 1:2). After I read the article, I worried that Aaron might get cold feet about my naming decision. He laughed, and told me, “This is my guide: Is it written in the Code of Jewish Law? I see nothing about surnames in that book. Surnames are a gentile addendum to the Jewish naming system, in which a person usually retains the same name from birth to death – as the child of its mother and its father.” Indeed – l’vet avotam, according to the houses of their fathers.

WHAT A RELIEF! I thought to myself, there were certain benefits to marrying a man who was a literalist in interpreting the law. Still, my spouse’s family always addressed me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and I did not correct them. In fact, letters that were addressed to us as Rabbi Weiss and Viva Hammer were so rare that I would cut them out and keep them in a special file, the Hammer- Weiss album.

Things became more complicated when I discovered I was pregnant.

Following my original philosophy, I was concerned to preserve the name I had used since birth, but did not feel strongly about how one acquired the birth name: It is such an arbitrary process. Offspring Weiss was fine with me. But Aaron felt differently.

He had always wanted us both to hyphenate our names upon marriage, but believed this would make him a laughingstock in the religious world. Aaron thought that if the children took only his surname, it would eviscerate the enormous physical and emotional contribution I would be making as mother. He wanted our partnership in their lives to be manifest wherever they went. I was so proud to have married a man who argued with me this way.

So we navigated the bumpy territory between Aaron’s world and mine; sometimes I was Mrs. Weiss, sometimes Viva Hammer and sometimes Viva Hammer-Weiss. At work, I was the master of my title; I had started my career as Viva Hammer and never changed.

The writer is a tax lawyer in Washington and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.

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