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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
“Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss,” was my aunt’s
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.”
was always a hesitation after the “Viva,” as if I had to remember to
last name, in deference to the feelings of the congregant on the other
The members of the community, in their consummate wisdom,
renamed me Mrs. Weiss. This particularly annoyed my spouse, “If you’re
all, it is purely in the capacity as my rebbetzin. You certainly would
entered this elevated community had you been untitled, a mere Mrs.
corrected anybody, though, whatever they chose to call me. Keeping my
not a moral crusade for me. My name has always been Viva Hammer and I
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
had written a well publicized article denouncing the practice of keeping
names in a family. He cited the verse: “mishpahotam l’vet avotam
families according to the houses of their fathers” (Numbers 1:2). After I
the article, I worried that Aaron might get cold feet about my naming
He laughed, and told me, “This is my guide: Is it written in the Code of
Law? I see nothing about surnames in that book. Surnames are a gentile
to the Jewish naming system, in which a person usually retains the same
from birth to death – as the child of its mother and its father.” Indeed
, according to the houses of their fathers.
WHAT A RELIEF! I
thought to myself, there were certain benefits to marrying a man who was
literalist in interpreting the law. Still, my spouse’s family always
me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and I did not correct them.
letters that were addressed to us as Rabbi Weiss and Viva Hammer were so
that I would cut them out and keep them in a special file, the Hammer-
Things became more complicated when I discovered I was
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
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
only his surname, it would eviscerate the enormous physical and
contribution I would be making as mother. He wanted our partnership in
lives to be manifest wherever they went. I was so proud to have married a
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
sometimes Viva Hammer-Weiss. At work, I was the master of my title; I
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
of Brandeis University.