What’s in a name?

Michael Lipkin (photo credit: PR)
Michael Lipkin
(photo credit: PR)
It’s well-known that Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister, was known as Golda Myerson until she Hebraized her last name in 1956. While it’s not unusual to take on a Hebrew last name when making aliya, taking a Hebrew first name is even more common.
Tali Gabel was born in Peru. She felt her birth name didn’t suit her but she wasn’t given a Hebrew name.
After making aliya in 2005, she picked the name Tali for herself after hearing it on television. Back in Peru, she says, “All my friends and family, even my parents, call me Irene. For me, the other name was my last life.
From the day I came to Israel, I felt different. I wanted a new life and a new name.”
Chava Pinchuck changed her name from Kathe for several reasons. “I feel like when I made aliya, my neshama (soul) was elevated. My husband wanted me to go by my Hebrew name when we got married, but I was changing my last name and didn’t want to lose my whole identity when I became a wife. Also, Israelis have a hard time with ‘th’ and I didn’t want to be known as ‘Ketty.’” In general, the process for an immigrant to change his or her name in Israel is a simple one. But sometimes, there are bureaucratic obstacles. Chava Levin was born Vivian. When she made aliya for the first time in 1976, she changed her name. “I never really used [Vivian] on a daily basis except at school. I only really identify as Chava.”
When Levin returned to Israel in 2006 to attempt aliya a second time, “There was no paper trail for the name change.” Her US documents said Chava but her old Israeli documents said Vivian. “Misrad Hapnim [the Interior Ministry] couldn’t cope. It took five months of almost daily visits and tears and angst until we managed to straighten things out and I got the new teuda [identity card].
“Funny thing is, that day there was someone just back from maternity leave. She wanted to know what my problem was.” Once the snafu was explained, the Interior Ministry worker said, “But what’s the problem? Vivian is simply French for Chava!” Liat Collins, editor of The International Jerusalem Post, tells of how she went to the Interior Ministry’s office to change her name when she made aliya in 1979. “I was already in a garin Nahal located in the South and only had one day off to sort everything out. I waited outside one office where the clerk finally came and changed my first name.
“Then I went to another office and waited for ages to change my surname. My paternal grandfather changed the name from Cohen to Collins in World War II when it looked like the Germans might invade Britain. When the clerk came he asked me what name I wanted and I said ‘Hacohen.’ “He told me Cohens and Levys were a different office, so I waited for a third clerk. When that clerk came, the first thing he asked me for was my parents’ ketuba [religious marriage contract] to prove that I am the daughter of a kohen. I didn’t have the ketuba with me and didn’t have time to come back with it, and that’s how I ended up with the strange combination of names.”
Another common issue is having one legal name outside Israel and another in Israel.
Penina Taylor’s English name is on all her US documents. “Recently, when I was traveling back to Israel, the airline gave me a hard time. Because I was traveling on my US passport, my ticket is in my American name, to match my US passport. The computer flagged me as possibly not being allowed into Israel without a visa. I handed the agent both my American and Israeli passport and it took them about half an hour to deal with it, because the passports have two completely different names.”
What happens if your “Hebrew” name is actually Yiddish? Gittel Levin deals with that exact issue.
“My parents gave me [the] name [Gittel] after my Great-Aunt Gussie, never imagining I’d use it for anything but occasional religious ceremonies. I use both names now, somewhat interchangeably. In my professional working life, it’s Joan. I’m uncomfortable using a Yiddish name at work in Israel. My immediate family and friends who have known me a long time still call me Joan. When I perform stand-up comedy, it’s strictly Joan. Friends I’ve made in Israel since making aliya call me either.
“When I first made aliya, in 1997, I wanted to use my Jewish identity. I thought about picking a properly Hebrew name, but I like Gittel and think it suits me in many ways. But having a Yiddish name in America or in Israel signals things to different communities that I don’t want to signal.”
Most people seem to make the switch rather smoothly. Though for some, like Michael Lipkin, it doesn’t quite take.
“When I made aliya 13+ years ago, I decided to start using my Hebrew name. Seemed to make sense since we were moving to a Hebrew speaking/ Jewish country. So pretty much anyone who I met in Israel during the first years after aliya calls me Menachem. Anyone who knew me from before aliya still calls me Michael.
“Then Facebook came along. I became an early adopter and found it a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with so many friends and family from the Old Country. However, since most of them knew me as Michael, I decided to use it as my Facebook name.
Ironically, as many of my new Israeli friends became Facebook friends, some of them started calling me Michael instead of Menachem.
“I never really connected to Menachem. And now it’s gotten to the point where I will introduce myself to new people here as Michael or just have this major hesitation while I try to think of which name to use.
My strongest feeling has come to be that my parents, mostly my mom, chose the name Michael because they loved it. They used the name Menachem to fulfill the obligation of naming me after my grandfather.”
What advice would people who changed their names give to others considering it? For some, like Zehava Waltzer, it’s a no-brainer.
“I would most definitely advise others to consider changing their name when they move to Israel.”
Noam O’Rourke tends to agree, on ideological grounds, “Moving to another country is like adjusting one’s identity. So changing how others address you can be part of the process of making that change.”
Shira Yashin is even more emphatic: “I sometimes wonder why people don’t use a Hebrew name when they move to Israel.”
Others are not as quick to advise it for everyone.
Chana Rachel Kean said, “I feel that changing one’s name is a personal matter and would depend upon one’s experience, religious upbringing and religious affiliation at present.”
Avigdor Statfield is a US tax attorney. Known as William or Bill in his professional life, he suggests, “For religious purposes, use your Hebrew name. For dealing with the US, keep your American name.”
Similarly, Chava Pinchuck adds, “For many who have established careers or reputation, it may not be the best option.”
Michael Lipkin, whose name change didn’t stick, advises people “to think long and hard about it. I certainly think that the age of [a person when they make] aliya is a factor. Also, ideology is a factor. If you’re coming here and want to be an uber Israeli, then that likely could outweigh other concerns and feelings. Maybe you should try a test run to see how it fits. Also, if you do make the change, go all in. Make sure everyone you know, new and old, uses your ‘new’ name.”