Out There: Name Power

Some challenges of being a new immigrant in Israel

Cartoon370 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
One of the most difficult challenges facing new immigrants for the first 20 years or so is that everything – but everything – is a big deal, a major production.
Nothing is easy, from trying to figure out what foods are kosher for Passover, to setting up a doctor’s appointment with a specialist (“What, I need a referral?”), to writing notes to the kids’ teachers explaining why Junior missed school.
“Abba, all you have to write is that I had a dentist appointment,” my youngest son counseled me years ago as I wrote such a note, surrounded by a dictionary and sheets of discarded paper balled-up because of poor diction or misspelled words. (“Honey, is rofeh spelled with a heh or an aleph at the end? Does shinayim have one or two yuds?”) Standing over me, prodding me to write “faster, faster,” my son was oblivious to how inadequate writing a stupid school note could make a grown man feel, especially one who writes for a living.
Forget about writing. I remember when the kids’ schools used to send home weekly pages of announcements on Friday to be read around the Shabbat table. Had I actually read it all, it would have taken me so long there would have been no time left for family conversation.
Filling out bank forms, explaining to the air conditioner repairman that the cold air was coming out warm, getting the right cut of meat at the butcher, borrowing margarine from the neighbors (“Honey, how do you say ‘tablespoon’?”) – everything took forethought and pre-planning.
How glorious, therefore, that those years are behind me. Now, for the most part, I can walk into the post office to claim my registered letter without having to mentally plan out in advance exactly how to phrase things.
There is one area, however, where I still generally pre-plan what should be a spontaneous and natural interaction: how to reply when Israelis ask my name, especially in public.
‘HONEY, YOU gave them your name?” The Wife said with astonishment the other day as we sat at a local coffee shop, after my name – or some variation thereof – was called out via the PA system.
“Why did you do that?” “I don’t know, dear, it just came out; it is my name,” I replied, rushing to the counter to pick up my order before the waitress could bellow out another mangled mispronunciation, something like “Hairb,” or “Harb,” or “Airb,” or “Irb” – anything but Herb, which Israelis are constitutionally unable to pronounce because of an inability to utter the hard “er” sound.
The hard “er” sound is a lot like the soft “th” sound, which is also impossible for a sabra (native Israeli) mouth to form. Hence one of the most popular shows on television is “Da Voice,” not the The Voice; and a well-read economic newspaper is “Da Markair,” not The Marker.
Just once, when asked my name by an Israeli, I’d like to respond “The Herb,” if only to hear the person say “Da Hairb.”
The kids, God bless them, hate my name, and are embarrassed by it.
Like all good children, they want me to live a healthy, long life – until 120. But this desire stems not only from their wanting to have their loving father around, but also because none of them really wants the burden of having to name a sabra son after me.
“You do it,” I envision my children arguing some day well – hopefully – into the distant future. “No you do it, he liked you more.”
WHEN I first made aliya I was often asked why I just don’t use my Hebrew name, the one by which I’m called up to the Torah.
“I’m kind of connected to Herb,” I’d reply, explaining that not only had the name served me loyally for 20- plus years before I moved to Israel, it was also the name of my uncle Herbert who was killed in the Holocaust, and whose Hebrew name has been lost. That always shuts ‘em up.
My Hebrew name was given to me randomly, with no real connection to my uncle, and is even more “old school” than Herb: Hizkiyahu.
I actually used it for a while when I first moved here. I realized quickly, however, that it didn’t make anything easier, because it was really not that much more common for Israelis than Herb.
Nobody here calls their kids Hizkiyahu; it’s one of those Biblical names that never caught on. Have you ever seen a key chain in a gift shop embossed with the name Hizkiyahu? Besides, the English for Hizkiyahu is Hezekiah, making me feel more Amish than Jewish.
I once tried making Hizkiyahu more contemporary by shortening the name and going by the first syllable alone, calling myself Hizki.
(This was pre-Internet days, before it dawned on me that I could use the last syllable and just go by Yahoo).
But Hezki, or the much more hip Hezi, didn’t work, because Israelis hear Hizki or Hezi and thinkYehezkel, not Hizkiyahu.
So it was back to Herb.
ACTUALLY THE NAME has its inherent benefits. First of all, it’s a great icebreaker.
“Come in, Herbal Tea,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in September, motioning me into his office for a Rosh Hashana interview.
“What?” I retorted, startled. “The world knows you as ‘Bibi,’ and you’re making fun of my name?” Well, I didn’t actually say that, but I did think it.
The name is also not that bad because it gives me gravitas, at least the way it is spelled in Hebrew. Herb in Hebrew – heh, resh, bet – spells harav (the rabbi).
Someone once randomly leafed through our neighborhood phone book, saw “Harav Keinon,” and called to speak to the rabbi’s wife (harabbanit). One of my sons, knocked a bit off kilter, said she wasn’t home. The persistent woman called back later, and this time my son gave the phone to The Wife who – in a soothing, wise, authoritative voice unfamiliar to me – answered, “Yes, how can I help you?”
Besides, written in Hebrew, the name also affords me some status, even honor. People in doctors’ offices treat you differently when the secretary calls out for “the rabbi.”
And newcomers and guests to my synagogue, knowing it’s bad form to sit where the rabbi does, hesitate to plop down in a seat bearing the name plaque “Harav Keinon.”
Things could be worse... I could be called Percival.