My nice Jewish boy named Barak

Obama's first name is that of a biblical warrior - and feminist.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
The looks that I get in the parks, malls and on the streets of America when I summon my toddler's attention make it clear to me that a public explanation of his name, Barak, is in order. Although my son's name is spelled one letter differently than that of the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, it is pronounced the same. And although Senator Obama had a fall-back name of Barry to carry him through Harvard Law, my Barak is only Barak. Well, sometimes Baraki. And sometimes Rocky. And Barak-and-roll star. And Rockstar - but I digress. What's a nice Jewish boy like Barak Waxman doing with a name like the African name of a nice political superstar who is named after his Muslim father and is himself a long time member of the "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian" Trinity United Church of Christ? Well it is not, as many take for granted, a case of parents naming their child for the current "It" girl or guy. In fact, I've always liked the name Barak. I thought of naming a son Barak early in my realization that fathers wield that incredible power of imbuing a human being with a lifelong appellation. Then I got married and learned that it's generally mothers who have that - and most - parental power. Three great children, two sons and no Baraks later, the name crept into the American vernacular. ON MARCH 16, 2004 Illinois State Senator Barack Obama from Chicago won the Democratic primary for a United States Senate seat from a field of seven. On July 27, 2004 (still-just-State) Senator Obama delivered his now renowned speech at the Democratic National Convention. I happened to be driving from Milwaukee to O'Hare Airport in Chicago shortly before Election Day. I heard a deluge of ads suggesting with song to vote for Mr. Obama: "(singing) Yes we can, Barack Obama, yes we can, Barack Obama, yes we can Barack Obama…" Uninformative, empty … undeniably catchy. On November 2 that year, State Senator Barack was elected US Senator Barack. My wife Estee said that now for sure we couldn't name a son Barak. How can we give our son such a unique name that had taken on such a public persona? "Public?" I argued, "He's just a Senator…" On Monday November 28, 2005 my wife's grandfather Rabbi Mordechai Zimmerman passed away. He was 92. A few days later we learned that Estee was pregnant. She wanted our daughter Shana to have a sister and convinced herself we would be having a girl. After all, with two sons and only one daughter wasn't it inevitable? And as much as she loved and revered her grandfather, she couldn't imagine naming our son Mordechai. BUT IT was my turn to finally name one. And I've always liked the name Barak. I went to yeshiva with a Barak. It's not a very common Jewish name in America, but it's big in Israel. In fact in the "Tel Am" educational curriculum used in numerous day schools to teach Hebrew, Barak and Hadassah are among the main recurring characters - a modern day Dick and Jane, if you will. On Thursday May 11, 2006 Barack Obama joined a bevy of Congressmen and Senators in briefly addressing the Orthodox Union's Mission to Washington's luncheon in the Senate. I was in attendance. The words the Senator tailored to his Jewish audience surprised - and disappointed - me. He told the crowd that his name too had Jewish roots. He explained that he had been told that his name means "blessing" in Hebrew. I have seen reference to his mentioning this to other Jewish audiences. I sat there in a minor shock thinking "No." No, no, no. How could a man named Barack attend a Christian church for 20 years and not know that his name is in the Bible? Shame on his pastor. Instead of damning America, shouldn't his reverend have been preaching God's Word? It's just another place where Reverend Wright was wrong. (Wremiss?) THE HEBREW word for blessing is baruch - with a guttural "ch," as in chutzpah. Barak, a word found in some forms in the Pentateuch, means "lightning." It is a strong name. A venerated name. A biblical name. To make sure nothing was lost in translation I looked up the relevant passages in an on-line version of the King James Bible. Sure enough, there he was, near the beginning of the Prophets, in Judges Chapters 4 and 5, starting with 4:6: And [Deborah] sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the LORD God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward Mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? Barak was Deborah's general and counsel. A great warrior who knew how to lead and how to follow, serving under the first recorded nation-leading woman. ON AUGUST 19, 2006, Estee gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Barak persevered. For the most part. On his birth certificate he was named Barak Mordechai. At his circumcision ceremony we gave him the Hebrew name Mordechai Barak, not just because Hebrew is written the opposite direction of English (right to left), but because we wanted to honor the memory of Estee's beloved grandfather. The beautiful speech my wife wrote for our son's brit focused mostly on the name Mordechai and on Estee's grandfather. Regarding the name Barak we noted that Barak in the Bible was a warrior. A general "who for all his strength and good qualities is perhaps sometimes not so well remembered among the great leaders of Israel. This is likely because he, perhaps our first feminist, was somewhat bedimmed by the leading judge of his day, Devora. His name means lightning - one midrash [early commentary] says he was so named because, like our Barak, his countenance shone like lightning - and this strong noun is conjured in instances where God makes his presence shown." Five months later, Sen. Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy. As for Barak Waxman, he was born with torticollis and, as happy, adventurous and outgoing as he is, he still doesn't speak; but we're optimistic. Who knows, with a name like Barak, he just might be president some day. The writer is a New York-based rabbi, social worker and humorist. He is the associate director of the Orthodox Union's Yachad/The National Jewish Council for Disabilities.