Now that I’m divorced, I feel so conspicuous having someone else’s name. I’ve lost count of how many have asked if I will revert to my maiden name – Cohn – a rather generic Jewish moniker referring to the priestly status in the Temple way-back-when, thousands of years in the past. It’s a name given to me by a man, not mine for the choosing, but at least it marks familial descent and societal status – albeit in a society long since gone.
But still, it’s a man’s name. My father’s.
Years ago, I tried to write an essay about naming – the names we’re given, the nicknames we allow, those we eschew, and the ones others choose for us either out of love or domination or to keep us as the little ones they once knew. The essay never took off because it was nothing more than a post-adolescent rant about wanting to have ultimate control.
Identity is no easy cocktail. You think you know who you are and then another day passes and suddenly, you’re not satisfied with the role you’ve been playing. Ok, enough second-person crap – I’m talking about me here.
I grew up as a secular Jew, very Jewish and yet not remotely interested in religion. I ate matzoh ball soup on holidays and my grandmother’s from-scratch gefilte fish, but I enjoyed a crispy piece of bacon just the same. I had disdain for rigidity and rules, didn’t even know the Orthodox Jews I purported to look down on, assuming that their women were second-class walking-behind-the-men and their lives were relegated to cave-like neighborhoods with others like them.
And then I became religious.
If you asked me ten years ago why I did so, I’d say I was drawn to the beauty of Shabbat. I’d say that I was looking for meaning. I’d say I wanted to date men who wanted to marry – not merely get into bed and run at the first mention of commitment. I’d say that I was seeking a meaningful framework to elevate my days.
Religious Judaism has all that in spades. But it’s got a dark side, too.
The beauty of Shabbat comes with a complicated set of rules and exact times to-the-minute. The men eager to get married have their own issues – I married a man who blamed religious restrictions for his career mediocrity. Orthodox men are all about marriage – but then many are never home, running from work to synagogue, and on Shabbat, taking off early – leaving the women home with kids grabbing at their skirts – because it’s the men who are obligated to pray, be at services on time, fill in the blanks.
In Judaism, 10 men count for a minyan – women don’t count at all. In my syangogue, we sit behind a fence of sorts since the men might be too distracted if they can see/hear/smell/touch women while they’re supposed to be praying to the Creator.
There’s a uniform for women, too – skirts four inches past the knee, sleeves covering elbows and high-collared shirts, and if you’re married, it’s a good idea to cover your hair.
I’m sure by writing this all down, with this tone, many of my neighbors will balk at what I’m saying. Some may not eat in my house for being so outspoken about the way we live. It’s not nice to be publicly critical of your brethren. I’m not really doing that – what I’m saying is that I find as much beauty in religion as I find dysfunction and craziness.
A rabbi’s wife once told me that I’d eventually inhabit the person I was trying to be on the outside. “When you take on your Hebrew name, then you’ll catch up to yourself,” she said.
That’s something I could never do. I’ve been Lynne for 36 years; Leah Masha, my Hebrew moniker, was used in parentheses in the Jewish News for my bat mitzvah announcement, at my wedding on the ketubah, and it’s what my former in-laws engraved in gold leaf on the set of special holiday prayerbooks they gave me eight years ago. That’s all. I doubt I would respond if someone called out “Leah!” in reference to me.
I’m keeping Schreiber, even though it feels odd, for two reasons: it’s my kids’ surname, most importantly, and practically, it’s how I’m known in the writing world. Hell, look at this web address!
In that essay I tried to write, I lamented all the names that others found for me – my father still calls me Lynnie, my sister and brother had all sorts of weird nicknames for me (Leo, Lynnardo, Lou) but then I had nicknames for them, too. Before my sister could pronounce the L, she called me “onnie.”
I’ve made peace with the idea that others have names for me that I may not choose for myself. It’s their way of claiming me, I guess. For my dad, Lynnie is his little girl – and if he still sees me like that at almost-37, I can’t see why that’s bad.
My only hope is that one day, I encounter a true partner who in the quiet of the night, under the open window with a breeze sweet through the screen, whispers my name in a way no one else can. Then, I will know that the purpose of a name is to bring someone inside your skin and make them part of you.