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Hebrew Names

Or, Dreaming of Vardit

A lot of people i know were born with Hebrew names. On every organized trip to Israel I’ve been on, rollcall has been full of Hannahs and Esthers. Maybe an Avi or two. But because I was born in the extremely anti-Semitic Soviet Union and my parents didn’t want me to catch an asskicking every now and again, not to mention that my dad isn’t Jewish, they decided on a non-Hebrew name for me, Victoria. You can see that drama unfold here.

When I was 17 and went on a March of the Living trip to Poland and Israel, for the first time in my life I really started feeling Jewish. I asked a bunch of questions of the kids on my trip who had grown up in Jewish homes. The person on the trip I pestered the most, a woman with grandchildren a little younger than me, understood the Russian kids on the trip all too well. Susan knew we were brought up to sneer at events with religious overtones, to eat pork, and to be ignorant of 90% of Jewish traditions.

It wasn’t our fault, or our parents’ fault. It’s just what Russian Jews did to survive the Soviet Union. With patience, Susan explained to me, when I expressed my unwillingness to visit a synagogue for services in Poland, what Shabbat was and why we celebrated it. She showed me how to wash my hands before a meal when I shied away in terror from a ritual all the other kids were performing with knowledge. And she answered my constant questions about the subject I was most interested in, Hebrew.

“So, you say ‘ha’ before every word in Hebrew?” I asked her.

“No, it’s like the word ‘the.’”

“So, how do you say, ‘I love Israel?’ ” “Well, it depends on if it’s masculine or feminine. I would say, ‘Ani, Shoshana, ohevet et Israel.’ ” I asked her why she pointed to herself as Shoshana. “It’s my Hebrew name,” she said.

My curiosity about Hebrew names was piqued. It also helped that there were at least 10 Russian kids on our bus who were also Hebrew name-less. They went by names like Svetlana, Irina, Igor. Susan and our Russian shaliach decided it would be a great opportunity to give us all Hebrew names in Israel, seeing how attached we were getting to being Jewish. That was the good part.

the bad part was that none of us really knew Hebrew at a level well enough to understand the names we were receiving. I thumbed through the Hebrew name book (in Hebrew, of course) with the shaliach. “You know that receiving a new name changes the direction of your life,” he said casually. He would know. He’d made aliyah when he was 16 and changed his Russian name to a Hebrew one a year later. I looked at the foreign letters with trepidation. What if I messed up and chose the wrong one? Would that mean I would be banished to the West Bank or, worse, Dimona?

“What’s the name that’s closest to Victoria or Victory in Hebrew?” I asked him.

“Probably Nitzana. But you don’t want that name. It doesn’t sound nice.” And of course, it didn’t to me. I listened to whatever he told me.

He kept thumbing, no doubt past many desirable choices like Raheli or Goldameirit. “Vered,” he said. “It’s close-sounding to your name. What do you think about that?”

I thought it sounded pretty awesome. I didn’t realize that it had the same connotations in Hebrew as Ethel. No offense to anyone named Vered. It’s not like you could have chosen your own name. Unlike some people.

“It sounds pretty cool! What does it mean?”

“Rose.”

I thought this over. I had none of the characteristics girls with flower names were supposed to have. I didn’t know the difference between rouge and foundation. And I wasn’t gentle, understanding, and ladylike. I was definitely not a Vered.

“I’ll take it,” I said, and was proclaimed Vered the next day on a hill overlooking the Kinneret. It was all very nationalistic. I might have cried. But about a year after I got the name, I started Hebrew classes at my university. And then I got jealous. Some people were Shulamit, or Anat, or Keren. I cursed myself. Why couldn’t I have even chosen Vardit? That would sound at least a little bit cooler. But no, from that day forward, I was Vered.

It got so bad that, when I did an internship at Bank HaPoalim in Israel and I was being introduced to my coworkers, I said, “Shmi Vered,” and they said, “Shmech WHAT?” And I said, “Shmaybe not.” After that, I was Vicki the whole summer. I can’t even use my Hebrew name in the Land of Israel. The ultimate Zionist failure. If there are any Vereds out there who are proud of our name, please come forward. Otherwise I will be forever dreaming of being Orly. Or Yael.

Vicki Boykis was born Jewish in Russia and raised guilty in America. She works in Big Data, is doing her MBA, and in the other three spare minutes is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband in Philadelphia-ish. She blogs at blog.vickiboykis.com.

Originally published in Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, an anthology edited by Stefanie Pervos Bregman. Published by Academic Studies Press in August, 2012. Available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle. More info at www.livingjewishlybook.com