One Woman, 2 Marriages, 3 Cultures, 4 Names

Karen Hillary Rosenstein. A child writes out her name when she first begins to label her work in school and examines that name for what it is: a newly formed public identity.

My name was foreign to me.

In the first place it was not the name I should have been given. It was not the name of my grandmother, whose very mention elicited tears in my mother’s eyes, Haya Kayleh. That name, my mother repeatedly reminded us, was offered at the registrar’s office in England when I was born, but was only accepted after Anglicization. I can imagine the London clerk looking up at my parents and perhaps at me, the bundle in their arms, and, thinking that he would spare me years of the shame of refugee status, refusing to hear their broken English clearly. Haya Kayleh became Karen Hillary.

I remember feeling just a bit guilty at my relief every time my mother told me what my name should have been. There were even times when she tried to return my name to its intended original and actually called me Haya Kayleh, eliciting my unmitigated rage.

She never tried too hard. My grandmother (may her soul ever be blessed) was short, blond, and beautiful, with patience and talent for handiwork, and I was large, rebellious, ungainly and inclined to misunderstand any lesson in womanly arts my mother tried to give. And the fact that I clearly didn’t deserve the name of such a woman contributed to my shame and fury.

The Hillary part was bad enough. No one in my American Jewish day school had ever heard of a girl named Hillary; Karen was more than acceptable, and by using my first name and ignoring the British and Yiddish specters, I could almost pass as a normal child.

Except in my Hebrew class. I remember the first day of school, the Hebrew teacher requested that we write our Hebrew names on our drawings. I was totally bewildered. I remember as if it were today that I looked at the drawing of the girl next to me and copied what she had written in the corner: Hana. I was only five when I was first discovered to be an impersonator.

At the age of 22, I married a Sephardic Israeli named Nissim Alkalay, and my identity changed. I was now the proud owner of a truly exotic and enigmatic and rhythmic name. It provided me with a mystery and beauty I had never before known. That year I began teaching English at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Without my wonderful name I might have been terrified of standing up before a class of 18 year olds. Their anti- Semitism was open and not addressed toward me—not with my obviously Spanish name. I was a spy in the world of the goyim.

The divorce from Nissim Alkalay did not create in me a desire to give up his name. There was a clause in our settlement that the family names of my children would always remain Alkalay, and I did not want to divorce my children. But when I married Ezra Gut, and the Office of Internal Affairs in Israel automatically changed my name to Karen Gut, I never bothered to initiate proceedings to have my name officially changed to Alkalay-Gut.

So I have one name to sign checks with, Karen Gut, one name to write with, Karen Alkalay-Gut, a few names forged into the building blocks of my character, and one name—Haya Keila—to remember as a debt to live up to.

“Each person has a name,” my husband reminded me when he first read a version of this exploratory essay, quoting the Israeli poet Zelda whose most famous poem is read most often over the graves of battle heroes. For me, it has been the final metamorphosis of my name that has given me the strength, the nerve, and the daring to return to its earlier manifestations.

Even though I know a Rosenstein by any other name remains whatever she was in the first place.