Power in Naming Names

You are your name. In India, where I’m living as a Fulbright scholar, I’m constantly reminded of this. “

My daughter’s name is Zianna, it means “bold and strong,” an acquaintance tells me.

“My name is Arushi, it means first ray of the sun,” says another new friend.

When I respond that my name is Elizabeth, Indians often say, “Oh, the queen. You are a queen.” Glad to dissuade them of any connection between my name and India’s former colonial rule, I tell people, “Actually, Elizabeth is a Hebrew name, it means house of God.”

Yet, when I was 11, something happened that threw my Jewish pedigree into question. My father and stepmother gave my new baby half-sister the middle name Beth. In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition—but not Jewish law—a baby is never named after someone living. Growing up, I got questioned about my family’s odd double naming often enough that I doubted the validity of my place in my Jewish family—or in Judaism at all.

I wondered: was I really a part of my Jewish family? Because my parents divorced when I was three, this question has followed me my entire life. It always brings me back to my name, with some mixed answers. Am I even Jewish?

After my parents divorced, my mother developed a pan-religiosity. I celebrated Jewish holidays with my father and his second family, and my mother suggested that I should choose my own religion. I chose Judaism.

This was in part because my mother had remarried into a Protestant family. This marriage lasted only two years, but her new husband, an anti-Semite, used that time to do what he could to erase my sister’s and my Jewish identities. While our then stepfather didn’t adopt us, he required that we use his last name. And, he insisted that my sister and I, age nine and seven, attend Sunday school at his church.

When this marriage met its demise, my older sister conspired to change our last name back our father’s Jewish surname. When she brought me to register for my first new school after the second divorce, the clerk handed us a form to fill out, and my sister, snatching it from me, wrote down KADETSKY. It could be said she gave me back my authentic self.

 ELIZABETH KADETSKY, “You Are Your Name.” on the Lilith Blog.