I was named Sureh Henya for my mother’s sister who died of cancer just before I was born, but was called Sureh Henya only when teased. Henya rhymes with zshmmya (hand) and there were many nasty little jingles that could be made of the two. The worst was, ”Sureh Henya macht in di zshmenya” (Sureh Henya defecates in her hand).
I was, however, called Surele, Surkele, and sometimes Suki. Surele and Surkele came with little Yddish words of endearment, like, tiere (dearest), ziseh (sweet) and giteb (good) and were inevitably followed by a request that I do something I didn’t want to do.
When I entered kindergarten, Sureh Henya was miraculously transformed into Sylvia Helen, a name as cool and English as the original was warm and Yiddish. I was born in 1923—the year of the Sylvias—and there was no escaping fashion. There were four of us in my class: Sylvia Meister, Sylvia Roth, Sylvia Shapiro and I, Sylvia Rosner. If I’d been born ten years earlier my name would have been Sarah, ten years later, Cynthia, later still Sandra, Susan or Sharon.
I learned quickly to answer in Yiddish to Surele, in English to Sylvia, in whatever pleased me to Suki, in Hebrew to Sarah. I shifted from the culture of home to the culture of school and back again. I juggled without knowing that I was juggling. My friends call me one thing, my husband calls me another, my children and children-in-law and grandchildren another. I sign my letters to my children’s families with an inscrutable initial.