|My Dad's Name
||[Jun. 2nd, 2016|01:00 pm]
So these posts are going to be all out of order because it is best to start with talking about the things that are still fresh in my mind. After a three year process of gradually taking responsibility for my dad, which included becoming his guardian and arranging his funeral, I came home from visiting with relatives to have a Shivah Minyan in my home last night. People from my traditional congregation and people from my deconstructed do it yourself chavurah shared some prayers and encouraged me to tell stories about my dad. I was stunned at how much I had to say.
First there was the question of his name. Jewish people have a ritual name, in addition to the legal one on our birth certificates. When I was was growing up, my dad told me that his family hadn't been very observant, and that when he married my mom, he told the rabbi that he couldn't remember his Hebrew name. So my mom's rabbi chose to call him Naftali, and this is what he was know as (spiritually, whatever that is,) for over a decade. I was the oldest of three girls, and when my brother came along and my parents telephoned their own parents to announce his birth, some hidden history was revealed. My dad's father Jake, had wanted his children to be practical and productive as opposed to filling their lives with ritual. So he had never mentioned to his sons that his family were Cohanim, which is an ancestral tradition that is passed down from father to son. There hadn't been any male grandchildren before, so Jake hadn't seen any pressing need to share the information. This was mildly interesting to most people in the family, but to my mom's older brother it was a really big deal. For my brother's naming ceremony, Uncle E showed up with ten black hat Lubovitchers, and they ran the show. He gave my brother a silver kiddish cup inscribed with his name including "HaCohain" as a title. After that, my not really observant dad could be called first when Torah honors were given in synagogue. My dad's name story took another turn when years later, after my family had moved to California, and my parents had divorced. The same Lubavitch uncle talked my parents into getting a religious divorce too. My folks drove from San Diego to Los Angeles, to a rabbinic court that was more orthodox than most. Since this was such a male/bro environment, it was actually fun for my dad. After hearing the story so far, the presiding rabbi declared that Naftali, being the name of a different part of the twelve tribes, was "Not suitable for a Cohain!" I remember my dad telling me about this. I was flabbergasted, "So another rabbi changed your name again?" Amazingly, dad felt perfectly OK about this. The next line had been, "We'll call you Hersh." Which is a great name that works well as a substitute for his first name, and is almost identical to his middle name which is Herchel. A quick digression here, I never knew how to spell his middle name assuming that it was Hershal, until I found it recently on his military discharge paperwork.
No, the name story isn't even finished yet. Moving forward another twelve years, On a visit with my dad I told him that the -couldn't remember his original name- story had always sounded odd to me. More of the story emerged. He did remember his name, it had been the Hebrew version of Nathan. My mom's rabbi had said that since she had a brother named Nathan, it would be inappropriate for her to marry someone with the same name. This really doesn't reflect standard practice at all, but some people be power trippin'. I never thought about it before, but clearly, it was substituting anther name that starts with the letter N.
When I woke up this morning, I realized that my dad had been originally named for his grandfather, who was known as "Mr Nathan", because many people didn't want to try to pronounce his last name.