When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.
Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.
It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.
I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”
“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”
And he did. But that’s a story for another day.
It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.
I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.
We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.
For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.
The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.
Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.
Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.
And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.
What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.
So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”
That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.
But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.
Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.
On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.
And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”
I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?
And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.
I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.
So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.
The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.
There is a lot in a name, it turns out.
Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.