Yiddishkeit inspires screen names: Guess whats in cyberspace Oy gevalt, a shmata

A Jewish name is usually chosen by relatives and bestowed, ceremonially, at a brit or baby-naming.

But during a rite of passage into another realm, some are taking on a new Jewish handle.

Traipsing through cyberspace these days, you might bump into OY GEVALT, TZITZIT, SHMATA or MATZOMAN.

Some choose a Hebrew name "to be out of the closet" as Jews. That's why San Franciscan Aaron Forkafh, 24, became OLAMHABA (the world to come).

He also thought "it would be cool to meet [other Jews] out in cyberspace," particularly single Jewish women.

Forkafh says his screen name often leads to chat room discussions about Judaism. "People will say, `Wow, that's a cool name.' Those who don't know what it is, it's kind of fun to explain it."

Long interested in Jewish issues, Forkafh concentrated on Jewish studies at San Francisco State and spent two years living in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Hebrew University. Now he attends Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

He calls being Jewish in cyberspace a "Judelic" experience, a hybrid of Judaism and psychedelic.

"It refers to a very hands-on, experiential, cyber-Judaism," he says.

Anne Ludden, chat coordinator for Jewish Community Online, at keyword: Jewish on America Online, says she's seeing an upsurge of creative Jewish screen names like TORAHYID and ORTHDXJEW.

Jews are "finding an identity among a sea of 10-letter personalities. This allows them to keep [anonymity] but still be a recognizable figure."

Judy Rubin, an Oakland writer and publicist, was determined to adopt a nom de cyberspace that was definitively Jewish. She chose SCHMATTE after listening to a Yiddish humorist at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

"He lamented the waning of Yiddish and the loss of the `shmu' sound, so I thought, `I'll do my own little bit to keep the shmu sound alive,'" says Rubin, 40.

"We're all so assimilated" she adds. "There aren't too many ways to brand yourself.

"Here we are in America. It's a free country. Jews have reached the point where we can be openly Jewish. It's important to reinforce that as a part of our daily identity."

As a champion of Yiddish, she recently changed the spelling of her screen name to SHMATA, the spelling preferred by New York's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Rubin, who became a bat mitzvah last year at Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, didn't always have such a strong Jewish identity. But during the Gulf War she deliberately sought out the company of fellow Jews.

"Israel was under attack, not just military attack, but under a lot of verbal attack in the United States. I didn't feel it was something I could discuss with non-Jews," she says. "Recognizing the Jewish part of myself was finding myself."

SCHMATTE is also part of the Web address for her husband Boaz's accordion business, as well as her business e-mail address.

"I find that when I give out my e-mail address, if they're Jewish, they really light up," she says. "Almost everybody laughs. It's playing the Jewish card in business."

For Henry Hollander, a San Francisco bookseller who specializes in Jewish books, playing the Jewish card makes good business sense.

Hollander's address, BOYCHIK, advertises the Jewish nature of his books.

"I wanted it to reflect something about the business," says Hollander, 35, a member of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

He finds that the Yinglish-Slavic diminutive for "little boy" makes interactions more personable.

"It's a haimish thing. People will call up and say, `Is this BOYCHIK?' They either like it or they want to argue with me about how it's supposed to be spelled."

Sometimes a screen name grows out of a family joke. Rabbi Steven Rubenstein's name was chosen by his then-2-year-old daughter, Batya.

"She insisted that we use her favorite food as a screen name — RABBIOLI! The name has stayed with me ever since." (Batya is now 7.)

A former San Franciscan, Rubenstein, 38, is now the associate rabbi at B'nai Zion in El Paso, Texas. He's also one of the rabbis in Jewish Community Online's "Ask a Rabbi" forum.

Jews sometimes e-mail him, curious about the origins of RABBIOLI and the identity of the man behind the name. In chat rooms, he says, people often comment that "Chef-Boy-R-Dee has entered the room." Rubenstein quips, "At least this one is a kosher boy."

Ryan Dulkin, 25, chose REBRYAN to reflect a future professional identity.

"It was hubris at the time," he jokes. "I was planning on applying to rabbinical school. It was sort of part of my identity or the identity I was hoping to form, which is still subsequently being formed."

Dulkin left San Francisco in July to attend the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Cyberspace, he says, offers the "notion of a public mask. It's a place where we can give ourselves nicknames. Those of us who use the Internet for Jewish traffic, it just seemed natural that we would use Jewish e-mail addresses. It seemed like part of the fun of the medium."

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, 42, of Berkeley's Chabad, says, "It's an instant identity." You can "connect instantly with all of your Jewish brothers and sisters, establish an immediate rapport, speak a common language."

Ferris' address, BTSHUVAH (short for ba'al tshuvah), means "master of the return."

"I'm trying to be a master of return, to return to my Jewish roots," he says.

Mixing Judaism and the Internet, he says, is "using technology for a higher purpose, a Godly purpose. It's Judaism at the speed of light."