When Michael becomes Moshe

When Yitzhak says his name, he sometimes gets a “gezundheit” in response.

When Elizheva gives her name, she may be called “Ms. Zheva,” or asked, “What is your last name again?” To which she’ll reply, “I haven’t told it to you yet.”

But for Yitzhak Santis, Elizheva Hurvich and other Bay Area residents with Hebrew first names, Jewish pride far outweighs the occasional inconvenience of a “Huh?” or “What was that?”

While people have many reasons for taking on a name different than the one their parents gave them, in the case of Hebrew names, most are using the name their parents did give them — the name intended to be used for ritual purposes.

Some tried on their new name while living in Israel because it made them feel less like an American tourist, or because it was easier for Israelis to pronounce.

Some grew up with little Jewish identity, and adopting a Hebrew name was a way to identify more outwardly as a Jew.

Some started using a new name for the novelty, or because it was more exotic than their given, Anglo name. And some feel that in a place like the Bay Area, where “ethnic is in,” they, too, like to show off their ethnic pride — that is, Jewish pride.

“Language is everything in terms of cultural identity, and so by using my Hebrew name, I’m making a statement that I value greatly my identity as a Jew, to the point where I’m willing to use a difficult-to-pronounce-and-spell Hebrew name,” said Yitzhak Santis, Middle East affairs director at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

“It’s also a statement against assimilation,” said Santis, who was known as Jeff in his formative years.

Noting that his Hebrew name was given in memory of two deceased relatives, he added, “It’s also a memory of ancestors past, of a culture that is long gone — Yiddish culture — and it’s partly about the renewal of Hebrew as a spoken language.”

Yet for others, the choice was more subliminal.

Nechama Tamler, a longtime Jewish educator based in Palo Alto, had lived in Israel and gone by Nancy (even though Israelis mispronounced it). There she studied with a biblical scholar whose name was Nechama, so if anyone mentioned Nechama in her circles, it referred to the scholar. Using it herself simply wasn’t an option.

But a funny thing happened when she returned to the Bay Area. One day, she was attending a meeting of Jewish educators. Even though most of them had known her for years, when it came time to introduce herself, Nechama is what came out of her mouth.

“I don’t know how, but it just popped out, and people went ‘Huh? Are you now Nechama?’

“And I said, ‘I guess I am.’ It was the strangest thing. It took a while for me to get used to it.”

Rabbi Ari Cartun changed his name while in rabbinical school, and he chose Ari simply because he liked it. His given Hebrew name is Avraham.

“Ari means lion, and I’m a Leo,” said the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. Cartun also had a fondness for Ari Ben-Canaan, the hero in Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus.”

Besides, when he was in Israel and people saw the spelling of his given name, Mark, in Hebrew, they often misread it as “Marak,” which means soup.

It took 20 years before Cartun officially changed his name with the Social Security Administration.

“I didn’t grow up very Jewish, so for me it was an important way of getting more Jewishness into my identity,” he said. “A lot of people wear a kippah all the time, which does the same thing. I do both.”

The fact that Santis, Tamler and Cartun have all worked in the Jewish world for years makes them more likely candidates for a name change. But those using their Hebrew names go way beyond Jewish professionals, especially in the Bay Area, where the younger generation’s comfort level in flaunting their Jewishness (on T-shirts, for instance) is high.

Shira Hordes, née Melissa, of San Francisco, was called Shira in Hebrew school while growing up in Santa Fe, N.M. But she was teased for it because a television cartoon heroine, “She-Ra, Princess of Power,” was well known among her classmates.

In high school, however, she began to think about changing her name.

“I wasn’t attached to my Jewish identity in high school at all,” said Hordes, 26. “The reason was more because it was exotic and different than Melissa, and there were a ton of other Melissas.”

When she moved to the Bay Area, Hordes met lots of people going by their Hebrew names.

Shira means song, and singing is a big part of how Hordes finds meaning in being Jewish.

Even though her family thought it was a bit silly at first, they recently changed their tune when her brother got engaged to a woman named Melissa.

“Now that I’ll have a sister-in-law Melissa, I told them they’d better start calling me Shira now,” she said.

SarahHope Smith, 39, of Berkeley went by her given name, Sarah, until she got to college and there were too many other Sarahs in her dorm to count. So she became Hope. But as years went by, the more she became involved in Judaism, the less Hope Smith suited her.

Active in Jewish Renewal circles, Smith had a rabbi facilitate a naming ritual in which she renamed herself SarahHope.

Though those in more religious circles would like to call her Sarah Tikvah, she won’t go that far, though confusion over her name is common, with people hearing “Sarah Ho, or “Sarah Huh?” or just calling her Sarah.

Elizheva Hurvich, 37, whose given name is Elizabeth, sometimes went by Elizheva in Hebrew school, and her father used it on special occasions.

But when she was living in Israel years ago, Hurvich began using the Hebrew name full time — as many Jews who make aliyah do. Upon returning home, the Oakland resident switched between the two until some co-workers finally told her, “Just choose — it’s too confusing.”

When Hurvich, the head of the religious school at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, met someone who had named her daughter Elisheva, she made up her mind for good. “I just love it so much more,” she said.

Hurvich spells her name with a ‘z,’ though, since she liked the ‘z’ in Elizabeth, and it makes a unique name even more so.

Many have a hard time with her name; some think “Eli” is her first name, and “Zheva” is her last. But when people can’t pronounce it or say “Huh?” the first time, she’ll often reply, “Elizheva, rhymes with whatevah.”

Jokes aside, the name is quite weighty. When asked about its meaning, Hurvich said she definitely believes in the theory that people’s names are a clue to their destiny. Her name means “God’s Oath.”

“People describe me as a spiritual person,” she said. “But when I’m particularly struggling with tradition, or just don’t want to take on the mantle of being a Jew, or don’t want to deal with the responsibilities, then sometimes I think, ‘My name is God’s oath. I have to fulfill something.’ I can’t just shrug it off, it’s a heavy name.”

Hurvich’s colleague at Kehilla, Shulamit Fairman, started going by Shulamit full time when she moved to the Bay Area over a year ago. Fairman, 32, applied for her job as cantorial soloist at Kehilla as Jessica Fairman, but arrived and took the job as Shulamit.

With its root coming from “shalem,” or wholeness, Fairman felt the time was right, since she was making a major transition in moving across the country.

Fairman previously lived in Boston and was a “freelance prayer leader, educator and ritual creatrix.” She had already been going by Shulamit in contained, Jewish Renewal circles, like retreats, but would always slip back into Jess in her “real” life.

She had two formative experiences, however, that made her want to take it on full time.

One happened the first time she chanted “Shir HaShirim” (“Song of Songs”), in which the name Shulamit appears, on Passover. When she chanted her own name, it was one of those “aha” moments, in that it became much more than the name in memory of her great-grandfather.

It is said that in being a love poem, “Shir HaShirim” is a metaphor for the relationship between the Jewish people and God.

Then, a few years ago, she was in conversation with Gershon Winkler, a rabbi in the Renewal movement. He told her that Shulamit “is the one who makes that which is strange, familiar.”

Fairman saw this image of herself standing on a bimah doing exactly that — making Judaism accessible for people. While she was considering a number of different paths at the time, taking the job at Kehilla would allow her “the opportunity to be a vessel for transmitting my love for Judaism.”

Having a difficult-to-pronounce name in non-Jewish circles also allows her to have a deeper connection with people.

“If people care enough to ask how to pronounce it and try it, it’s a wonderful opportunity to connect to someone,” she said. “A moment that could have passed in a flash is a moment to have deeper connection.”

Fairman’s family has gone from calling her “Jessie” to “Shuly” without too much trouble, but she doesn’t mind if they occasionally slip up.

While all but Cartun took names they were given at birth, Shefa Sharkey has undergone perhaps the most dramatic shift in terms of changing identities.

Sharkey, born Krista Ariens, changed the spelling to Christa when she was in seventh grade. Now a 34-year-old therapist living in Oakland, she chose her new name as part of her conversion to Judaism.

She’d tried a number of spiritual paths before coming to Judaism. Because she and her husband are active in the Renewal community, she did not feel the need to convert, and her husband did not pressure her.

But over time, “I really fell in love with Judaism and built a community around that,” she said. “I wanted to pick a tradition and really go deeper instead of surfing along. I wanted to really commit myself to a path.”

Sharkey converted in August of last year, and in her conversion class learned that choosing a Hebrew name is part of that process.

“As soon as I heard the meaning of Shefa, I had a very visceral reaction to it,” she said. “It means flow and abundance, but mystically, when it’s used in the Kabbalah, it’s the energy that comes down from the Divine into the world.”

At first, Sharkey thought she would just take Shefa as her Hebrew name. But then she thought about it more: The only time she had noticed that her name began with “Christ” was when she missed the last letter — “a” — on the keyboard. But the conversion class made her realize that to Jews her name was an immediate giveaway that she was not one of them.

The choice to go by Shefa all the time “became a question of deepening into my Judaism and taking on a beautiful spiritual name. It’s a big thing, to change your name,” she said. “So I sat with it for a year and a half.”

Once she decided, something happened that made it seem even more auspicious.

At the time she and her husband were planning to have a child, and “the idea came out of my entry into motherhood,” she said. “This idea of flowing and God’s divine energy are things I really want to embody as a mother.

“I got pregnant a week after I took this name. I don’t attribute that just to the name change, but it did usher in this phase of entering a new role in my life.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."