"The Finding of Moses" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904.
"The Finding of Moses" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904.

Is there power in keeping your name the same?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 1:1-6:1

The Rabbi of Chelm read out from Exodus 1:1: “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.”

And he added this midrash from Vayikra Rabba: “Because of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak ill of each other, and none of them was sexually irresponsible.”

Student: What does that have to do with me asking you to call me by my new chosen name and pronouns?

Rabbi: Nothing. The pronouns are a bit of a challenge, but I’ll get there. And I will call you Ali, as you requested. I may slip up sometimes; after all, I named you.

Student: I know. But you did not know that I have struggled with my gender for as long as I can remember. Now I identify as nonbinary, meaning I don’t identify with being fully male or female. So how does the Israelites keeping their Hebrew names and language apply to me?

Rabbi: Because at your B’Mitzvah, you will be called to the bimah by a Hebrew name. I would like you to keep one. Just like the Israelites.

Student: You once explained that my Hebrew name, Tamar, is a date palm tree. It provides food, shelter and shows where there is water.

Rabbi: It’s also dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants.

Student: That’s so not me. And didn’t Tamar trick Judah into getting her pregnant to continue his family? Really not me!

Rabbi: How about Tam?

Student: The wheat crackers my grandparents like?

Rabbi: Those are Tam Tams. Just Tam.

Student: The simple child from the Passover seder?

Rabbi: A misunderstanding. “Tam” means sound, straightforward, lacking nothing. In the Haggadah, the wise child gets the rules, laws and customs. The Tam asks the essential question, “What is the meaning of this ritual?” To the Tam, we say: “With a strong hand the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” That is the essential answer.

Student: Tam. I like it.

Rabbi: You know, Chelm has a sister city: Berkeley, California. There, in that little town, is a great poet, translator and artist, Marcia Falk. She is known for her gender-inclusive and nonhierarchical translations of the Song of Songs, Jewish daily prayers, the Sabbath, and the new moon festival. I want to share with you her translation of Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky’s (1914-1984) poem, “Each of Us Has a Name”:

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Student: What’s Falk’s book with the translation called?

Rabbi: “The Spectacular Difference.”

Student: Maybe that’s me.

Rabbi: So very Tam.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].