A lot of converts and immigrants choose new names. Here’s my take on that whole experience.
I’ve confused an awful lot of people over the last three years. Am I Gedalyah or am I Joshua? Which name should people call me? Why did I choose to bring this conflict on myself?
I didn’t choose it. It was brought to me. I was born with two names: Joshua Joseph and Gedalyah Chaim. But the second was the all-too-commonly kept-secret Hebrew name, something my less observant, mixed parentage crowned me with. It seems to be more common among non-Orthodox Jews, but a lot of American kids get both an English name and a “Jewish name” that don’t match each other. As Joshua Joseph, I should be Yehoshua Yosef, so I’ve heard so many times. Families want to name after as many people as possible. Jews take advantage of the extra opportunities: my family managed to name me after a grandfather, grandmother and great grandmother. The name might be altogether random. But it rarely gets used, especially speaking about the less-affiliated. A bar mitzvah boy might hear it one last time when he’s 13. After that, it becomes trivia obscured in teenage oblivion.
Joshua or Gedalyah?
There’s so much philosophy on the subject of names: it defines who you are; it characterizes your epitome; it foretells your future. What do multiple names do? They make things unpredictable, thankfully. It would be difficult for some of us to live up to the standards our names might carry. Sometimes converts and new immigrants to Israel take the opportunity to rename themselves. For them it can mark the start of a completely new life. Their identities are changed. Their experiences will now be different. They will now be defined differently. It’s a cognitively dissonant line of thought. We are still the same books, just with new covers and writing new chapters in our lives.
But a lot of us want to escape in another name. It’s not a lost concept in Judaism, where some of the greatest Rabbis in history speak about “changing one’s name” in anticipation of Yom Kippur; that is to say in the figurative sense. We are making ourselves into completely new people. But for anyone who’s ever tried to break a habit or dealt with a personal weakness for years, the concept rightfully sounds self-delusional. Changing your name alone will not bring you a new personality or strength in life.
So I relish in the confusion I’ve wrought on my family and friends. In 2007, I finished my Orthodox conversion and deliberately chose the name Gedalyah Chaim – the same Jewish name given to me when I was born. I am both Gedalyah and Joshua. I am not a different person. I’ve just chosen to reshine some light on another label of mine. It doesn’t subtract Joshua from the equation. I have no delusions over who I am. It sounds very antithetical for the more spiritual Jews among us who enjoy this philosophy where a name defines one’s “essence,” in a manner of speaking. But I don’t think I’m arguing with that approach; we cannot confuse that idea with needing to at once be ourselves and simultaneously improve ourselves.
Joshua AND Gedalyah.
As a political person, that approach isn’t lost on me: Joshua and Gedalyah are extremely powerful labels. If I do embody either of these figures, it requires tremendous fortitude. One leader brought the Jewish people into their homeland with power and confidence. The other tried to salvage the wreckage when that original mission seemed obliterated. More often today I go by Gedalyah. I explained above why the name has gotten new attention the last few years, but I’ve let the idea that name carries some strength sink in as well. We all know Joshua’s story, but seldom do we mention the Gedalyahu of the Bible.
As chaos rained around him in the wake of Babylon’s destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, Gedalyahu became the imperial governor of the decimated country. But instead of being a lacky that suppressed the remaining Jews, he urged his countrymen to stay; to not flee to Egypt; to not forsake the unity of the people in the face of calamity. His policies didn’t realize their dream of rebuilding the country in his lifetime, but they assuredly showed audacity in the face of destruction. Ezra, Nehemiah and others to come decades later implemented his ideas. He essentially advocated for rising up when we all seemed to be falling down.
His name, sadly, isn’t used so often. Why? There is an idea that some names bring bad omens based on the fate of their more famous fore-bearers. Gedalyahu was assassinated by a Jew who couldn’t see him as anything other than a Babylonian stooge. That simplification led to harsh judgment and the final nail in the coffin for the ancient kingdom. Because of his murder, the name has seldom been used. The shortening of the name to Gedalyah reflects a superstitious belief the name invites a sad destiny. Some people change the Aramaic spelling of Akiva in order to avoid the supposed bad luck linked to his gruesome fate.
But these names carry other power. They carry other meaning. They are what we make of them and can be defined by the modern bearers. We all control our own destinies. It is in our capacity to change the world. Names don’t have to be omens of fear or make us think we are supernaturally lucky just because of our nametags. I recommend we let people call us by as many names as possible. It forces us to define ourselves on more eclectic terms. We are all more than just covers to be judged. We are entire books whose chapters are entirely in our hands to write.