Aliyah Journal Part III – What’s in a Name?

I’ve discovered that the best way to discourage someone from making Aliyah is to have them start the process. This is not an effort for the faint of heart in normal times, during Covid, nerves of steel are required. Israeli law guarantees every Jew the right to emigrate and become a citizen, it does not assure anyone an easy transition. Deciding to move and leave behind friends and family might very well be the easiest part of the process. 

My most interesting entanglement with Israeli bureaucracy thus far has to do with my name. Every document I have in my possession; passport, driver’s license, social security card, marriage certificate, tax returns etc… list me as Joel Moskowitz (I go by Yoel and friends call me Yo) with one exception, my birth certificate. For the Startup Nation, this is the cause of all sorts of confusion, even their superior technology can’t seem to resolve it or to figure out a simple solution. I’m guessing I’m not the first Jew to have been given a name that doesn’t jive with all the legal documents required in the modern world nor am I the only one with this dilemma. I suppose I am not the first oleh with this situation. My birth name as written on my birth certificate is Shlomo Jacob Joel Moskowitz. This in and of itself is strange to me because my three older siblings did not have any of their names Anglicized on their legal documents. Thus my brother Avi’s birth name is Avraham Chaim, not Abraham Charles, why Yaacov and Yoel became Jacob and Joel no one including my father remembers (my mom, unfortunately, passed away 42 years ago). And seriously, why didn’t they write Shlomo as Solomon if they were already Anglicizing Yaacov and Yoel? 

Names have meaning and I believe that one reason I have three is because my parents figured there wouldn’t be anymore kids after me so they might as well give me all they had left (I am named after 3 different people). In my family this is not unheard of, my mom’s brother, the youngest of three, was given the name Avraham Shmuel Mordechai Dov Ber at his bris (try saying that three times fast), everyone calls him Motelle. It’s a good thing for him my grandparents didn’t have any more male names on their list or maybe they did but decided to show a little rachmanus. Yoel was my father’s uncle who perished in the Holocaust, he had no children and that’s why I am called by that name out of the three given to me. The order of my names I have been told, is because it rolls off the tongue easier than the other combinations, not due to any preference. There was talk of calling me by the Hebrew acronym of all three names, either Yishai or Shai, but it never gained any traction. 

I would think that the modern vs Hebrew name disparity thing might be generational, it’s not. With my kids it’s a tossup, our youngest was given the name Noa both legally and Jewishly. Since my mom died young there are now four granddaughters named for her. Two are named Sara, one Sari and my daughter is Samantha (mom’s name was Chaya Sara [Hebrew] Sarah [English]). When my Mom was growing up in Detroit my grandparents called her Sureleh or Suri, her friends gave her an English derivative of that and called her Sue. Sue stuck. Growing up I only heard her referred to as Sue, I gave Samantha, Sue as a middle name. 

I have a cousin about ten years older than me who had the opposite situation. At his bris, he was named Chanina but his parents put Harley on his birth certificate (no, neither my aunt or uncle were bikers as far as I know), for some reason we called him Butchie. He hated both and the first chance he got legally changed his name to Chanina. One of my brothers didn’t have to legally change his name from Mitch to Meshulam, but he did tell people at some point that he no longer wanted to go by Mitch and would only answer to the Hebrew name given him at birth. 

This Hebrew/English name split is actually convenient if you want to name your child after someone but don’t want to give your child a name you don’t like. My first grandson was given the name Chaim Eliezer at his bris, his birth certificate though says Henry James and we call him Hank. Giving your child the Hebrew name but naming him something else you prefer in English is a way to honor the deceased loved one and respect tradition without having to use a name no longer popular or in much use. My paternal grandmother’s name was Sheindel Alta, both names are Yiddish. When it came time to name two great grandchildren after her, my father suggested translating Shaindel into Naava for obvious reasons. 


Yiddish names have survived though, especially in the Haredi world. It makes me wonder then why certain names are no longer in use, especially Aramaic ones. One of the famous rabbis mentioned in the Talmud is Rabbi Ishamael. Ishmael of course was Abraham’s son from Hagar his concubine and considered the father of the Arab/Muslim nations. I never met a Jew named Ishmael. Some Talmudic names are used a lot in modern times; Akiva, Meir, Hillel and Shammai for example. Others are rarely if ever used. How many Rava’s, Abaye’s, Chisda’s, Pupa’s or Choni’s do you know? What about Reish Lakish? Biblical names seem to persevere, even non-ubiquitous ones but others seem to survive only in the good book, know any Chabakuk’s or Shlumiel’s? 


Family names are not immune to these changes whether Anglicizing or Hebraicizing. Six Israeli prime ministers that I know of were born with European family names but served their country with new, Hebraicized ones; Ben Gurion was Grun, Sharret-Shertok, Rabin-Rubnitzov, Peres-Persky, Shamir-Yezirnitsky and Sharon-Schneidermann. My father arrived in the USA as Moscovici (Rumanian pronunciation is Muskovich) but that somehow became Moskowitz. My brother made Aliyah forty years ago and changed Moskowitz into Ben-Meir, my father’s name is Mayer. I do not plan on changing my last name at this late stage of my life even upon my Aliyah but I would have had I moved when I was younger. I am reminded of congressman Kweisi Mfume who was born Frizzel Gerald Gray. Asked once why he changed his name, he said (I am paraphrasing) that he shed his slave name and chose an African name closer to his historic roots. With our history full of persecution, I empathize with the congressman’s sentiment and consider Moskowitz as much a slave name as congressman Mfume considers Gray. 

In today’s borderless world and with our preference for political correctness, names that once would have gotten an English makeover, don’t. I was recently employed by an Internet company that has a diverse workforce. At work, Waled wasn’t Wally, Isada wasn’t Isaac and Vishal wasn’t Victor, no one gave it a second thought. They actually have a line on their HR documents asking how you want to be called, I wrote Yo, they added it to my business cards. 

Because all my original personal documents were first issued in the pre 9/11 world, I’m guessing it was easy for my parents or I to drop Shlomo and Jacob when applying for my passport or social security card. It certainly saved me the humiliation of having some random receptionist in a busy medical office calling out “Shlomo, Shlomo, Shlomo” and it taking me a few minutes to realize it’s me they’re looking for. As of this posting I still don’t know if the State of Israel will reconcile the dropping of my first two given names from all of my non birth certificate documents and approve either Shlomo Jacob Joel Moskowitz or Joel Moskowitz’ Aliyah. I have no intention or ability to change one or the other set of documents at this stage in my life, but if anyone from the Israeli bureaucracy is reading this, we’re the same person.   

About the Author
Joel Moskowitz is a businessman and writer who lives in New York City but not for much longer. He and his wife are almost done with the Aliyah process and are moving to Israel where they plan to live permanently.
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