Living the Dream
It was the summer of 2015 when the idea first crept into my consciousness as I spent the drawn-out, balmy evenings of July and August immersed in Israeli TV. As the giant lollipop-shaped blossoms of my hydrangea bushes neared full bloom in my suburban backyard, and with my middle school-aged daughters in tow, we started with the show Srugim (סרוגים). The series, which I found dazzlingly intelligent, centers around five 20-something Jewish (mainly observant) singles living in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem in search of love and belonging. Though some of the characters struggle to find their way, by their youth alone, their lives hold great promise, and the audience expects that they will find the love and fulfillment they are seeking. By the end of the show, they each do. After all, they had just begun their journeys as adults, and the world was there for them to conquer.
The fact that 8 years later, I now live in Katamon and am also seeking (and building) community, a sense of belonging, and, yes, as of a few months ago, love as well, is exciting and full of possibilities, for sure, but also presents a noticeable discordance with my memories of the Srugim saga. Let’s face it: I am a divorcee, a seasoned single mom to newly acclimating young adult kids (read: psychological tightrope skills required at all times), with the perfect arch supports that help me scale the Jerusalem hills, a wide-brimmed hat to protect my face from wrinkles, and a heart that has weathered a lifetime of storms and is surprisingly more fragile than it has ever been. So, in these ways, my life often feels like the antithesis of a ‘new journey’. Perhaps I am simply too old to be acting out a Netflix Srugim sequel? But, I digress…
For those of you who’ve seen the series, you might recall that in one of the later seasons, the character Reut, a strong, successful career woman, decides to change her name, believing the act itself might change her manifestation in love and life.
At that time in my life, I too was desperately looking to shake off my past and shape a different future for myself. Three years earlier, our family had suffered a terrible divorce, the ramifications of which were still haunting us, and at that particular juncture, I was recuperating from my second consecutive relationship heartbreak in two years. This time, it was with a fledgling widower from Boston, Massachusetts, with four kids. Our first date at Starbucks, where we bonded instantly, led to many more filled with passion and profound dialogue.
However, after an intense six months, he left, saying he felt smothered and needed to find himself. Our final phone conversation ended with each of us calling out how deeply we loved each other as if at an auction jostling to secure the winning bid. His email a week later seemed to begrudge the possibility that I might have needed his love as much as he had needed mine and blame me for poor timing. I accepted his verdict until a friend pointed out that perhaps it was his debut Jdate profile that took the cake for poor timing, posted during the Shloshim (שלושים).
As I swore off ever again falling prey to a middle-aged man’s short-term fantasy, I dated an affable, tenured professor of medieval Jewish history, then later a sweet Canadian assistant district attorney. Still, my love for the widower remained stubborn. Thankfully, Srugim proved the perfect distraction, and, alas, my as-of-yet nascent quest for a name change had taken hold.
As many of you may know, in Judaism, your Jewish—or Hebrew—name, generally chosen by your parents at birth or shortly after, has great significance and symbolism. Ideally, your name defines you, either describing your personality or, in some cases, foreshadowing or influencing your life’s potential. Kabbalists believe there is a spiritual tie between one’s given name and one’s נשמה (soul).
And changing one’s name to create a shift in destiny is no stranger to Judaism. When someone is critically ill, additional names like חיים (Chaim) or חַיָּה (Chaya), meaning “life,” are sometimes added in the hopes of a recovery. The first recorded story of a name change that led to an incredible change of destiny dates back to Abraham and Sarah in the book of בראשית (Genesis).
My mother always told me that she picked my Hebrew name, Yehudit Devorah, as a way to imbue me with the bold strength of two biblical heroines—Judith and Deborah. Growing up (and even now), I never felt inherently bold or strong. Ironically, though, throughout my life, people who know me would likely say otherwise. Maybe my parents were onto something all along.
As the summer unfolded into fall, I thought more urgently about shedding Yehudit Devorah for something brand new. However, when I discussed the idea with my rabbi, he quickly deflated my idea of a fantasy makeover, explaining that in Judaism we don’t close the door on our original name, but rather build on from there; a name change is discouraged unless a person is truly different than before.
I assured him I was different, but as I elaborated, I started to cry. How could I possibly explain how often in my life I had already remade myself: navigating the jagged emotional landscape of my childhood, forging a new life for myself on the East Coast after college, surviving a traumatic divorce, and finally, seeking love in middle age?
When my rabbi asked me which name I had in mind, I offered the few ideas I had. He listened carefully, pausing for a few minutes seemingly lost in thought, and offered the name Tova (טובה), the feminine form of the Hebrew word “Tov,” meaning “good”. He then suggested I receive my new name at שחרית (the morning prayer service) on a Monday or Thursday when the Torah is read, ideally on or around my Jewish calendar birthday. It just so happened that my English birthday was coming up, with my Hebrew birthday falling exactly one week later, on a Monday. Everything was lining up providentially.
On the eve of my English birthday, the widower texted me “Happy Birthday,” praying this year would be one of deepest fulfillment for me. I wrote back, thanking him and adding, with a clever delivery, that I thought he was still in love with me. He offered a quick retort: “Of course I still love you, that was never the issue.” The old me, Yehudit Devorah, wanted to write back tenderly without pretense: “At our age, what else is there?” But instead, I fired off a cool, cocky response, which marked the last time I communicated with him.
During the week straddling my English and Hebrew birthdays, I grew deeply comforted by my rabbi’s choice of Tova. I was the only woman at shul that Monday morning, watching in between my tefilot as the men filed in and donned their תפילין (tefillin). My rabbi slipped me a pen and paper across the מחיצה to write down my children’s Hebrew names. After the Torah reading, the rabbi recited the משברך (a blessing for those in need of divine intervention) for my daughters. As is customary for prayers like this, one invokes the person’s name, followed by “daughter of” or “son of’” the mother’s Hebrew name. In this case, the rabbi used my new Hebrew name, Yehudit Devorah Tova, ushering me into my new identity.
It has been around 7 years since I became Yehudit Devorah Tova. As I had prayed daily since childhood, invoking Yehudit Devorah had become second nature to me, almost like a reflex. So, in the beginning, when praying, I had to focus with great deliberation on including “Tova.” Nowadays, I still find myself slowing down a bit while praying as having a Hebrew name with 8 syllables is quite a mouthful. Either way, the focus on “Tova” is still there. Quite remarkably, this has dovetailed with some of the truly arduous spiritual work I’ve labored—to accept myself as I am and to believe I am good enough. In the process of trying to become someone else, I’ve learned to honor and validate the person I’ve always been.
As my journey continues, I, Yehudit Devorah Tova, offer up a blessing: that we should all come to know ourselves and each other L’Tova, for the good! At a time in history when Israel and many other societies around the world are so highly polarized, and as we enter the three weeks leading into Tisha B’Av, this is no ordinary blessing. If we can just pause to remember that every human is made בצלם אלוקים—from the same divine spark—then we have to confront the reality that we all have much more in common than what divides us!
:מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
וַאֲנִי בְּרב חַסְדְּךָ אָבא בֵיתֶךָ אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל הֵיכַל קָדְשְׁךָ בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ