Monthly Archives: June 2016

What’s in a Name?: Ezra Wasserman Mitchell

After almost two decades of indecision, I today emerged from the New York City Civil Courthouse as Ezra Wasserman Mitchell.  For the two or three of you who are interested, I shall explain.

First, Mr. Shakespeare (or rather Juliet) was wrong, at least to a Jew.  But Shakespeare displayed all he knew about Judaism in The Merchant of Venice, so he’s unreliable to begin with.

There are many cultures in which names and naming are vitally important.  Judaism is one of them.  In fact naming is so bound up with Jewish theology that we understand that Ha’Shem created the world through words, through naming.  And Adam triumphed over the other creatures by naming them all.  Abraham and Sarah and Jacob, among others, were renamed. Kabbalistic mysticism is significantly about words and names.

The name one is given at birth is important.  Ideally it reflects much thought by your parents about who you are, or will be, or who’s memory you carry.  But birth doesn’t mean that much from a spiritual perspective.  In Judaism, we don’t treat birthdays as all that important.  The telling example is that we don’t remember our loved ones on their birthdays.  We remember them on the anniversaries of their deaths — their yahrzeits.  On the day of your birth, you are a mewling infant.  We have no idea who you are (no matter how aspirational our naming might be).  But on the day of your death, we know exactly who you are.  We know what you have accomplished.  We know your character.  We know the many missions you have fulfilled.  The way you have touched the lives of others, for better or for worse.  Moses Maimonides is a good example.  We don’t know his birthdate — there are at least several different candidates.  But we know to the minute when he died.  At birth, he was Moshe ben Maimon.  At death, he was RaMBaM.

So, in the course of one’s life, or at least mine, one may (or at least I did) find that your (my) birth-given name just doesn’t fit.  Fortunately, I could do something about it, if later than I would have liked.

My name doesn’t fit for several reasons.  Most basic — and least spiritual – is aesthetic.  I have known several fine Lawrences and Larrys in my life.  But I personally don’t like the way either name sounds.  The first is a bit difficult for me to pronounce clearly (it starts in a kind of mushy sonoric ambiguity), and it lacks musicality and a clear rhythm.  It is a supposedly strong name that, to my ear, sounds weak and flabby.  As to Larry — well, perhaps it’s enough to celebrate that I will never be called “La” again.

But there is more.  The name means nothing to me.  Now my Hebrew name — Eliezer Ezra ben Shlomo (or really the Yiddish-Hebrew Lazar Ezra ben Shlomo ) — does mean something to me.  Of Ezra Ha’Sofer — the prophet who returned the people to Jerusalem and the Torah to the people following the Babylonian exile — it is said that if Moses had not received the Torah from Ha’Shem, Ezra would have been qualified to have done so.  (Please remember that I said this was aspirational, not by any means reflective of anything I’ve achieved or am likely to.)  And I choose to use it rather than include the Eliezer because integrity would have demanded that I use the Yiddish Lazar and, while I like it better than “La,”  it lacks the easy gentle buzz of Ezra. Ezra, to me, is softly melodic, while at the same time quite strong.

But Yiddishists fear not.  I may have skipped out on Lazar (which remains part of my Hebrew name), but I have included Wasserman as part of my name.  (וואסערמאנ in Yiddish.) Whence the Wasserman?  Here I present myself as a Jewish Kunte Kinte.  You see, I have always been unhappy that my surname is anything but identifiably Jewish. (My dear friend and mentor describes it as “androgynous.”)  For all of my Cantor, Reisner, and Bernstein forebears, the name of my paternal line is distinctly English in character.  Now, unlike Lawrence, Mitchell does mean something to me.  It is the name of my father and my grandfather and his father before him.  My great-great grandfather chose the name (or perhaps it was chosen for him at some English Ellis Island) after emigrating from Poland to London, leaving the ur-name (or at least as “ur” as it gets for an Eastern European Jew) with his father and his past.  So I decided to retain it.

But it has always bothered me.  I have no idea why my great-great grandfather changed his name, nor even whether he did so voluntarily.  He seems to have been quite a good man.  Family lore has it that he was a Chasid.  Most impressive, he left England to fight in a New York regiment in the Civil War – and then returned home.  Why he did this I can only guess, but it at least suggests to me a man of conviction and principle. I make no judgment whatsoever about his name change.

But I don’t like it.  I’ve never liked the idea of changing one’s name (or anything else) to fit in.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t.  And I don’t want to, but my name achieves a bit of that purpose. And it at least superficially subjugates my very strong Jewish identity.  The translation “Waterman” means nothing at all to me.  But Wasserman is irrevocably, identifiably Jewish at first blush.  It ties me undeniably to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.

That is who I am.  It is who I always was.  It is who I always shall be.

So I have reached the point where I’m not worried about losing my scholarly or poetic reputations, at least after a couple of publications with the customary “formerly known as.”  And my son, who objected at 13, is now an enthusiastic supporter.

If not now, when?

I’m Ezra Wasserman Mitchell.  Happy to meet you.