For years, I thought this was a no-brainer. When in Rome, pick a name like the Romans do… or something.
Apparently, I was dead wrong. It turns out there are a million reasons not to change your name when you make aliyah:
- it will confuse and perhaps anger your family and friends
- people will think you've become more religious (maybe "crazy religious")
- people will think you're turning your back on your old life
- you've built a career and reputation in your name
- you'll have legal problems using the new name
- you'll never adjust to being called something new
Interesting. Notice that these are the same reasons many people give to not make aliyah in the first place?
Since you're already taking that giant step – or thinking of taking it – it seems a much smaller leap to give yourself a shiny new handle. Especially one you've chosen yourself, that you'll love hearing every day and seeing on all your shiny new paperwork.
[By the way, the Hebrew words in the image above are “olah chadashah,” which means “new immigrant to Israel” in the feminine form.]
My grandparents’ “aliyah” to Canada
My grandparents were olim, of a sort. Well, they were immigrants. Same thing, right?
Separately, they found a way out of Poland, where they'd grown up as "Wolf" and "Chana Rivka." When they came to Canada, they morphed into "William" and "Rose." They named their kids Albert, Charles and Dorothy.
Can't get much more British than that, right? Because that's what immigrants do - they try, sometimes desperately, to fit in. (Canada was British in those days. It’s complicated.)
And what are olim, if not immigrants?
I guess I was fooled into thinking that by the somewhat antiquated term used here to describe the process of helping olim acclimatize to life in Israel: klitah, which means absorption.
I figured the best way to be absorbed is with a name that fits in: a name like Yosef or Meir or Avraham or Akiva if you're old-fashioned (or haredi), or something more avant-garde if you prefer.
Making a name for ourselves
Still, it wasn’t quite right for using every day. I wanted to choose a name that sounded beautiful to me: like butterflies fluttering, like deer pattering, like bamboo growing.
In case you're still in suspense, I picked Tzivia. And when I wrote it on the forms to change my name at aliyah, I added the two Hebrew names my parents gave me, giving me THREE names altogether. How fabulous! How lucky I felt; how wealthy!
My husband liked his actual Hebrew name enough to simply transfer it to the aliyah paperwork and that was that: Akiva Natan. It suits him very well, even if I have had trouble transitioning to actually using it.
(He's been terrific about using mine, though we both let it slip while we were in Canada recently.)
But as it turns out, we were in the minority.
Turns out that changing your name to make aliyah is a relic of the olden days. Crazy idealists like us do it... and almost nobody else.
The end of klitah?
In fact, the whole idea of klitah is somewhat of a relic today.
First of all, klitah flies in the face of the "multiculturalism" mantra of most modern democracies.
If your child arrives from Ethiopia with the name "Kalkidan," who are we to change it to "Rachel?" If your parents named you “Olga” or “Svetlana,” who says that has to become "Rut" or "Liora" now that you're in Israel?
(Especially if you're not Jewish, which is a whole other pickle.)
Second, today's olim are not uprooting themselves. Olim may never again face the isolation of previous generations - being separated from family and friends, sometimes forever. Sure, there were plane tickets in the 1970s and 1980s, but today we can phone, email, share photos. With Facebook (which I highly recommend), it's almost like being there.
And if you work online, you don't even have to uproot yourself from your livelihood. I've known olim - myself among them - who make aliyah and just keep right on working the way they always have. When you're working online, you could be in Slovakia or Japan or Indiana or Inuktitut and it really wouldn't matter.
All of which has made the idea of klitah obsolete.
Think about it. If you had to leave your family behind so totally, you'd want to fit in quicker, make new friends, have a name they could pronounce easily. You wouldn't hang on to the relics of your previous life.
("But - but - in Anatevka, I was a dairyman! Here, I could not possibly plant trees.")
Today's olim hang on for dear life to their old selves, including their old names. Many don't integrate well, either because they can't be bothered or because - simply put - they don't have to.
I'm not saying we should go back to the old days, and the harsh old ways of doing things. Who am I kidding? If you could go back in time and offer those old-timey olim the choice of staying in touch with family, friends and livelihood all while living in Israel, they wouldn't think twice.
But there's an optimism as well in the drive to change your name, to be absorbed. To accept the idea that you're a stranger, and to work hard to get ahead. Even Moshe Rabbeinu, the ultimate Jew, named his son Gershom as a reminder that he was a stranger in a strange new place.
The one good reason
There are so many reasons to keep your English name.
Israelis, by the way, love “international” names: names that could fit in anywhere on the globe. Increasingly, they’re giving them to their children as well. (More on contemporary Israeli baby-naming.)
So you could absolutely live your whole life in Israel as Bertha or Larissa or Clarence or Nelson – yes, these are not the best examples, but I’m trying to avoid using the names of anyone I actually know here. (All of whom I respect and adore!)
That means there's really only ONE reason why you might want to change your name to a Hebrew name:
By choosing (or using) a Hebrew name, you cast your destiny that much more fully in with that of the Jewish people here in Israel. You are taking the same concrete step that Ruth in the Tanach did: leaving your old life behind and walking arm in arm with the holy nation here in Israel.
I’ll leave that for you to think about. While I remain…