Last Shabbat, I completed a process that started a year ago on Yom Kippur. I changed my Hebrew name. A Hebrew name is normally given to a Jewish person, who lives in the diaspora, who will be known by most people, by a name that is more common for where they live. In Israel, and in Orthodox communities around the world, folks generally don’t have two names, but they often will have a Hebrew name and a nickname.
My parents were not practicing nor even remotely engaged with their Judaism at the time of my birth. They may not have even known about the tradition of Hebrew name giving since their childhoods were both not religious ones. Consequently, I was not given a Hebrew name.
When I first got involved with Judaism, in my 18th year of life, my Chai year I was given a name by my dear friend Kendra. The Hebrew word for life is Chai (pronounced like the word “Hi,” but with a guttural ch sound). In Hebrew all letters have a numeric value/meaning as well as their sound and spoken meaning. Chai equals 18, my conscious Jewish life began then. Because every word is also a number, or a series of numbers. or a math equation, depending on how you want to look at it, there are folks who read the Torah as they would a complex calculus equation.
Kendra and I met at my high school graduation party, when some of the kids from the “other” high school showed up at my party. She and I pretty much fell in love, but neither of us was gay, so we fell into a profound friendship. I believe we are all on a continuum where our sexual feelings occur, some folks gravitate firmly towards one end of the spectrum. They are “H” heterosexual or homosexual, but some folks really are all over the spectrum. This is also true for gender identity, which is a separate thing from sexual identity.
As I write and meander down one stream about one thing, other rivulets of thought come through. Everything is connected to something else and linkages are always occurring that press themselves forward and insist that I share them.
Kendra and I became friends and were inseparable. She brought me into relationship with my Judaism and took me to my first Shabbat in Boulder, Colorado. I found home in the sounds of Hebrew, in the songs of my people and in their practices. This home wasn’t one I knew I’d been gone from, but the homecoming for me was tidal in proportion. All my searching and seeking for spiritual relationship prior to this time was done outside of Judaism. After connecting with Kendra, who I still call “my Jewish angel,” I was Jewishly “all in.”
I realized that a Hebrew name was necessary. It was used for all kinds of things in our practices and I didn’t have one. I asked my parents if they had given me one that I didn’t know of, but they hadn’t and had no ideas or engagement with this practice. My name for them was exactly as they wished it. Nicole Andrée Barchilon. The Andrée part of my name was from my sister Paula Andree’s name. Since, she had died right before I was born (See More than One), giving me her name, or part of it, was a way of honoring and remembering her. My younger brother was subsequently named Paul. What’s interesting here is that even though my parents weren’t practicing Jews, they did a very Jewish thing. Naming their children after a relative who has crossed over.
They did not give any of their three children Hebrew names. So, I needed a Hebrew name and Kendra said she would meditate on it and find one for me. I cannot remember how long it took her, but it wasn’t an instant thing. She is a deeply spiritual woman and I trusted her process. She came to me with delight and joy in her heart and told me she had found my name. It was Shoshana Adama Cohen. Shoshana means wild rose, Adama is from the Hebrew word Adam, which is the first human’s name.
Every Hebrew word is linked by its root. Hebrew words come in root pairs of two or three letters that form their core structure. Any words that share roots, share meaning or are connected, even if the words have wildly different meanings. If they share a root, they are linked and it is our job to look at that, also if they share a numeric value.
The word Adam in Hebrew is a mother-lode of meaning: Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav writers: “It is for this reason that man was called Adam: He is formed of adama, the dust of the physical, yet he can ascend above the material world through the use of his imagination and reach the level of prophecy.” The Hebrew word “I will imagine” is adameh, same consonants, same root, different vowels.
Because Hebrew is a consonantal language, the vowels are moveable and by switching them up, you change the meanings of the words. There are NO vowels in the written Torah, only strings of root pairs/consonants. So, you really can change things dramatically by the vowels. We know what the words are because the Torah is an oral tradition and has been passed down across time, it is an ancient thrumming song, the song of my people.
For Rebbe Nachman, the movement (within the same root structure) from adama to adameh is very significant. Adamah is ground or earth, and it can also be read as adameh, “I will imagine.” Since the vowels are not part of the root pairings, it is the consonants that create the word and you can play with all the vowels.
Also, part of the word Adam is the Hebrew word Dam, which is the word for blood. So, Adam, the first being, who was the complete spectrum, male and female in one body (study your Torah folks!), was not the first MAN. Adam was the first joined being who was made of earth, blood and imagination. We are all ancestors of the first beings made of earth, blood and imagination. And the first task of the Adam was to NAME all of the creation.
All this explanation to say that my middle Hebrew name, Adama means a lot to me. The third part of my name Cohen (is actually my paternal grandfather Jaime/Chaim Cohen’s last name). I am a Cohen. In the Jewish tradition, this has weight, and the name links me to the tribe of the Kohanim (the priestly tribe). This also connects me back through history and time to my ancestors Moses/Moshe and his wife Zipporah. When my father came to this country, after escaping Nazi-occupied Morocco and joining the Free French Forces in WWII, he chose to take his mother’s maiden name, Barchilon, as his last name. (See It’s a Small World posting for more details on this).
My Kendra-given Hebrew name of Shoshana Adama Cohen has worked for the last 32 years. It is a beloved name. When you pray for someone, or they are called up to the Torah, you say their name and the names of their mother and father. When someone is sick, we pray in the name of their mother, when they have died, we switch to calling them by the name of their father. When someone has done Teshuvah/Return/Repented and made amends for a wrongdoing, they can change their name to indicate that they are no longer the person who made that mistake.
In the Reform and Renewal movements, we include both mother’s and father’s name for all things. I still mostly pray for people when they are sick, in the name of their mother and if I don’t know their mother’s name, if they are Jewish, I say their name and then bat (daughter) or ben (son) of Sarah (the wife of Abraham). If they are not Jewish, I say bat or ben Chavah (Eve, the more specifically female part of the Adam spectrum).
So, why am I changing my name? I’m not eliminating any of it, but I am adding onto it. As I move into the next phase of my life, I want a name that fits the next phase of who I am becoming. I want to create that space to flow into. I also am changing in lots of ways and feel like a different person. I want to shed the old dried skin parts of who I have been and embrace the self that is now emerging fully. And, last year at Yom Kippur, my rabbi Naomi Steinberg, encouraged us to think about choosing and taking on a Torah name. I had never thought about doing this, but once she planted the seed, I started dreaming and thinking about it.
My meditation brought me to the name Miriam.
Miriam, as Moses’ sister, could have been my great, great, great……great Aunt. I claim her as family and mentor. Miriam was a prophetess, a leader of her tribe. She was the one who encouraged and nudged her brother Moses to take his place and do the job he needed to do. She was a community activist and agitator. She was fierce and strong. She led the women in prayer and song and dance. She was responsible for water flowing from the desert to the people. As long as she lived, the wandering Jewish tribes had access to water. When she died, there was no more magical spring that bubbled up at her command. Moses, confronted by the thirsty and complaining throngs, in the midst of his grieving, gets water for the people, but he does so the wrong way, causing him to not be able to enter the “promised land.”
The wrong way is the violent way, the hitting the earth and rock way, versus the Miriam way of calling up the water from the underground spring, of singing to and with the earth. Miriam has always been my hero. She’s an older sister, she’s not shy or afraid. She knows what to do and how to do it. My Alpha, Alpha female self really relates to all the stories of her, and I’m a writ large bold kinda gal, so connecting with her for the next part of my life feels really right.
So, before I changed my name, I wanted to call or find Kendra, who I haven’t spoken to in many years. I found a phone number for her and she picked up the phone. We both broke into tears and started apologizing to each other for how long it had been. Then I said, let’s not apologize anymore, we obviously love each other, are connected forever. So, we left apologies behind and talked for a long time.
What is really funny, is that Kendra is in the process of changing her name! We really are twins on some level. I found this to be powerful and significant. She is moving into her new name and I am moving into mine. I had a little ceremony at Temple Beth El, where I am a Lay Leader. It was very sweet and felt so good.
I will now be known, among the tribes of Israel when I am called to the Torah or for prayers of healing, as:
Miriam Shoshanah Adamah Cohen bat Channah v’Jacob
For the English spelling, I added the letter “H” to both Shoshana and Adama a few years ago. This was because in the Hebrew they end in the letter “Hey” which is one of the letters in the four letter Macro/Super/Ultimate name of the Divine.
When Avraham and Sarah became Jews, they changed and the Holy One changed their names from Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah.
The Hey letter was put into their names connecting them with the Divine. It’s a big long name, my new name. I only need folks to call me that when they call me up to the Torah, or if they are praying for my well-being. I’m still happy here in the Nicole Zone. A new name is very exciting and I’m super excited for it. One last teaching on Hebrew and why it is so powerful for me. This passage by Marcia Falk is excerpted from The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival (Harper, 1996; Beacon, 1999). Copyright © 1996 by Marcia Lee Falk.”The Book of Blessings by Marcia Falk http://www.marciafalk.com/index.html:
“There is for me a plumbline that drops from the center of my being down to the beginning of my history. At one end, álef, at the other, taf. If human language is, in large measure, what gives us our humanity—allowing me to communicate with you, distinguishing us from other parts of creation—then Hebrew is sign and symbol of my particular human identity, giving me my home as a Jew. Although my first language is English, I cannot imagine myself without the millennia-old language of my people. When I was fifteen, visiting Israel for the first time, an Israeli asked me what was my “mother tongue,” my s’fat eym. English, I replied is my s’fat eym, but Hebrew is my s’fat dam—the language of my blood.”~ Marcia Falk
My s’fat dam is also Hebrew, everything about it calls to me and moves me and even writing these words makes a river of tears flow out of me. I have a BLOOD relationship to it, it runs through my very being. As I go into silence and stillness—my Jubilee retreat is only a few months away now, HEBREW is calling to me.
I want to swirl and sing and dance in it, alone, just me and my s’fat dam. I will be diving into the waters of Hebrew while I am away, working hard to move this language from the underground wellsprings in my being, up into my frontal lobe and language and reasoning centers. I want to read it fluently, I want to be able to look at the Torah or the Talmud and not just have aha moments, but have a continuous flow of delight, questioning and dialogue. As Miriam, I will be able to do that more. I can feel her presence supporting me on this journey and I hear her timbrel calling me to the dance.
Tohu Vavohu by Marjorie Feldman