Sunday, January 5, 2014

So Called

I’ve always hated my Hebrew name.  

Four ugly syllables long, arcanely Biblical, lending itself to an even uglier nickname—feh!—who needed it.

“It’s too ungepatchket,” I kvetched to my parents, using the only Yiddish word I knew, at five years of age.

Ungepatchket means “overly over the top” and I had just heard my mother employ this description after visiting the home of a wealthy woman near us in Queens, NY.

The whole family rallied to my Hebrew name’s defense.

“Look,” said my Pop Pop, when he came home from synagogue one snowy afternoon for Sabbath lunch at our house. “You were mentioned in the Torah portion today.”

Yeah, like that was me. Even at five, I wasn’t buying it.

And then, that September, I was enrolled in first grade at the Yeshiva of Central Queens.

Miss Fuchs, my Hebrew teacher came up to what would now be my pupik, and wore what they used to call Coke-Bottle glasses.
She held the roll book up to her distorted eyes, blocking her entire face.

But I heard her.

And I didn’t answer.

She called my Hebrew name again. And again.

And then something clicked.

“That’s not my name,” I called out in my best this is my very first real day of school in my entire life and I am going to challenge the teacher even if she is short of stature and basically blind, voice.

“My Hebrew name is Chana.” I gave (clever, eh?) my middle name, safely used already, by three or four girls.

“Oy,” said Miss Fuchs, sweetly. “Chana. Tov me’od, very good, Chana.”

And I was Chana—un-over the top, unvarnished, un-ungepatchket Chana for two months.

Until Parent-Teacher’s night.

I knew.

I was hiding under the piano when my parents got back, knew.

“Lisa.” (Not my Hebrew name.)

“Lisa.” (I crawled out from under the piano.)

“Lisa.” (I sat to face them in our living room, my feet sticking out and almost touching the big brass-topped coffee table from Israel.)

“You have a beautiful Hebrew name,” my mother said.

“We really love it,” my usually more formal father said.

“And it’s your name and we want you to use it,” they both said.

Of course I didn’t want to go to school the next day, and, as my mother pulled on my blue tights, dressing me while I lay like a princess in bed (she did the same for my younger sister, and I, of course, do the same for little Charlie Re (who LOVES BOTH her English AND Yiddish names, Mom and Dad!)) I realized I had no plan.

And of course, back then, before the age of self-esteem and sensitivity training, my miniscule Miss Fuchs started class by glaring at me, in Coke-bottle quadruplicate.

“You are NOT Chana!” she thundered tiny-ly.

And of course, back before the age of non-bully-training and pride of individuality, the entire class turned around, to look at me.

And so, as I remember this, forty-four years later, like yesterday, I realize that my parents were right.

They chose a name that they thought was beautiful, that they really loved—and from the Bible, yet!

And I realize that the old Hebrew adage “Kishmo Keyn Hu,” As his name is, so is he— she, in this case—has come to pass.

I am overly over the top. I am ungepatchket.

I am Elisheva.