Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Legally Varda (Judean Rose)

On Monday I legally became Varda. It had always been my “Jewish name,” but like many other American Jews at that time, I had two names. There was my regular name, “Barbara Jean” and my Hebrew name “Varda Yonina.” My parents gave me both names, with “Varda” reserved for use by my Hebrew school teachers, and “Varda Yonina” reserved for when my dad got really mad at me, “Varda Yonina, you apologize to your sister this minute.”

I didn’t like my Hebrew name. Probably because of the sibling—ahem—who called me “Farta” to make me cry. But when I came to Israel, it made good sense to use “Varda” and slowly I grew into it. “Varda” now felt more like me than “Barbara,” which had begun to sound foreign to my ears.

I wasn’t about to change my name legally. At the time I made Aliyah, there was no need. For most purposes, doctor appointments and so forth, I could give my usual, Hebrew name, “Varda.” It was only when I needed to do something like sign a contract that I needed my legal name, “Barbara Jean.”

At some point however, all the computers talked to each other and suddenly I was “Barbara” everywhere. At the doctor’s office, at the bank, all over the place. The secretary in my doctor’s office, who had known me as Varda for decades, looked quizzical when she called me in for my appointment, “Barbara?”

It was the same with my friendly neighborhood pharmacist, who gave a start when he saw “Barbara” on my HMO card, and then proceeded to tease me mercilessly for about ten minutes, saying things like, “What Jewish parent names their kid ‘Barbara?’”

Um, that would be my parents. But in truth, it was no different with my friends’ parents. My friends and I all had double names—the “regular” name and the one we used in Hebrew school three times a week. For that hour, my friend Merle, for example, morphed into someone named Masha Freydl who sounded like someone who’d come to class directly from the shtetl in a shawl and babushka. Even though like the rest of us girls, Merle was wearing Landlubber straight-legged jeans.

It always gave me a start, a moment of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly your friends aren’t Bob and Susan, but Baruch and Sheindl. Even my own name, “Varda,” felt wrong to me in Hebrew class, because everywhere else I was “Barbara.”

When I got to Israel, the shoe was suddenly on the other foot, and “Barbara” just didn’t feel right, anymore. It got annoying to be called that. First of all, “Barbara” sounds terrible in an Israeli accent—something like a stuttering rat drowning in its own fluids: “Bahrrrrrrrrrr Bahrrrrrrrrrrrr Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrra.”

Then there was the matter of the spelling of my then-legal middle name, “Jean.” Once, after having a baby, my name got added to mailing lists of parenting magazines and baby stores throughout the country. For three years I received mail addressed in Hebrew, to “Barbara Goan.” 

On my identity card and just about everywhere else, however, “Jean” was misspelled and mispronounced as “Jane.” There was no reason for this—I had spelled my name correctly with Hebrew letters when I first made Aliyah. It was a random clerk who had bungled the spelling—causing me mild irritation whenever I had to deal with legalese and bureaucracy.

More than once over the years, I had thought about changing my name legally, so as to be done with “Barbara Jean” for good. But it seemed like too much of a hassle. I’d have to change it everywhere. At the bank, on my credit cards, with my HMO, on my American passport.

But more and more, as time went on, the name issue bugged me. My real name, no matter what it says on my birth certificate, is Varda, because that is what my father named me in shul. Like Ben Cohen, (Ha!) I’m a Jew. Case closed. 

My friend’s brother would in fact call “Barbara” my “slave name.” Its derivation is Greek and means “foreign,” “strange,” or “barbarian.” That is not a history I want to call my own. Nor is it—it rightfully belongs to others. 

Jewish names, on the other hand, tell the story of thousands of years of Jewish journeying in the Diaspora. No doubt my friend Merle/Masha Freydl was named for an ancestor who lived in an Eastern European shtetl. I myself was named after my great grandmother Raizel from Boguslav in the Ukraine, but my mother had an aversion to Yiddish and wanted something more modern, so the rabbi suggested “Varda,” which means the same thing—“Rose.” I guess he figured that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. My mother agreed. 

Jewish name stories intrigue, my own included. The differences in regional pronunciations tell us much about the individual’s personal family history. The names Ziskind and Susskind, for example, are really one and the same name with the same meaning, it's just that their owners lived in different parts of Europe. The name “Barbara” hints at my Western upbringing, a Jew who stopped in Pittsburgh on the way home to Israel.

But how long did I need to hold onto a name that, as a Jew, was never really rightfully mine? I was American by birth, but no longer in my everyday life. I had lost touch with the culture. Now, only my Hebrew name felt right. And yet, I continued to procrastinate about changing my name legally. Wouldn’t it be a kind of slap in my late parents’ faces? Is it not the parents’ right to name their children, and ours to bear the sometimes negative consequences of their choices?

I wrestled with the decision to change my name. I really didn’t want to be disrespectful to my late parents, but by now, I really, really hated being legally Barbara. The worst moment was waking up after foot surgery and hearing someone say, “Bahrrrrrrrrrrrrrr Bahrrrrrrrrrrrr Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrra, how do you feel? Would you like some pain medication?”

The thing is, when you’ve put your life in someone’s hands, you don’t want them calling you by a name that no longer feels like you. You want to hear YOUR name from their mouths, not that strange, stuttering guttural that actually NEVER felt like you. This, finally, was what made me take steps to make “Varda” my legal name.

The process of changing my name legally turned out to be straightforward. A clerk at our local National Insurance office told me what to do and even made the appointment for me for the following week. At the Ministry of Interior, they checked my name off a list, and gave me a number. I waited maybe 10 minutes for my turn. The nice clerk (not Jewish, by the way) explained everything, making sure I understood her Hebrew, and offering to speak to me in English, which I politely declined as unnecessary. She wondered aloud why, in 44 years, I had never bothered to change it.

I should have. I really should have. I told her so.

When we completed the process, the clerk handed me papers certifying the name change, smiled, and said, “Mazal tov, Varda!”

Forgive me for getting all emo on you, but the truth is, on the way out of the Interior Ministry office, I felt elated. It was really, truly exciting to at last be legally Varda—to have shed that ghetto name “Barbara,” forever. Deep down, I knew that that nothing had really changed—“Varda” had been my real name all along, still is. But I have to confess that it sure felt good to see it in print,ורדה , all stamped and official-like on an official Hebrew document, with the imprimatur of the one and only Jewish State of Israel. 

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