What’s In My Name

My Jewish ancestors teach that a good name is an inheritance. My name is Janine Julia Yenta Yedidah Jankovitz. Before I was born it was decided that I was to be named after my deceased, paternal grandmother Julia, and since my father’s initials are “JJJ”, it was also decided that my initials were to be “JJJ” as well. While looking in a name dictionary under “J”, my mother found the name “Janine”. She and my father argued about which would come first, “Janine” or “Julia”. My mother settled the argument once and for all when she explained that  if my name was to be “Julia Janine” my future classmates would surely call me “Ju” for short and when sounded out, “Ju” sounds a whole lot similar to “Jew” and did my father, a child of Holocaust survivors, really want people to call his daughter “Jew”? This was how my beloved, albeit paranoid, mother saved me from a life of adolescent torture. That, or she was tired of Annie Hall jokes.

Now, Grandma Julia’s name was originally “Yenta”; she only became “Julia” when the family immigrated to America in 1960. So when I was born, my parents also gave me the name “Yenta” as my Hebrew name (even though it’s really Yiddish, but America Jews don’t really know better). However, on the cusp of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, my parents decided there was “absolutely no way” that I was to be called up to Torah in front of the entire Jewish community as “Yenta”. “Yenta” was a name associated with old women, kind of like “Beatrice”. Somewhere along the way in Yiddish culture “Yenta” also become synonymous with “gossiper” and being called up to Torah in the 20 century as “gossiper” was just not going to fly.  My parents decided, at random, that I was now to be called to Torah as “Yochana”. No one cared to ask the girl who was being called to Torah in the first place, but if they had asked me I would have explained that I was proud of my Yiddish roots and wished to remain “Yenta”. No one ever consults the little guy.

“Yochana” has never felt authentic to me, not the way “Yenta” has, but when I explain to others that my name really is “Yenta”, people giggle. Who cares, right? Well, take it from me, in the spiritually awesome moment when you are standing in front of the congregation about to read Holy Scripture, it’s annoying to have the congregation giggle at the mention of your name.

This whole megillah with my Hebrew name wouldn’t really have mattered past my Bat Mitzvah if I was not active in the Jewish community. However, I am both professionally and personally entrenched in the Jewish world. Three years ago, I decided it was time for a new name. This time I was going to assert my adulthood and choose a fitting name for myself. I chose “Yochevet”, after Moses’ mother. Moses is my favorite Torah action hero, and “Yochevet” went nicely with the alliteration: Janine Julia Yenta Yochevet Jankovitz. When I announced to my family at the kitchen table about my plan, my father replied with little interest, and said, “do what you want.” (Thanks Dad). My sister, Selena, looked at him in horror and then exclaimed, “But I’m Yochevet!” My father turned to Selena and said, “No, you’re Yehudah.” My sister responded, “Dad, you gave me the name “Yochevet”…You were present for my birth! Do you seriously not remember?” She then looked across the table at me and said,  “No, Janine, you cannot have my name.”

I was crushed. “Yochevet” was obviously destined for me. I mean, I have watched “The Ten Commandments” at least fifteen times more than her and I owned a Moses action figure- complete with removable tablets and staff. My sister was just too stubborn to relinquish it (she’s so selfish!). I had no choice but to stick with the name “Yenta”. “Yochana” was tossed out, but I still faced the giggles whenever I said my name. That was, until a few months ago when I came across the name “Yedidah”.

Yedidah comes from the name “Yedidela” or “beloved of God”. I was immediately drawn to it. Yedidah. It sounded like a sound from a niggun, a wordless melody sung by Jews on Shabbas. I could hear it being sung over the Shabbas table -Ye-di-dah-Ye-di-dah-Ye-di-dah!  It incorporated my love of Jewish spirituality and traditional, religious song.

“Yedidah” sounded like me. Finally, all the pieces came together to create a name for myself. I am my mother’s favorite name “Janine”; my grandmother’s legacy “Julia Yenta”; the name that spoke to who I really was as an adult “Yedidah”; and my family name that made it to America “Jankovitz”, or “child of Yisrael”.

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One thought on “What’s In My Name

  1. m.w.egan says:

    Earlier today I was looking through a roster of the students I had in 2006, the last semester I taught. The last (and best) course I taught had the nebulous and impossible title “Religion and Science.” I remember it being such a harrowing experience, a young graduate student preparing for a senior-level course, frantically trying to learn everything I could about each subject daily, knowing I’d be entering a veritable lion’s den of opinions.

    From that time, there are a handful of students whose names I remember. With you, the alliteration obviously helped. Looking you up, I’m so glad to see that what made you a good writer then makes you a better one now; you’re a storyteller with a perpetually-refreshing self-awareness and a healthy dose of depreciation that, just as it did when you were a student, puts your readers at ease, reminding us that despite our disparate backgrounds, we’re all in this irreducible experience together.

    Drop me a line when you’re able!

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