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Jewish baby names

Call Me By My (Hebrew) Name

woman

A week before my conversion, I received a call from my rabbi. “You need to give me a name,” she said. “I can’t have you go to the Beit Din without a name.”

My mind went straight to “Devorah,” as it had so many times throughout the year I was studying for my conversion. I didn’t like the name — for me, anyway — and yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn to it.

I felt more like a Rivka or an Arielle, something short and sweet. I consider myself light and airy, always befriending people a few years younger than me, always taking life in stride. Devorah seemed too heavy, too serious. When I thought of Devorah, I imagined the biblical prophetess under her palm tree —  and while she was possibly my age, she was much more wise.

But every time I tried to give myself another name, I just couldn’t do it. Something deep down told me it had to be Devorah.

I grew up the daughter of a minister and dreamed of leading people in music, prayer, and life celebrations, just like my dad. When I converted to Judaism, becoming a cantor was a natural part of the plan, an obvious “next step” in my Jewish life. In the years following my conversion, I was committed to learning liturgy, and I attended services weekly. I always accepted an aliyah (a call to bless the Torah) when it was offered — in my small congregation, it was almost always offered — and yet, every time I was called to the bimah as “Devorah bat Avraham v’Sarah,” I would cringe a little bit. I hoped that, over time, I would get used to the name.

I was accepted into the cantorial program with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in the summer of 2016 — I felt the program, though rigorous, would allow me to balance my other role as a mom of four. Upon enrolling, I made a decision: In my attempt to “bond” with my name, I would introduce myself — and therefore be known — as Devorah in all of my classes.

On my first weeklong intensive course for the program, I filled out my name tag. It hung around my neck all week. The large purple letters spelled DEVORAH, but I had decorated the white space with pink and yellow flowers in an attempt to soften it up, in hopes of transforming the name to match the “real” me.

However, nothing could change a name with that much weight. I wore it, and that is what I was called for the entire week. A handful of people knew my legal name, but they dutifully obeyed the name tag. There was no turning back. “Hello, my name is Devorah.”

When I returned home, I gladly shed Devorah for a few weeks until classes started. I was only taking two classes that first semester, so I only had to be Devorah for a few hours a week. It wasn’t so bad, I decided, as an idea emerged: Maybe I would grow into the name. Maybe the name wasn’t too big for me, maybe I — 37 years old and new to Jewish practice — was not yet big enough for the name. Perhaps as I became a cantor and spiritual leader, my neshamah, my soul, would grow to fill this very large name. This gave me hope that one day I could feel comfortable as Devorah.

A few weeks into the semester, while working on a project with one of my classmates, I shared with her my struggle with my name. “Have you ever looked up your parshah?” she asked, referring to the segment of the Torah read on a given week.

I was puzzled. “I was told that the parshah for the week of your birth is very important,” she explained. “It holds significance and insight to your life. You should look it up. Maybe you’ll find something there that helps you with this.”

So, later that day, I Googled what she was referring to — and, yes, there did seem to be some mystical ideas about this. Maybe it was worth looking into, just to see. I’ve aways been skeptical of horoscopes and such, but I figured, at the very least, it would be fun.

I typed my birthdate and time of day into an online calculator — the morning of February 8, 1979 — and waited. Around and around the little time icon went, and then it came up — and every hair on my body seemed to stand on end. My hands became sweaty. “You can’t make this kind of thing up!” I said aloud as I gaped at my computer.

The Haftorah portion of that week was Parshah Beshalach — Judges 4, verse 4. It began:

“Now Devorah was a woman prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth; she judged Israel at that time.”

Suddenly, in that instant, I felt all of those feelings of disconnectedness fall away. “Devorah,” I whispered to myself, then I said it louder: “DEVORAH.” The name seemed warmer and more solid than it had before. It was changing — or maybe I was the one who was changing, growing, and understanding that somehow, some way, I had known all along that this was my name. Devorah no longer felt imposing and exhausting; it became a true part of me. I loved it.

Hello, my name is Devorah.

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