The idea first crept into my consciousness last summer, as I spent the drawn-out, balmy evenings of July and August immersed in Israeli TV. As the giant lollipop-shaped blossoms of my hydrangea bushes were nearing full bloom and with my middle school-aged daughters in tow, we started with a hit series from 2008 called “Srugim,” a dazzlingly intelligent drama about five Modern Orthodox Jewish singles living in Jerusalem in search of love and belonging.
In one of the later seasons, the character Reut, a strong, successful career woman, decides to change her name, believing the act itself might change her manifestation in love and life. I too was looking to shake off my past and shape a different future for myself.
At the time, I was recuperating from my second consecutive heartbreak. The first followed a soul-mate-quality relationship with an Israeli attorney. This time, I was recovering from a love affair with a fledgling widower from Chicago who had four grown children. Our first date at Starbucks, where we bonded instantly, led to many more filled with passion and profound dialogue.
However, after an intense six months of declaring our love for one another, he left, saying he felt smothered and needed to find himself. Our final phone conversation ended with each of us calling out how deeply we loved each other, as if at an auction jostling to secure the winning bid. His email a week later seemed to begrudge the possibility that I might have needed his love as much as he had needed mine and blamed me for poor timing. I accepted his verdict until my therapist pointed out that perhaps it was his debut Jdate profile that took the cake for poor timing, posted within his first month of mourning.
As I swore off ever again falling prey to a middle-aged man’s short term fantasy, I dated an affable, tenured professor of medieval Jewish history, then later a sweet Canadian assistant district attorney. Still, my love for the widower remained stubborn. Thankfully, “Srugim” proved the perfect distraction, and, alas, my as-of-yet nascent quest for a name change had taken hold.
In Judaism, your Jewish–or Hebrew—name, generally chosen by your parents at birth or shortly after, has great significance and symbolism. Ideally, your name defines you, either describing your personality, or in some cases, foreshadowing or influencing your life’s potential. Kabbalists believe there is a spiritual tie between one’s given name and one’s soul.
Changing one’s name to create a shift in destiny is no stranger to Judaism. When someone is critically ill, additional names like Chaim (or Chaya), meaning “life,” are sometimes added in the hopes of a recovery.
My mother picked my Hebrew name, Yehudit Devorah, as a way to imbue me with the bold strength of two biblical heroines—Judith and Deborah. As a child, I didn’t feel inherently bold or strong. Ironically, though, throughout my life, people who know me would likely say otherwise. Maybe my mom was onto something all along.
As the summer unfolded into fall, I thought more urgently about shedding Yehudit Devorah for something brand new. However, when I discussed the idea with my rabbi, he quickly deflated my idea of a fantasy makeover, explaining that in Judaism we don’t close the door on our original name, but rather build on from there; a name change is discouraged unless the person is truly different than before.
I assured him I was different, but as I elaborated, I started to cry. How could I possibly explain how often in my life I had already remade myself: surviving the jagged emotional landscape of my childhood, living through a traumatic divorce, and finally, seeking love in middle age.
When the rabbi asked me which name I had in mind, I offered the few ideas I had thought of. He listened carefully, pausing for a few minutes seemingly lost in thought, and offered the name Tova (feminine form of the Hebrew word “Tov,” meaning “good”).
He then suggested I receive my new name at a Shacharit (morning service) on a Monday or Thursday when the Torah is read, ideally on or around my Jewish-calendar birthday. It just so happened that my English birthday was coming up, with my Hebrew birthday falling exactly one week afterwards, on a Monday. Everything was lining up providentially.
On the eve of my English birthday, the widower texted me “Happy Birthday,” praying this year would be one of deepest fulfillment for me. I wrote back a few days later thanking him, adding, with a clever delivery, that I thought he was still in love with me. He offered a quick retort, “Of course I still love you, that was never the issue.” The old me, Yehudit Devorah, wanted to write back tenderly without pretense: “At our age, what else is there?” But instead I fired off a cool, cocky response. He hasn’t reached out since.
During the week straddling my English and Hebrew birthdays, I grew deeply comforted by my rabbi’s choice of Tova. That Monday, I openly shared with my girls where I was going, and they rooted for me from the sidelines. I was the only woman at synagogue, watching carefully as the men filed in and donned their tefillin. I am sure the men were as curious about my presence there as I was observing theirs.
The rabbi slipped me a pen and paper to write down my children’s Hebrew names across the mechitza (the partition between men and women while praying). At the conclusion of the Torah reading, the rabbi recited the Misheberach (a blessing for those in need of divine intervention) for my daughters.
As is customary for prayers like this, one invokes the person’s name, followed by “daughter of” or “son of’” the mother’s Hebrew name. In this case, the rabbi used my new Hebrew name, Yehudit Devorah Tova, ushering me into my new identity.
It has been roughly half a year since I became Yehudit Devorah Tova. As I’ve prayed daily since I was a small child, invoking Yehudit Devorah had become second nature to me, almost like a reflex. Now when I pray, I have to focus with deliberation on the word “Tova.” Quite remarkably, this dovetails with some of the truly arduous spiritual work I’ve labored—to accept myself as I am and to believe I am good enough. In the process of trying to become someone else, I’ve learned to honor the person I’ve always been.
As my journey continues, I, Yehudit Devorah Tova, offer up a blessing: that we should all come to know ourselves and each other L’Tova—with goodness.