Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Iyar 5760 - May 24, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
What's in a Name?
A True Story

by Rabbi Pinchas Kantrowitz

"Hey, Rabbi K. I really enjoyed your class today. Could you find some time for us to get together and talk?"

"Sure, but right now, I'm pretty busy."

Life for a rabbi at the Ohr Somayach introductory program can get hectic at times, but we eventually found ourselves mutually available and seized a relatively quiet corner in the dining room.

"Justin, right?"

He looked impressed. He should have been, probably having heard that I am notoriously lousy with names, and must have asked his name already four-five times. Funny, though, I never forget a face. Like that guy on the Netanya beach. I kept staring at him and finally got up the nerve to ask him his name. It turned out that we had gone to [secular] high school together about a dozen years before. And he hadn't had a beard then, either...

Well, Justin had a question. "How does one go about getting a Jewish name if one doesn't have one?

"Interesting question. I once asked it myself when I was a student here many years ago."

"What did they tell you?"

"My rabbi told me I could choose one that seemed suitable and had some meaning to me. He said that Paul, my given name, was usually changed to Pinchas or Pesach, but any name I liked was fine. He encouraged me to think about it, and when I felt I was ready, I could ask my friends and rabbis to begin calling me by the name I had chosen. After I had been called up to the Torah by that name and been called it for three weeks -- it was considered validly mine."

"How did you choose your name?"

"My father had already passed away by the time I came to yeshiva. My mother was still struggling with my new identity as an observant Jew: my dress, which included kipa and tzitzis, my eating habits, and Shabbos. I asked her about a Jewish name, but a new name at this point was just too much. `Your father and I liked the name Paul well enough.'

"Shortly before this, I had attended a class about dealing with Christian missionaries. We were given some historical background which included the apostle Paul, who had turned from zealous Jewish persecutor of early Christians as Saul of Tarsus to a convert; he became an avid Christian zealot and persecutor of Jews. Having also learned the great significance which the Torah accords to names, I felt the definite need for a change.

"Pinchas was a likely choice for me. Another famous zealot, he had left an honorable mark on Jewish history. I felt a bit like a zealot, myself, having rejected the false world around me, which was proving to be a fight."

"And so you decided on that name?"

"Not right away. I guess I needed a push in the right direction. It came when I was visiting the Ohr Somayach branch in Monsey and the gabbai called me up to the Torah. He asked me my name and when I said `Paul,' looked me in the eye and announced, `Yaamod, Pinchas ben ???' Hearing this for the first time came somewhat as a shock, and I could barely whisper, `...the son of Benjamin.' He echoed it with a smile. Later, he told me that I looked like a Pinchas to him. I took on my Hebrew middle names, Yitzchak Baruch, shortly after, believing these to be the Hebrew names of my grandfathers, Isidore and Bernard, which I already bore."

So much for me. "How about you? Have you thought of a name, yet?"

"Yes. Yisroel. But I'm not sure I'm ready for it, yet."

"Why not?"

"Because I understand that it represents high levels of spirituality."

"True. It was given after Yaakov had struggled with the representation of evil, the angel of Esav. It does represent the more elevated part of the Jewish nation, but it also has a more basic level meaning, simply, `Jew.' But if you feel you're not quite ready for it now, wait a while. Perhaps Hashem will help you out with some guidance, a push in the right direction, just as He helped me."

I invited him to discuss the matter at some future date, whenever he felt like it, but he never did, and I forgot the matter.

A few weeks later, Rabbi Geffen, director of our introductory program, asked me to `gather the troops' for a seudas bris for Yisroel Meir. I must have looked puzzled because he added, "For Justin." I still looked puzzled, so he added, "You know Justin. You helped him with his name." The blank look finally gave way to a big grin to express my joy over the rare victory at coupling name and face. "So, he just had a bris. And that's the name he took? Interesting!"

We all gathered together that evening at the home of one of Ohr Somayach's warm friends. The atmosphere was charged with emotion. Several of the rabbis spoke, but I was really waiting to hear about the name.

Rabbi Geffen explained that it had been a spontaneous decision. That morning, someone had come around collecting for Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim. He mentioned that everyone should all give extra since it was the Chofetz Chaim's yahrzeit. "I turned to Justin, whose bris was scheduled for that morning, and asked him how he liked the name Yisroel Meir. He said he liked it a lot. In fact, he mentioned having considered the name Yisroel, already, but had not felt ready for it. `Rabbi Kantrowitz said I should wait a while, see how it sits in my mind, and perhaps wait for some kind of sign.' Justin smiled to me and said, `I guess this is the clarity I was waiting for.'"

It was my turn to speak. I was deeply moved and honored. I told my side of the story and added that not only had Hashem deemed him worthy to be called Yisroel, but even Yisroel Meir, a Yisroel of illumination, as evidenced by his bright smile that evening, and a Yisroel Meir named after a leader of his generation, on his very yahrzeit!

To myself, I added, I guess there's more in a name than even I imagined. I had better be more careful about remembering them!


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