Thursday, January 12, 2012

Should You Change or Add to Your Hebrew Name When You Have a Second Conversion?

I find it interesting that Hebrew names is the #1 topic that brings people to this blog through search engines. I wonder where all this interest in names comes from! Based on the search terms themselves, it appears to be adults choosing a name for themselves, rather than parents naming a baby.

Well, this week's parsha is Shemot, names. So let's talk about a conversion-specific name issue:
When you have multiple conversions, should you change your Hebrew name or add to it?
As a preliminary matter, what kind of change are we talking about? At a second conversion, many converts either a) change their Hebrew name to an entirely different Hebrew name or, more commonly, b) add a second or third name to the prior Hebrew name. Having three names is unusual but not unheard of, though you shouldn't push it to four names.

So...should you? I can't answer this question for you, nor can anyone else. I've heard of a right-wing orthodox beit din that did require a name change of some kind if the candidate had a Hebrew name already, either from a prior conversion or because they were raised in a liberal movement but required a conversion in the orthodox community. (If you don't understand the last idea, it's essentially patrilineal Jews raised in the reform movement and the children of female liberal converts.) While this may apply to someone who received a Hebrew name from parents, I am going to address this post to people who chose their Hebrew name the first time around.

Keep in mind: it is a perfectly valid choice to keep the same Hebrew name through multiple conversions. If you are set on doing that, don't let others bully you to make a change you don't want.

First, why would anyone think this is a good idea? There are several possible reasons, including, but not limited to the following:
  • The desire to create a new identity separate from your prior Jewish identity.
  • The desire to mark a distinction between one conversion to another.
  • The desire to change your "mazal," your luck. (When someone is very ill, he or she may add a name to their Hebrew name to accomplish this same change of mazal.)
  • The reflection of a belief that the prior conversion was invalid or a negative experience.
  • The reflection of the convert's changed view of himself or herself Jewishly from the prior conversion.
  • The reflection of a particular influence, mentor, or inspirational person.
  • A desire to "balance" your name if you went strictly traditional or very modern the first time around.
  • The reflection of new knowledge of a Jewish family history.
  • It just feels right.
  • Some other reason you can't quite put your finger on.

Did you change your name or add to it? What made you decide to do it? 

Personally, I've decided to go from Kochava to Kochava Yocheved. My reasons are personal, but mostly organic and of the can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it variety. It just hit me one day, and I've been letting it roll around in my mind for the last few months. Unfortunately, I can only pronounce it correctly about half the time. It sounds beautiful and rhythmic together, but also makes a good tongue-twister. 

I think Kochava Yocheved reflects the "balancing" idea above very well. I don't remember the exact reasons why I chose Kochava, and it was a very last-minute choice after being convinced for years that I would choose Nechama (at least I have a type, right?). But I remember being very happy that it was a modern Israeli name, not much older than the state itself. It's a very Zionist name, the kind of name that reminds me of the agricultural collective beginnings of the state. It is also very unique like my English name, which was also important to me. If people say my name, I fully expect to be the only person to answer. If I chose to go by my Hebrew name at some point, I wanted something similar. 

On the other hand, Yocheved is a very traditional name, straight from an important Torah personality. I've spent time learning stories and lessons Torah scholars have written based on her life. It gives me a biblical mentor, in a sense. So in Kochava Yocheved, I can tie the beginnings of the Jewish people with the modern re-beginning of the Jewish people. I think that reflects the Jewish sense of time, how we're constantly re-connecting with prior times, rather than being in a linear timeline. And on the literal level, I am a star of Hashem's glory, a small spark of Hashem's light shining forth to the rest of the universe. Or so I hope :D


  1. Very interesting! I love the name Yocheved and have often thought of it( for a future daughter ) during this conversion process. I wanted to thank you for having this blog. For months most of what I could find in the way of blogs and Youtube videos were Messianic and I was still too new to Judaism to know the difference!

  2. Be honest. Did the potential for awesome nicknames such as "Ko Yo", "Kochi Yochi", and "Chavi Chevi" have anything to do with it?

    Even a little?

  3. What if I'm going to convert for the first time but that my name is Hebrew like David or Shmuel ??

  4. I really like Kochava Yocheved, actually. Though Yocheved is as you say a very traditional name, it's not an obvious choice, and I like that. And it sounds beautiful together.

    I'm still not sure what I will pick for my own Hebrew name, actually - or well, I actually have always been drawn to Esther (and chose it once for a pseudonym in high school for some contest I had to have another name for). On the other hand, my great-grandma's name was Rachel and I'd like to honor her, too, but sadly those two names are in no way combine-able, so I'm stuck for a middle name. Perhaps Esther Shoshana. Hmm.

    1. What about using Esther's Hebrew name (as 'esther' is Persian) of Hadassah? Hadassah Rachel and Rachel Hadassah are both really pretty. :)

  5. Its a great name combo!

  6. That's an excellent choice. I really like the name Yocheved, it kind of calls to me. This will be amusing in a minute.

    I'm really torn on what my name will be, because the name on my birth certificate is a French spelling of מרים (I don't like to have my RL name out there, so this is a handy way around it). It would be downright silly to not use it, but I'd really like to add something of my own choosing as well. But what, is the real question. I really like Yocheved, but that would probably make me laugh every time. :P I also like Shoshana, but it doesn't really 'go'. Rut is meaningful to me, of course, but it's very common and I'm not really fond of the Hebrew pronunciation (same problem with Rachel). I rather like Leah, but she has such a sad story that I'm not sure I really want that.

    I've just about decided on Chanah- someone who made her own 'deal' with Hashem on her own terms, and kept her promises. As a bonus, Anna is a family name on my father's side. My English middle name is a family name on my mother's side. I feel a little awkward choosing something that has ties to the family I was born with when I'm supposed to be making new ones with am Yisrael, but I'm nearing the end of the conversion process and nothing better has jumped out at me. :/

    (And this, friends, is why we should be grateful that parents name us. What a pain in the neck it is to name yourself.)

  7. Very interesting topic! I had no idea that many people changed their names on their second conversions, both voluntarily and also not so much! how that works and why must get really complicated, but in the mean time i have what i hope might be a slightly simpler question for any experienced hebrew readers, or those well-versed in Jewish naming traditions:

    Many people have hyphenate Hebrew names, sometimes from birth, and apparently sometimes because life events gave them these features. Would it make a difference in the meaning of the name if one was to reverse the order of the name, and if so, how? for example, what is the difference between the names "miriam-marnina" & "marnina-miryam"?

    thank you!

  8. Can I ask - is it an Orthodox custom to do a first/middle name, is it an Orthodox-in-America thing, or just a desire to have a first and a middle name that drives most Orthodox converts and FFBs I see on the internet to have two names? As a name nerd, I've already started daydreaming what I would choose as my Hebrew name once I convert (Reform) - I have no intention of changing my "English" name, and truth be told, it is accepted as a Hebrew name (modern)/has a very close legitimate Hebrew equivalent that's quite meaningful but...I don't know. I kind of like the idea of having a fresh start, as you said, and I find myself being oddly drawn to Devorah, which is not a name I would have imagined any particular affinity for. We'll see, but if I have to think of two names, well...oy (I don't have an "English" middle name, for the record).

  9. I'm Conservative, and I have a double-barrel Hebrew name. It wasn't a deliberate choice, initially, just a combination of what sounded "right" and having a few names that really spoke to me. I actually almost ended up with Yocheved as my middle name. I've heard a fair number of double-barrel names getting aliyot and such at non-Orthodox synagogues I've attended, so I don't think it's a strictly Ortho thing. My only concern is that if/when I have kids, their Hebrew names could start to get really unwieldy if both parents do the double-barrel thing and give their kids names with that structure.

  10. From what I've seen, double names are the norm in every movement, especially in the born-Jewish crowd. So two names bat two names isn't a big deal because it's everyone. No lie, I just recently saw a child born who was given four names, with parents with two names. THAT is a mouthful.

    I guess I was "lucky" I only chose one name for Conversion 1.0. It seems that a significant number of converts (and adult self-naming born-Jews) choose one name. I thought double names were clunky, and I wanted the freedom to change my name and use Kochava as my secular middle name, if I so chose. A double name after my first name wouldn't fit on a driver's license :P

    Double names are often the result of a) parents having multiple family members that "must" be named after, b) they want a Hebrew name that "matches" the secular first and middle name, or c) they're using the Hebrew name as the secular first and middle name. Once it became "normal" for parents to name children with two names, the baalei teshuva and converts followed suit.

  11. Anonymous about converts with Hebrew secular names: You can choose to keep it. You can also choose to go with something totally different. Either way is perfectly normal and acceptable. In my experience, it seems most people like this (generally men), choose a double name, using their English name and a separate Hebrew name they like. If you continue to go by your English name but have a totally different Hebrew name, it could cause some confusion. However, a few of the people I know who've done that go by the Hebrew name full-time, at least in the Jewish community. That eliminates any confusion (until they see your driver's license!).

  12. Anonymous about hyphenated names: Do you just mean double names? I've never seen anyone hyphenate two Hebrew names. It's analogous to the English-speaking tradition to have a first and middle name in addition to the family name. Hyphenated names are likewise uncommon in the English-speaking tradition, and are usually imports from the French tradition or other naming traditions. Even "Mary Sue" isn't a hyphenated name :P

    But as for reversing them, it would make the name refer to someone else, just like in secular names. If someone asks me for "Sue Mary," I'm not going to think they're talking about the Mary Sue I listed above.

    Did that answer your question?

  13. No no, I didn't mean hyphenated names. I meant for example Chava Miriam bas ______. The explanation about having bajillions of relatives who must be named for makes sense (I think the record I've seen is a French Jewish MO couple who's kids have like five names apiece) ;). Thanks!

  14. Interestingly, it would probably be more appropriate to hyphenate double names.

    While the idea of double names is not found in most of the classical sources (indeed, there are very few, if any, examples of anyone with two names before the 1200s, and it remained quite rare until modern times), recent and contemporary Rabbis have addressed the issue, although most deal with codifying the prevailing customs and not establishing a clear halachic forbidden/permitted.

    It seems generally agreed upon that a double name is really not two names, but a new name, consisting of two words. While it's often uncommon to hear someone referred to by a double name, it would seem that in this case, the use of the first name is to be considered, halachically, as a nickname for the double name.

    This means that children named after two grandparents (for example) may, in fact, be considered to be named after neither. As such, it would presumably be permitted for Ashkenazim to name after two living relative! (source available upon request; mostly because I remember who said it but I don't recall where).

    Of my four children, two were named after two people, and two after one (and one of those took the double name of his namesake). In the case of the two who shared names, we decided that for reasons of family peace (or the more positive goal of making people happy, rather than just prevent hard feelings) it was worth ignoring this detail and passing up the opportunity to name after a deceased relative in favor of making living relatives happy (no, none of the speeches I gave after they were named included this detail ;) ).

  15. did you have to draw a blood from your private area again?

    1. Since I lack a penis, no. But yes, men would. It's possible there could even be a full circumcision required since reform converts aren't always required to get one.