Learning to Love My Name
The first gift my mother ever gave me was my name. A gift that, for the first several years of my life, had little meaning other than something my mom found in a baby name book. The only true connection I had to my name was its similarity to Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in what I now refer to as a “Jewish bubble.” I attended a Jewish school and came from an all Jewish family, so I seldom interacted with people who weren’t Jewish in my daily life. My name never prompted any questions for others or for me. The only qualm I had about my name was not finding it on souvenir keychains and customized t-shirts. I never realized the issues that having a non-English name would pose once my “Jewish bubble” was popped.
When I told my mother I wanted to go to a “normal school,” I was completely unaware of the culture shock I was about to face. On the first day of sixth grade, my first day of public school, I didn’t hear my name during attendance in any of my class periods; instead, I heard “Adrianna,” “Arielle,” or “Ay-ree-ill-uh.” I tepidly corrected them, and the teacher presumably jotted down a phonetic pronunciation on the attendance sheet. I always knew my name was about to be called when a teacher announced with an almost mocking grin, “I know I’m gonna butcher this one…”
I came home that day feeling incredibly defeated. No one is ever going to bother to learn my name, I thought. It was too much of a chore for my teachers and peers to remember a name they were unfamiliar with, one with Semitic origins.
“Why did you give me such a stupid name?” I asked my mother with tears in my eyes.
“Honey, your name is beautiful. I get compliments on it all the time. I’m sorry that your new classmates are too close-minded to learn it,” she responded, with surprising patience.
I hated the gift my mother gave me. I hated the way it made me feel and I hated the way others perceived me because of it.
I made the decision that I would no longer go by Ariella. When asked to introduce myself, I only said “Ari,” never my full name. “Ari” never needed repeating. “Ari” was never butchered by indifferent substitute teachers. My new name was edgier, I thought. I loved the androgyny, the simplicity, and the novelty of my nickname.
Changing my name gave me a temporary bit of relief. Teachers seemed to remember me more, my peers reached out to me with less hesitation, and roll call rarely posed an issue. Even in Jewish spaces, I began to refer to myself by my nickname out of habit. My friends who knew me as Ariella often struggled with the transition, being careful to not upset or offend me. I had soon distanced myself so far from my name that hearing it in casual settings was jarring.
Within about three years, everyone in my life called me Ari. Ariella was a name reserved for legal documents and distant family members. I was content with this change and the convenience it entailed. My Hebrew name had been erased from my identity, entirely on my own accord.
My public school experience was characterized by an ebb and flow of Jewishness. There were periods in which I straightened my naturally bouncy curls into a flat, frizzy mess, and others where I would proudly wear my ring with the Shema inscribed on it and enthusiastically answer questions from curious classmates; periods in which I would lie about going to church with my family, and others where I would talk excitedly about the significance of matzoh on Passover.
As I grew older and became more confident in my Jewish identity, I faced a great dissonance that I could no longer ignore. Changing my name was never merely a matter of convenience. It was always an attempt to hide my Judaism from those who I believed either could not or did not want to understand it. If I wanted others to accept and understand my Judaism, I needed to accept it myself first. For the first time, I realized that my Jewish identity extends far beyond my curls, my jewelry, my summer camp, or my extensive knowledge of Adam Sandler movies; my identity is rooted in tradition, family, and language.
Being in spaces where Judaism isn’t commonplace showed me how truly special Jewish culture and language is. Each tradition and custom is rooted in thousands of years of ancient history, a history that I get to be a part of. I became invested in my Jewish learning, studying Hebrew, Jewish, and Israeli culture as much as possible. I became obsessed with etymology, searching for patterns and historical context in each prefix and suffix. I learned about Ariel, the lion of God that presides over Jerusalem. I finally realized the cultural and linguistic influence of my name.
My knowledge of and adoration for the Hebrew language was strengthened by my newfound respect for my name. Aleph, Resh, Yud, Aleph, Lamed, Hay. This simple combination of ancient symbols, the first Hebrew word I learned, was the catalyst for my extensive study of the language and its rich history. My knowledge of and pride in Judaism’s matrilineal tradition reinforced my gratitude to my mother for my name and created a space for me to explore my identity through language and experience.
I learned to love my name. When it’s mispronounced, I am quick to correct. I take pride in its meaning and the language from which its derived. I love to talk about my Judaism and help other Jewish women understand theirs. Although it took years for me to appreciate and embrace it, the gift my mother gave me was exactly what I needed to find my identity through language.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.