what’s in a name?

A few weeks ago, I went to an event at Sixth & I hosted by “Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood” (a group that comes with the hilarious caveat, “For women in their 20s and 30s. And for the record, we love all bubbes everywhere.”)

The event was co-hosted by Lilith magazine: The cover article of its latest issues asks, “What’s in a Hyphen?” In it, the author explores “what’s lost, reclaimed, or reimagined when we’re hyphenates” (joining both parents’ surnames). In the salon-style event, we split up into small groups to talk about names and identities.

The discussion’s focus was a little too heterocentric for my comfort, but since name changing often happens when women marry men, and since I’ve struggled with this very issue, I’ll admit that I only tried to change the subject a couple of times.

I did not change my name when I got married. I always assumed that I wouldn’t, especially since I identify strongly as “Salem Pearce.” My husband wasn’t interested in changing his name, so any conversation that might have occurred ended there.

But I secretly struggled with the decision. I say secretly because it was hard for me to admit; I didn’t even tell my husband about my wavering until a few years after we were married.

“Pearce” is my father’s name, and my relationship with him is difficult, to put it mildly. When I visit him and my mother in Houston, we get along, but only when we stick to the safe topics of the weather, home improvement, and sports. My husband likes to tease that all I did by keeping my name was choose my father’s name over my husband’s, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I got married when I was 31: By that time, “Pearce” was my name, too.

But there’s another layer. As a convert, I long for a readily identifiable Jewish name, and my marriage could have offered an easy path to this. “Pearce” is just about the WASP-iest name there is, but I’m not sure I can see myself as anything else.

As it turns out, this desire for a more Jewish name is not limited to converts! The rabbi who teaches my b’nai mitzvah class cited as her reason for taking her husband’s name the fact that her father isn’t Jewish: Thus, she opted for “Holtzblatt” over her birth name. And one of the participants in the salon arranges trips to Israel in her job and fears that the people she corresponds with assume she’s not Jewish because of her non-Jewish-sounding name.

Of course, a fair number of “Jewish” names — ones that we dub “Jewish sounding” and ones that we’ve come to think of as “Jewish” — have been changed from the originals: at Ellis Island, by immigrants themselves, by longtime Jewish residents who wanted to be less readily identifiably Jewish. My colleague Liz just told me last week that her grandfather changed his last name from Rosenblum to Ross, and it was her father who changed it again to its current form, Rose. My father’s family has been “Pearce” for centuries: So many recent changes boggle my mind.

If I’m being honest, another thing that boggles my mind is the fact that two women in the salon were ambivalent about changing their names at their upcoming marriages. Feeling strongly one way or another I understand, but not knowing how you feel? Harder to get. Another soon-to-be-wed (to-a-woman) woman said she wouldn’t even consider it. But the best story of the night belonged to a woman who had changed her name when she got married, for a year felt like a stranger to herself with a new name, and then changed it back to her birth name! She said that her husband was fine with both decisions, and the only reason she made the first one was that she thought she should do something that was expected for once in her life. Of course, that’s overrated.

interview the first

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Earlier this week, I took a trip for my interview and testing at the first rabbinical school to which I applied. (As I’ve said before, it’s easy to figure out which school it is, but it’s not that important for this post.)

Joe came with me so that he could get a feel for the school and the surrounding area. We stayed with a new friend that I met on my visit to the school; he and his fiancée were nice enough to offer us their queen-sized guest bed. The home hospitality offered during all of these rabbinical school visits certainly has made the trips more affordable — not to mention has afforded the opportunity to get to know potential schoolmates and further perspectives on the schools.

The testing was a mixed bag. I can say with some confidence that the best thing about it was at the end, when I got up to turn in the last test and I fell out of my chair (in front of two other prospective students, I might add). In my concentration and/or fear, I hadn’t noticed that one of my legs had fallen asleep. It was very Liz Lemon.

The three hours of Hebrew wasn’t as bad as I expected; it was the one-hour “Jewish Traditions” exam that was heartbreaking. This reality was made worse by the fact that I really thought it was going to be the opposite. I was wholly unprepared for how badly I would feel at the end.

I think I did well enough on the basic modern and Biblical Hebrew sections and middling on the Rabbinic. I didn’t even attempt the advanced modern — or the composition. (I am sorely lacking in Hebrew writing skills. As I am in Hebrew conversational skills, a part of the test that I also bombed.) I did well reading aloud from the siddur and Torah — although I was chagrined at the feedback that I confused my sins and shins.

The “Jewish Traditions” exam made my heart sink into my stomach: two pages of Hebrew terms to define and explain the significance of, and I only knew about three at first glance. And with this kind of exam, further reflection doesn’t yield more answers. I either knew them or I didn’t — and I didn’t. So I spent the rest of the time writing the terms down, so that I could look them up and learn them later. (Joe said he thought this was as much evidence of my readiness for rabbinical school as actually knowing the terms. I hope he’s right. Either way, I won’t soon be forgetting what hatafat dam brit is.)

The next day, the interview went considerably better than the testing. Though I faced seven people, I’m generally good at interviews, so I wasn’t fazed. And they all asked thoughtful questions, which I really appreciate. That experience did much to buoy my spirits after the previous day.

Unsurprisingly, I was asked how I would decide which school to attend if I were accepted at all the ones I’ve applied to. I answered honestly: I’ve gathered all the information that I can, so I’m thinking that it’s going to come down to a feeling. Joe liked the school and the area, as do I, but I’m honestly not sure what my feeling about the school is.

I’ve been exhausted and starving since I returned. I think the combination of anticipation, stress, frustration, disappointment, enjoyment, and being around new people just ran me down. And I’ve got to do this at least twice more . . .

down-ton abbey

Spoiler alert: I reference events in episodes that have aired in both the U.K. and the U.S., but I include the caveat for any readers who haven’t yet seen the series.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of “Downton Abbey,” the hugely successful British television drama set in the early twentieth century, the story revolving around the Crawley family and the servants of the eponymous estate in Yorkshire. The principle preoccupation of the family is the fact that Lord Grantham’s title, his estate, and his wife’s money — because of the ironclad English law of entail — all pass to a distant cousin upon the death of the previous heir and his son on the Titanic, which event opens the pilot. I love period drama, especially of the British late 19th/early 20th century variety. Indeed, I literally squealed with delight when I saw that Lady Mary Crawley references Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the upcoming episode.

There are so many wonderful things about this show: The accents. The fear of “new” technology (electricity! typewriters! telephones!). The gorgeous clothes (for the upstairs family, anyway, though the servants wear nicer things to wait on the Crawleys than most modern people ever do). The glimpse into a way of life that is so removed from a modern American audience. The well-developed characters: scheming Thomas and O’Brien, unflagging reformer Isobel Crawley, rebellious Sybil Crawley, the witty Dowager Countess — who it is universally acknowledged has the best lines of the series. (If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this video, you must. And you may appreciate it even if you’ve never seen the show.)

But — and I think with most mainstream entertainment, there is almost always a “but” — the latest episode to air in the U.S. gave me pause. Of course, there were issues all along. As one critic writes, somewhat contradictorily,

Even with its high-lather soap factor, no one would consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure — it’s “Masterpiece,” for heaven’s sake, the television equivalent of graduate school — though certainly creator Julian Fellowes makes it easy for an American audience to empathize with pampered members of the master class. . . . By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks.

She then goes on to talk about the oppressive class system that bolsters the Crawley family — which I would certainly identify as a “troubling drawback” in even the most cursory critical examination of the show. For this reason, and others, I do consider “Downton Abbey” a guilty pleasure.

In “Episode Eight” of Series 2, which aired last Sunday, veteran Matthew regains his ability to walk after suffering severe spinal damage in the war. The ableism of this plotline — in service of giving viewers the long awaited, unblemished reunion of Matthew and Mary, whose on-again, off-again relationship drives a great deal of the show’s plot — is troubling.

We get a first glimpse in the pilot of the era’s anxiety around people with disabilities with the arrival of the new valet, who walks with a cane. The whole house is in a tizzy about whether Bates will be able to do his job, and he’s sacked towards the end of the episode — only to be saved, deus ex machina style by Lord Grantham, who seems to recognize the claims of an old friend more than the injustice of preemptorily firing a worker. And like magic in the next episode, all concerns about Bates’s performance are gone; they never come up again. It’s not clear if that’s because they were exaggerated, based on the prejudice of the times, or because accommodations were made for him. And since the villainous valet and lady’s maid find plenty of reason, besides his disability, to collude against him, one ultimately wonders why Bates was given this characteristic at all.

The issue returns in the latest episode, as Matthew (understandably) continues to struggle with the prospect of life in a wheelchair. I realize that these were different times and there were not the accommodations that now exist for people in his condition, but it struck me as extreme (and not a little sexist) when he sends his heretofore fiancee, Lavinia, back to London, citing his wish to keep her from a sexless, childless existence. But we aren’t afforded any view of the presumed obstacles that he must now face in an environment ill-equipped for his wheelchair. The very practical issues of how he gets around in a house full of stairs, of who is assisting him with bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom are not addressed. The heir presumptive must not be subject to these indignities, and the show acts as though it’s simply a matter of Bates — who in the pilot, we were told, wasn’t able to carry anything as might be required in the course of extra duties! — helping him move from wheelchair to bed. And when it becomes clear that Matthew will recover, though he’ll carry a bruise on his spine for the rest of his life, he quips, “But at least I’ll have a life” — which statement is at the very least hugely insulting to anyone in a wheelchair.

What’s more, the episode goes on to show that Matthew must be spared not only the wheelchair — only an able-bodied man is worthy to be the next Lord Grantham — but even the burden of having to appear ungentlemanly. In a truly horrifying development, as Lavinia lays dying of Spanish flu, having realized that he’s still in love with Mary, she manages to choke out, “Isn’t this better, really? You won’t have to make a hard decision . . .” So in the show’s really fucked up logic, it’s better that Lavinia die than Matthew have to do something selfish so that he and Mary can be together? This is the pinnacle of the show’s contortions to bring the protagonists to what I assume is coming: their marriage, securing Mary’s place in society and neatly resolving the problem that has propelled the series since the pilot. Hence my post title, “Down-ton Abbey,” as the show’s writers reach a new low in this episode.

I still plan to watch and enjoy “Downton Abbey” — if not just to delight in the swoon-worth Dan Stevens — but I’ll continue to do so carefully.

blue nights

I was drawn into Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights, immediately. She begins by writing about a season changing from spring into summer into fall:

To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.

I’ve only read one other Didion book, The Year of Magical Thinking, the memoir that preceded Blue Nights. Tragically, the former is about the death of her husband in 2003; the latter, the death of her daughter two years later. It’s hard to escape the fact that few have unexpectedly suffered more than Didion.

In both books, the difficult subject matter is made easier by her beautiful writing. Her prose is positively poetic. I read The Year of Magical Thinking weeks after the death of my beloved grandfather, and it helped me immensely in dealing with his death. The book also touched on her daughter’s struggle, who was in a coma at the time of her father’s death (but managed to recover long enough to attend the funeral). When it was published, I was eager, as odd as it sounds, to read the second part of Didion’s saga. Her recent experience is heartbreaking, and accompanying her on her journey through grief is comforting.

But if Blue Nights drew me in right away, I had a hard time finishing it. In some ways, what Didion describes in both books is universal: With grief come questions. How did the illness actually cause death? Did the deceased anticipate the end? How did I fail my loved one? How could I have made the time we had left more meaningful? Why didn’t I . . .? And no one articulates these hard questions better than she.

In other ways, Didion mistakes her experience as universal. Toward the end of the book, she contemplates the suddenness of change: “One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not. One day we are turning the pages of whatever has arrived in the day’s mail with real enthusiasm — maybe it is Vogue, maybe it is Foreign Affairs, whatever it is we are intensely interested, pleased to have this handbook to keeping up, this key to staying alive — yet the next day we are walking uptown on Madison past Barney’s and Armani or on Park past the Council on Foreign Relations and we are not even glancing at their windows.” The general sentiment rings true, to be sure, but the details that are supposed to concretize her state of mind are alienating. Didion uses the word “we” — but her world isn’t one that I recognize.

Indeed, her two works that I’ve read are full of this kind of name and label dropping: Payard and Bouvier des Flandres, Bendel’s and The Bistro, Minton dinner plates and I. Magnin soap, Lilly Pulitzer shifts and Donald Brooks dresses, David Webb bracelets and Christian Louboutin shoes. I don’t even know what most of those words mean. And it goes on. Tasha (Natasha Richardson). Nick (Dominick Dunne). She spends two pages listing the (presumably very fancy) hotels that she and her daughter stayed in on her book tours. She even identifies something as banal as a kitchen implement: a “Craftsman knife.”

I probably would have dismissed these details had they gone unremarked. I’ve come to think of them as window-dressing, ornaments whose specificity probably connote something deeply meaningful for Didion (indeed, a photograph of Sophia Loren at a fashion show in 1968 prompts a lengthy ode to a past era in her life) but which for me are almost meaningless. I feel deeply for Didion’s losses, and these references, signifying wealth above all, give me hope. Whatever else she is — bereft, grieving, heartbroken, broken — she’s not poor. She has the resources to give herself the space to heal. It’s one of the benefits of privilege.

But Didion is angry about this label, and she breaks into a defensive address of the reader halfway through Blue Nights: “‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.”

But she’s wrong. Just wrong. Wrong, full stop. It’s hard to imagine a more privileged type of person in the U.S. than a wealthy white Hollywood family. Didion’s daughter undoubtedly suffered terribly at the end of her life — and, to hear Didion tell, struggled with debilitating mental issues when she was alive. And she did so in a life of privilege. With all due respect to Didion’s experience, health problems, even fatal ones, don’t negate privilege.

I found this refusal to acknowledge her daughter’s — and by extension her own — privilege so troubling that I had to put the book down for several months. I was recently able to finish it, and I’m glad I did. Ultimately, I do recommend the book — how can I not love a book whose author describes a scene of her daughter’s walking to school as “beautiful as anything I’d ever seen”? — but I also recommend skipping chapter 15. Didion should have skipped it, too.

tu bishvat

“a carved tree in rock creek park”; photo by rachel tepper (first prize in Washington DCJCC’s “Every Person is a Tree” 2012 Tu Bishvat photography contest)

Today is the Jewish holiday called Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of the month Shevat. It’s the new year for trees. (There are technically four “new years” in the Jewish calendar: The new year for kings, Rosh Hashanah; the calendar new year, Nisan (the first month); and the new year for tithing animals (the least well known one), Elul.) Originally a date to help farmers obey a Torah prohibition not to eat of a tree’s fruit until its fifth year, it’s come to be a minor festival. Today in Israel Tu Bishvat is celebrated with tree planting ceremonies, while in the Diaspora some give money to plant trees in Israel. There are also Tu Bishvat seders, as well as various ecological or environmental programs.

This is not a holiday that I’ve given much thought to in the past, but when I started this blog I committed myself to reading, reflecting, and writing about the Jewish holidays each year. Consulting several sources, I have learned more than I knew. I’ve attended at least one Tu Bishvat seder in the past, and we talked about the holiday last night at my b’nai mitzvah class, saying blessings over almonds, raisins, and olives). When I got home, I made almond mandelbrot.

But if I am being honest, I don’t feel much connection to this holiday right now. Lots of rabbis and other Jewish educators have said beautiful things this year and in the past about the meaning of Tu Bishvat and the Jewish people’s connection to trees, but I am just not there. I haven’t read or heard anything so far this year that has spoken to me. It’s probably best to just acknowledge that and see what happens next year, when, G-d willing, I’ll be in my first year of rabbinical school. How will things have changed by then?

Until then, I’ll join the ranks of at least two Tu Bishvat curmudgeons. In 2009 I began a weekly adult education class via the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, offered by the local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Over a year we covered both the “Rhythms of Jewish Living” and the “Purposes of Jewish Living” curricula; the former concerned the Jewish lifecycle. In late winter, one of the class instructors, the Hillel rabbi at an area university, shared his theory about Tu Bishvat. He felt that the rise in prominence of Tu Bishvat among Jewish holidays in modern observance was the Hebrew school cycle. Holiday-wise, there’s not much between Chanukah and Purim, so Tu Bishvat becomes more important just because of when it occurs in the Jewish calendar: Tu Bishvat as a glorified Jewish Earth Day. He was adamant about his interpretation of recent history — a point generally lost on us — and rather upset by it. Maybe I’ll be, too, after six years of rabbinical school? However, I don’t think that I’ll ever be as upset as my friend Ben over the spelling of this holiday. But I do appreciate his grammatical fervor.

To end on a high note, I do love this story about Theodore Herzl when he planted a tree near Jerusalem. It seems to prove his famous dictum: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

torah portion

parshat naso; art by siona benjamin

Since October, I’ve been taking an weekly young adult b’nai mitzvah class at Sixth & I, where I got married.

Isn’t that how the life cycle goes? Marriage, bat mitzvah two years later, followed shortly by rabbinical school? No?

My participation in the class is a little strange, since I am in a more than slightly different place than most of my classmates. (As far as I know, no one else is applying to rabbinical school.) And the experience of my classmates is pretty varied: Some are products of mixed marriages, so didn’t grow up Jewish, but are now connecting with their Judaism; others had a bar or bat mitzvah as a kid but didn’t feel like they got much out of it and want to learn more now. And still others grew up nominally Jewish and just didn’t have b’nai mitzvah. There is at least one other convert.

I’m in the class to learn the order of services, the prayers, and trope, and to have the experience of leading services and chanting Torah. To be sure, I’m getting that, even if the class occasionally veers a little too much into the “Introduction to Judaism” realm. Plus, I love the instructor, the beyond awesome Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel.

The ceremony will be this summer at Sixth & I, and our parshah is Naso, from the book of Numbers (the longest of the weekly Torah portions). The parshah addresses priestly duties, purifying the camp, the wife accused of unfaithfulness (sotah), the nazirite, the priestly blessing, and consecrating the Tabernacle. The four or so lines that I will be chanting (Numbers 4:28-5:2) are the end of census instructions and the beginning of those for camp cleaning.

We talked about the full parshah last week and began to work on our d’vrei Torah. Most of our discussion in class focused on the ritual of the sotah, because it’s just wacky. There’s really no other word for it, at least at first glance. It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We began discussing it more seriously than an initial reading would suggest it merits, but I don’t know that I’ve gained much insight into the passage yet.

And so, I leave you with this: “What also floats in water?” “Bread! Apples! Very small rocks!”

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