Ask the Rabbi

June, July, 2019 QUESTION:

I don’t know the Hebrew names of my parents. They were non-observant. I did not go to Hebrew School, never had a Bar Mitzvah. My parents were buried in a  community cemetery in the small town we lived in. I also never received a Hebrew name. What should I use?

June, July, 2019 ANSWER:

Well, you can’t change what has happened in the past, but you can change what will happen going forward. So you can give your parents Hebrew names, following the custom of making the secular and Hebrew names begin with the same sounds (this is not a requirement of Jewish law; it probably evolved to make it easier for the Yiddish-speaking grandparents to remember the English names of their grandchildren). Thus Moshe became Morris, and Miriam became Molly. You could do the same thing, in reverse. I have books of names you can peruse if you want help finding suitable names for your parents.

If you have siblings, you might ask them how they have dealt with this, and perhaps you will find that they have decided on names for your parents. If all the siblings use the same names for their parents, the family will have deepened its Jewish identity.

For yourself, you could also work from the English to the Hebrew.. Or, you can be more creative, and simply find a name you like, either for its sound or for its meaning (all Hebrew names are really just words with specific meanings).

If you are so inclined, we can have a little ceremony to establish your chosen Hebrew name. And then we can call you to the Torah using your own Hebrew name, with your parents’ names attached, as is Jewish custom.

As for not “having a Bar Mitzvah”, perhaps you will take comfort from the fact that a Jewish male “becomes Bar Mitzvah” at the age of 13, with or without a ceremony. The phrase actually means “commandment accountable”, and indicates that at 13, a young man is counted as an adult, in terms of his responsibilities as a Jew. The ceremony celebrates the transition, but does not produce it. So you are Bar Mitzvah. If you want to have the pleasure of reading Torah, we can work toward that goal; let me know what you’d like to do about that. But you will be Bar Mitzvah, commandment accountable, regardless!

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