Now that we’ve got all the universal stuff out of the way, we begin the story of the Jewish people with the first of the patriarchs, Abraham (How many of you remember a little book we read in Hebrew school book, “HaYehudi HaRishon,” “The First Jew”?). At first, his name is Abram. He is married to Sarai. Abram is 75, Sarai 65. Childless, they leave their home at a Divine command to go… somewhere, which turns out to be Canaan. There’s a carrot (12:2): “I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (That reminds me of how corporate executive wannabes would go off to… somewhere drop of the boss’ hat. 7 years since retirement! Yay!). Because of famine, they sojourn in Egypt, and Abram protects himself by passing the beautiful Sarai off to Pharaoh as his sister (believe it or not, this is considered one of the 10 tests of Abraham by the rabbis). Lot breaks off from the family (Their workers fight. Surprise.), gets into trouble with local kings, and is rescued, not for the last time, by Uncle Abram.
Abram is not only promised a son, but, a covenant with the Lord, in which his descendants will be as numerous as the stars and possess the land of Canaan (with a 400-year detour enslaved in a land not their own). But right now, there is no son. It was common then for a barren wife to give her husband her maidservant as a concubine, so Sarai hands over Hagar. But major conflicts ensue between Sarai and Hagar after Hagar gives birth (surprise) when Abram is 86. Abram doesn’t know how to deal with the two women and just tries to distance himself). Thirteen years later, the Lord formalizes the covenant (Chapter 17), including name changes: Abram to Abraham (“father of multitudes”) and Sarai to Sarah (a more formal term for “princess”).The portion ends with the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and all the males in the household as a sign of the covenant. Once more, Abraham (99) is told he will have a son, and with Sarah (89)! He laughs.
We really know very little about Abraham himself. Why was he chosen? Why did he become a monotheist? Why did he marry Sarai? The rabbis flesh out his story with Midrash (stories to fill in blanks), like that story about smashing idols in his father’s shop. We see him as a good man who wants to take care of his family and longs for a son to inherit him.
People have many identities, depending on both circumstances and choice. Circumcision is one mark of identity for male Jews. (Old joke: What do you call a Jew greater than 8 days old who has not been circumcised? A girl.) There are some small health benefits, but in times of persecution, when circumcision visibly identified a Jew, being circumcised could be fatal. Yet baby boys were still circumcised, in faith and defiance.
Names, of course, also indicate identity. They can indicate parentage, residence, occupation, or whim. When Eastern European Jews were required to choose surnames, some even chose different surnames within the same nuclear family. I’ve been into genealogy for years, and Eastern European Jewish genealogy is particularly challenging. Names in Yiddish (Hebrew script) are transliterated into Russian (Cyrillic) or Polish (Latin) and then written again on a ship’s manifest by someone who knows only German (in Hamburg) or English (e.g., Liverpool) or at entry (or later) in the U.S. My father’s father’s surname, Grundwag, became Grundwark, Grondwog, Grunwog, Greendwog, Greendway, and Lord knows what else. That branch of Grundwags settled on Greenwald in the U.S. I have generally found it easier to research my husband’s family, Plotzkers from Płock (pron. “plotzk”) in Poland. But even there I have problems, like not realizing part of the family in the U.K. changed the name to Preston. Oy!
To each his own
A priest and a rabbi operated a church and a synagogue across the street from each other. Since their schedules intertwined, they decided to go in together to buy a car. After the purchase, they drove it home and parked in on the street between their establishments. A few minutes later, the rabbi looked out and saw the priest sprinkling water on their new car. It didn’t need a wash, so he ran out and asked the priest what he was doing. “I’m blessing it,” the priest replied. The rabbi considered this a moment, then said, “Oh,” and ran back inside the synagogue. He reappeared a moment later with a hacksaw, ran to the back of the car and cut off the last two inches of the tailpipe.
Names to Avoid for a Baby
Al E. Gater Helen Hywater
Amanda Lynn Herbie Hind
Anita Room Holly Wood
Arty Fischel Horace Cope
Barry D. Hatchett Hugh Raye
Ben Dover Ima Hogg
Bennie Factor Iona Mink
Carole Singer Jack Pott
Chester Minit Jay Walker
Crystal Ball Jim Nasium
Dick Tate Joe King
Dinah Mite Justin Thyme
Don Keigh Kay Oss
Quotes about Identity
I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So I am really never alone. My identity is through that line. Ziggy Marley
In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity. Erik Erikson
Some people have an identity. I have an alibi. I have a shadow self. Andre Aciman
I definitely have a strong sense of my Jewish and Israeli identity. I did my two-year military service; I was brought up in a very Jewish, Israeli family environment, so of course my heritage is very important to me. Gal Gadot
Often we lose our identity trying to please or placate others. Mary Manin Morrissey