"Hirshel, Hershey… Hirshel, Hershey…"
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, my stepmother's Mormon cousin had turned my Jewish name into jingle for a chocolate bar. He wasn't trying to be mean; actually it was quite funny. But at that moment I hated my Jewish name and I hated him.
On the other hand, I never related to my English name, Daren. What did it have to do with me? My best friend Damon and I would always make up names for ourselves – Kosimo, Otto, Bruno. With each name I had a different accent – Russian, German, Italian. I had difficulty remembering who I told people I was.
But as far as my Jewish name, it was simply embarrassing. When I showed up in a yeshiva at age 26, a rabbi asked me: "So, Daren, what's your Jewish name?"
"Aaah… ummm... Hirshel." Childhood anger flooded over me.
I asked him to call me Daren. But every now and then, he'd mention, "If you want to be called up the Torah, you'll need a Jewish name."
Actually, I was getting "called up" – but always for the lifting of the Torah, the only honor where one's Jewish name is not needed. So I had some time to decide what to do about my Jewish name.
Which got me thinking: What are names all about, anyway? Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." In other words, what you call something is arbitrary.
I discovered, however, that in Hebrew this is not so. What something is called, reflects its inner essence.
In the Torah, it says that God brought all the animals before Adam, "and whatever the man called each living creature, that remained its name" (Genesis 2:19). The way that Adam named the animals was by understanding the unique aspect of each creature. A donkey, which transports material goods (chomer) called a chamor.
Our name reflects our unique qualities and strengths.
So too, each of us is given a name that reflects the unique qualities and strengths with which we've been created. The 16th century kabbalist the Arizal explained that a Jewish name, and even its numerical value, can tell you about the nature of that person. The Hebrew word for soul, neshama, contains the word shem or name, showing the link between a person's soul and their name.
By understanding our Jewish name, we glimpse aspects of both our essence and our purpose in life. That's why, when being called up to the Torah, we use our Jewish name When you call someone by that name, you remind a person of the meaning of their spiritual essence.
So now I was in a real bind. Since I had rejected my original name, it was as if I was without a name. Can you say: Identity crisis?!
So I definitely needed to choose a new name. Yet it is a very serious process to change one's name, as it affects one's fortune. For example, if a person is very sick, the name Chaim ("life") is often added to strengthen him. Only a few people know how to give new names correctly.
One day, my rabbi suggested: "If you'd like, we'll go together to a famous tzaddik (holy man) who can help you find your name."
I wanted to be prepared with some ideas, so from a book of Jewish names, I gathered all the most exotic names I could find: "Zerubavel, Beniyahu, Assa..."
A few days later, the rabbi took me to see Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Fisher, known to be the greatest rabbi in the world for giving names. He knew the gematria (numerical value) of every name, and how that name corresponded to a word or verse of the Torah. They say he was able to look into the soul of a person, and ascertain the kabbalistic root of the person's name.
We arrived at his shul in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem at 8 a.m. There was already a long line of people waiting. As we inched along, my anticipation grew for a real mystical experience.
As I turned the corner to face the great rabbi, I met a little bent man with a respirator smiling at me as if I were a long lost cousin. He turned to my rabbi friend and engaged him actively in Yiddish.
"His Hebrew name is Hirshel. He does not like his name. I had him make a list."
Rabbi Fisher quickly took the list, and then looked up at me: "Azriel."
I hadn't even remembered putting that name on the list. But as soon as he said it, I knew it was supposed to be my name.
I walked out and thought about the meaning of the name Azriel: "My help is God." I always felt that God was taking good care of me. As I accepted the name in my heart, I saw a mental flash of an agile figure, very different from me at that moment, that I understood to be me as Azriel.
That big donor is at the Western Wall right now.
That afternoon, walking home, I thought about where my life was heading. At the time I'd been working on to start an international human rights agency to end the incitation of children to violence by Arab countries. A senator's aide had helped me collect names of donors in the Jewish world to help fund my project. The day before, I was given the name of a major player, and I was planning to contact him in New York.
Just then, a friend ran up to me: "You know that big donor you were looking for? He's in Israel. He's at the Western Wall right now."
I ran to the Wall, found Mr. Big Donor, successfully arranged a meeting. It was all I could do to hold myself back from saying: "My name is Azriel and God helps me!"
Back to El Paso
I was flying high as Azriel, but there was only one problem: I felt a bit guilty about getting rid of Hirshel all together. I liked the name Hirsh, it was just Hirshel I felt odd about.
A few months later, I was flying from Israel to New York for a family occasion. My father met me in New York. When I told him my itinerary, he said, "You're here in the U.S. and you're not coming to visit us in El Paso?!" I could tell he was hurt.
I tried to come up with a quick excuse.
"It's a matter of kosher food. What I am supposed to eat in El Paso, Texas?"
My father quickly accepted the challenge: "We'll kosher our kitchen for you."
Several days later I was in El Paso. The day after I arrived, a cousin whom I had not seen in 15 years passed away.
My father drove me to the funeral. I took along a book of Psalms to say by the gravestones of different family members after the funeral. As I stood before my grandmother's grave, I noticed the Hebrew names under her English name. Now that I knew how to read Hebrew, I began sounding out the name: "Miriam… the daughter of… Aaron… Hirsh."
I couldn't speak. Though I always knew that God loves me, did He care so much to fly me all the way back to the place I was born, just to help complete my name? Just as my great-grandfather was "Aaron Hirsh," I now knew how to shorten Hirshel in a way that fit perfectly: On that day, I became Azriel Hirsh.
Ready to be called up to the Torah.
Ready to take God's help, and embrace my next challenge.
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