One of the more memorable excursions on my recent trip to Israel was the afternoon we spent in Tzfat, a charming little northern town known as the birthplace of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah.
While there, we encountered a fellow named Avraham, an artist who gave us a crash course in the ways of Jewish mystics, with particular emphasis on the significance of one’s first name to one’s identity. Every name has an origin and a narrative behind it, Avraham explained; thus, inherent in your own name lies the entire story of you.
While Avraham’s disposition and speaking patterns suggested someone who had ingested perhaps a few too many domed plants in the course of his life, his point was taken: To an extent that we don’t often appreciate, our first names are an essential and unavoidable component of our personalities and our very selves.
We build our reputations by how we think and what we do, but it all begins with the name by which we are called. All else is secondary.
What makes this interesting is that, with the odd exception, all of us earthlings go about our daily lives with a name that was chosen by somebody else. If nomenclature is the most fundamental distinction of one person from another, it is also the rare aspect of our outward identity that we do not shape ourselves.
Usually our name is determined by our parents, although as we learned from a scuttlebutt in Tennessee last week, it can also be ordained by a judge. As well, various states have various laws prohibiting certain names from the lexicon, either for reasons of length, taste or the simple keeping of the peace.
In any case, your first name is something you have to live with, so to speak, and most people do. Upon coming of age, one is entitled to legally change one’s name for almost any reason (or none at all), but we generally decline the offer.
Certain athletes, singers and other manner of celebrities do occasionally take the plunge, precisely in order to shape a particular image of themselves for the wider world to absorb, but most of us regular folks do not follow their lead. After 18 years of getting accustomed to a particular moniker, we figure we might as well see it through to the end.
Suppose we didn’t. Suppose that, rather than merely offered the opportunity to reinvent ourselves when we become adults, we were actually compelled to do so. That your birth name expired at the stroke of midnight on your eighteenth birthday, at which point you must either renew it or choose a new one.
What would you call yourself, if you had to start all over again? What are the sorts of names that are more “you”? Would you opt for originality or emulate a beloved family member or personal hero of some sort? Would you veer wildly from the name you have thus far worn, or would you alter it just the slightest bit?
How might such considerations play out across the wider population? Which names would suddenly become ubiquitous, and which would become scarce? Would the “most popular names” lists mirror those of names bestowed by parents upon their newborn children, or would they not? Would the voter rolls come more to resemble a Who’s Who of players from the Bible, or would we quickly become a nation of Kims and Kanyes?
The question this begs returns us to our friend Avraham: What does your name mean to you? Would it mean more to you had you selected it yourself? Based on the person you have become, might your parents have chosen differently, or was their at-birth decision right on the money?
In your life, have you attempted to live up (or down) to the connotations typically associated with your first name, or have you rather tried to appropriate it to your own ends? Have you taken ownership over your identity, or has your identity taken ownership over you?