Fall, 1995:

Wrestling with my emerging Jewish identity -- and my kids'. As I wrote this, I was pregnant with the baby who would become my precious Elisheva Chaya. Her first name means "God is my oath," and her second name, simply "life."

My husband and I have since divorced, and are both struggling to find ourselves, Jewishly, my kids are still my living oath to Judaism; they are life itself to me.

 
 
Names

 The grandmotherly lady in Safeway smiles and coos at my blond, cherubic toddler enticingly.  "What's your name, honey?," she asks, figuring him for a Ryan or Cody or Sean.  This question often comes even before the one about his age.  I joke with her about the fact that he is still far too young to give an answer, so she asks me next.  I cannot tell a lie, nor am I inclined to, as I reply, "Yerachmiel Meir".  I often follow this with the addendum, "It's Hebrew."  Further explanation is usually unnecessary, as this might call for the questioner to actually pronounce the baby's name, which is invariably disastrous on the first, or even fortieth, try.

 It is a Hebrew name, actually two wonderful ones, thousands of years old and deeply rooted in  our Jewish heritage.  "Yerachmiel" (YER-ach-meel) means "G-d's mercy", and "Meir" (as in Mayor McCheese, as my husband has passingly quipped), means "light".  Yerachmiel was my grandfather's Hebrew name, though he was called Sam most of his life.  He died when I was two or three months pregnant, and we have the custom of naming babies out of respect for deceased relatives.

 It is also a particularly apt name because, as everyone who's ever been pregnant knows, there is an astonishing array of shocking things that can go wrong with the baby in his nine months (give or take) inside of you.  In our case, what went wrong was that the baby was born with an extra finger.  His baby finger, on the left hand, has a little siamese twin, wiggling around in parallel, and causing everybody in the delivery room to comment on what large hands he had until my husband finally noticed why the left one, anyway, really looked so big.  Of all the horrifying misadventures to befall an innocent foetus, what could feel more merciful, if you think about it, than an extra finger?  Not a malformed heart, not spina bifida or Down Syndrome, just a pinky.  A pink and chubby one that has come to look almost normal over the past year.  That is a pretty strong dose of mercy to go with his name.

 I often comment to people over the tongue-twister that is my son's title, "He'll grow into it."  And, believe it or not, he really is growing into it.  I call him by his full name all the time, and have since he was born.  A few nicknames here and there ("Honey Guy", "Butter-Pecan Man", "Turtle", "Pooky-Loo" and "Puppy" are the ones that seem to stand out in my memory of the past year), but mostly "Yerachmiel Meir".  His relatives also seem to be making valiant  attempts to learn to pronounce it before he does.  But why, I hear people asking, give him (some might say, burden him with) a name which stands out so awkwardly in the context of his background (remember, even the grandfather for whom he is named was called "Sam"!) and environment (which is, at the moment, Calgary)?

 An overly-simplified answer is that, as Orthodox Jews, we will never quite "fit in" anyway, especially in Calgary.  Since Yerachmiel Meir will have to be different from Sean or Ryan or Cody from the start in everything from what he eats to what he wears, it would be more of a burden to name him something like Tom, teaching him that he is like every other child on the block, and then expecting him to wrench himself away from the culture of which he had felt so intrinsically a part.  It is easier and safer to make the distinction from the start.

 But somewhere along the line, when the talk started turning to marriage, I insisted I would not marry a non-Jew.  So he converted, or so we thought, until we discovered that the rabbinical organization behind the conversion was not quite the reliable authority on Jewish law that we had at first taken it to be.  We began to question the validity behind a conversion overseen by such an inconsistent  body, and a year and a half later he converted again under the most Orthodox auspices available.  A year and a half over which we completed the transformation to an entirely religious lifestyle.  We have a kosher kitchen, with separate dishes for meat and milk, we pray frequently and murmur blessings for food each time we eat (before and after eating), we cover our heads, he with a yarmulke (skullcap), and I with hats or wigs.  And until we recently moved to Calgary, we had a fairly large body of friends who did the same, who observed the same laws and rituals, many of whom had also not started out religious, or even Jewish.  Many of whom were having kids and giving them Hebrew names also.

 To our families, I guess the impression that we gave was, "Hey, this is us now, so get used to it...See all these other people doing things the same way?...And isn't the baby great, whatever his name is?  (everybody agreed to this part)".  And now we've been transplanted, moved out to Calgary, close to my husband's family and their brave efforts at pronunciation (they're not Jewish, remember...they've never even heard before many of the words that we take for granted).  Close to the Safeway, where I now shop alone with my chubby, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby.  But hardly anyone here does things quite the way we do, religiously, and we have no friends yet anyway.  Just our slight differentnesses (can't do things Friday night and Saturday, can't eat out), and our strange baby (six fingers on one hand, weird name).

 So it's interesting to hear myself pointing out that the baby will grow into his name.  He's the one who thinks it's perfectly normal to be called from downstairs with a six-syllable tongue-twister.  He probably thinks all parents talk to their food and that all babies have separate bibs and high-chair trays for meat and milk.  He must think that the rednecks calling racist insults from their cars are just being friendly, while we cringe and feel alone.  So it looks as though the tables have been turned on us and our relatively new and uncertain lifestyle and ambitions.  Perhaps, after all, it is we who must now grow into his name.

 
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