Call Me by Their Name

About two years ago, without much fanfare, I changed my name on Facebook from “Michael Ovadia” to “Moshe Michael Ovadia.”  For the past 5+ years, I’ve been wrestling with this name transition, straddled between two identities.  And today I’d like to say: If you’re my friend, please call me “Moshe.”

For those who don’t know, Moshe is the original Hebrew for the English name Moses.  I ask that you pronounce it Mósheh (like “shed” without the “d”).

 

Why my name, why their name, matters to me

One of the few “wins” of my mother’s marriage was naming her first-born child (me) after her grandfathers, both of whom were named Moshe.  Well, in the old country they were Moshe, in prayer they were Moshe.  But as immigrants, they both adopted the Anglican name Morris.  America wasn’t the most accepting place towards immigrants in 1920s (not to say it is today).

Using the traditional logic of assimilation, my parents hid the name Moshe behind Michael – selecting a neutral name to blend in.  On my Hebrew birth certificate, the Rabbi wrote “Moshe.”  On my American birth certificate, the nurse wrote “Michael.”  And so it was: Michael, Mike, Mikey, Miguelito, Migs, etc.

In fact, on some level my whole name is a product of Ellis Island logic.  My father’s father was named Salach in Arabic; but that name was too ethnic, so Salach was honored with the simple letter “S” as my middle initial (like Harry S. Truman).  Even the name Ovadia is a ruse.  My father, born in Baghdad, had an Arabic last name; he changed it, though, to assimilate into a Euro-centric Israel.

And so I came into the world, Michael S. Ovadia, supposedly safe from persecution.  Veiled in neutrality, with Moshe reserved for moments of prayer and my eventual gravestone.  And I get it.  This September I visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, where I surveyed a millennium of European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust.  I’ve wandered the crematoria of Auschwitz.  Closer to home, when my family moved to suburban New Jersey, the previous home owners left behind a Nazi flag as a welcome gift.  And I faced a good deal of anti-Semitism through high school.

 

So why the change now?

Because I’m tired of hiding.  I didn’t come out as a gay man until I was twenty-nine, which came at an enormous cost to me and those I loved yet misled.  My lifelong adaptation strategies to fit in did not yield happiness, only a false sense of acceptance.  And I long to live in a world where it’s safe and supportve to be yourself, which includes both where you came from and how you choose to deviate from that foundation.

And honestly, I like the name Moshe.  One Moshe was my mom’s favorite human being on the planet; she gushes whenever she speaks of him.  The other Moshe died at fifty from tuberculosis, struggling to feed nine children in New York’s filthy tenements.  And of course, there’s the biblical Moshe (Moses) we’re all named after – who gave up his princely status to fight for justice.  As the story goes, Moshe led a tribe of people on an epic journey of faith to find personal and psychological freedom.  Not bad.  And I like the sound of the name.  Something lights up inside me when I hear it.

 

And why now? 

Because I’ve reached a significant life milestone.  After twelve years based in San Francisco, and ten years in graduate school, I’m returning “home.”  I just moved to the Lenox Hill neighborhood on New York’s Upper Eastside – which shares a name with the nearby hospital that I was born in.  In that delivery room, my mother asked herself “what’s a nice, neutral name that kinda sounds like Moshe?”  Since moving from NY to SF twelve years ago, I’m a different person.  Different, but in some ways much more like that little boy in the delivery room – more raw, more real, more exposed.  Back then, I suppose, I was looking around eagerly to be formed.  Now, I’m looking around eagerly to regress into the core, the unformed, the authentic soul that has hidden for safety.

And of significance, I just started a new job, where I will be meeting many new people.  And for the first time in my life, in a professional setting, I’ll introduce myself as Moshe.

At the deepest level, I feel like this provides an opportunity for growth – for me, and more deeply, for my lineage.  The only things holding me back from using my preferred name, my first given name, my ancestral name – is fear of others’ judgment and persecution.  Will I sound too ethnic?  Too Jewish?  Will it be hard to pronounce?  Will I not be promoted in the workplace?  Might America see a wave of neo-Nazism that could threaten my wellbeing?  Some of these fears are warranted.  But I don’t want fears like this to hold me back in life.  So in a sense, this is more than a name reclamation.  It’s a symbolic shift in how I want to live my life.

 

So what does this mean for us, friend?

In a sense, nothing has changed.  I’m not changing my name legally.  I don’t expect anything to change in our relationship; I love you no matter what you call me.  But if you remember, I’d prefer to be called “Moshe.”  That’s how I’ll be introducing myself to new people I meet.

So please, call me by my great-grandfathers’ name.  Their name.  My name.  Or don’t.  But simply making this ask is a tiny step towards the freedom my heart longs for, for myself and the human collective.

 

Passport photo of my great grandfather Moshe, c.1921. I think there’s quite a resemblance!