Two weeks ago, I converted to Judaism. I am now whole-heartedly 100% Jewish. It was a decision two-and-a-half years in the making and not one that I took lightly. The road to choosing a Jewish life was fraught with questions about theology and practice, concerns about culture and language, and the more personal question of how my family would react (they have been incredibly supportive). While I am sure I will touch on all of these things at some point in this blog, I want to focus today on my Hebrew name.
Have you ever thought about what you would name yourself if you had the chance to go back and make a suggestion to your parents? How would you choose a name that encompassed who you are, who you hope to be, and who you may ultimately become? Choosing my Hebrew name was one of the most difficult parts of my conversion. I was in the home stretch, after all. Wrestling with God and questioning my religious place in the world were behind me. I had already chosen Judaism and just needed a name that would ground me in the history and tradition of the Jewish people.
Should I be Miriam or Deborah? They are strong, recognizable Jewish women. They were women with their own connections to God, women who were leaders in their community. Eliana means "God has answered," which is a fitting summary of my conversion experience. Plus, it is pretty and starts with an E, as does my English name. I continued like that through all the Hebrew names that even remotely interested me. I even made a color-coded spreadsheet to help me organize my thoughts on each name.
In the end, I chose the Hebrew name Yael bat Avraham v’Sarah. On my spreadsheet the name Yael had this note: "Awesome, but too violent?"
The story of Yael can be found in Judges 4-5. Under the leadership of the prophet Deborah and the Israelite military commander Barak, the Israelite army fought the Canaanite army for their freedom after 20 years of oppression. The Israelites won, but Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, escaped to the tent of an Israelite woman named Yael and asked her to hide him. She invited him in, gave him milk, and tucked him in for a nap. Then Yael "picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died" (Judges 4:21). Yael was proclaimed a hero and "the most blessed of women" (Judges 5:24) for her actions and the Israelites enjoyed forty years of peace.
I chose the name Yael as my Hebrew name because Yael is a complex Biblical woman and a strong, independent hero. Her role as a woman, caregiver, and assassin should cause us to think critically about gender roles, human nature, and questions of life and loss. I hope to always think critically about Judaism and to not shy away from difficult theological questions. Though the story of Yael is difficult because of its violent nature, it is ultimately a story of bravery and victory. Yael’s story ends with joyous song, dance, and praise. Though Judaism may, at times, continue to challenge me with its complexity, as does the story of Yael, I believe that it will also give my life joy and blessings.
Chag Sameach, Happy Passover!