This past week, I took a much dreamed about trip to the Tenement Museum in Lower East Side of Manhattan. I’d gone into the city to report for jury duty (something I consider an exciting novelty now that I call Israel home), but it turns out, once you move out of New York county, NY civil court doesn’t want you. I may be one of the few Americans left who relish in the opportunity to do one’s civil duty for $40 a day without travel reimbursements, but hey, that’s what happens when you become an expat…you start to miss the things that used to seem like a nuisance.
Anyhow, I had left my whole day open for jury duty, and at 10 am, I was left with an entirely open day on a blustery December morning. What to do?
Go to that museum I’ve been wanting to visit since college, of course. Every weekend, on my way from New Jersey back to a week of school at Queens College, I noticed something called the Tenement Museum. It was always a place I passed by, not one that I made an effort to stop at. Google Maps said it was a 20 minute walk away, I said “hey, what a great day to see where Jewish immigrants lived at the turn of the 19th century” and that was that.
My timing was really quite excellent. I got there just in time for a tour of Shop Life. Upon registration, I answered the clerk’s question with half-minded automaticity: My name is Eliana Sohn…It’s spelled S-O-H-N…I am not a student.
The next question, though seemingly simply, took me by surprise: Where are you from, Ms. Sohn?
I hesitated, and I’m sure he saw it on my face. Where am I from? Well, I lived in the US the past 26 years of my life, and this man would never think I’m anything other than American given my hybrid New York-Boston accent…but I made aliyah. I’m Israeli now too, a new identity that I thank G-d for wholeheartedly every day. But what will the clerk think of me when I say I’m from Israel…it’s not really his business where I call home.
“I’m from New York,” I finally responded.
New York? That’s what I said? Really?
Did I not just finalize to the New York County court that I was no longer a New Yorker? At least if I said Jersey I’d have been telling some sort of truth. Forget New York. Forget New Jersey. Why was I afraid to say that I’m now from Israel, an Israeli?
When we’re given a name, or we give a name to ourselves, that name is meant to express the essence of who we are or hope to be over the course of a lifetime. For most of us, we don’t choose or change our first name, as Jacob’s was changed in Parashat Vayishlach. Still many people do change their name or title to signify a deeply cherished choice and commitment they’ve made. For some, it’s choosing to go by their Hebrew name, for others, it’s taking on a new last name after marriage. Some acquire a title related to a calling or specialty: Doctor, Professor, Rabbi (to name a few).
After Jacob struggles with a messenger/angel (אִישׁ֙) on his way to meet his long estranged brother Esau, he gains a new name:
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל
And [the angel] said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.
The meaning seems pretty straightforward. Jacob had a very difficult life, but even so, he never lost sight of his faith and core values. No matter what, he held tight to his purpose and mission, without making demands or looking for loopholes.
Rashi says it best:
.לא יאמר עוד שהברכות באו לך בעקבה וברמיה כי אם בשררה ובגלוי פנים
It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (עָקְבָה) and deceit, but with nobility (שררה) and openness.
From the time of his birth, Jacob has gotten his blessings by tricking or being tricked. He receives the first born son’s blessing from Isaac by pretending to be Esau. He only gets to marry his intended wife, Rachel, after first (unknowingly) marrying Leah. Anything that looked like a blessing was never acquired simply or directly.
And perhaps this is why, when he is about to face Esau for the first time since he traded his lentil stew for the first born blessing, he is given a new name related to the out-in-the-open, nowhere-to-hide encounter he’s about to have.
I get Jacob. Many times, I try to go around a problem…to observe it from all sides, to execute a choice with the least potential for friction. But there’s something we lose when we examine life on tiptoe, and that is the ability to express ourselves and our values in an nobly open way. We think we’re only showing the parts of ourselves that we want to be seen, but in reality, we’re only estranging ourselves from ourselves. We forget to be who we are at face value, walking into the world insecure, unsure, and skeptical.
When the tour began, the tour guide asked each participant to say where they’re from. This time, I didn’t hesitate to share that I am a citizen of a people and country which is tasked with living up to its name; in being ישר, straightforward and honest in how we receive and allocate our blessings. This quality has always been my birthright, because a Jew, no matter where he or she lives, must work to embody this trait. Yet as a citizen of the Jewish State, my responsibility has been amped up. Likely, I’ll be held up against judgements and portrayals that are uncomfortable to confront, sometimes downright spiteful. Yet the task is also a privilege, one that my ancestors prayed for from their shtiblach in Russia, Jerusalem, Morocco, and America…and I feel nothing less than honored to be the one to represent their dream and the legacy of the name we all share: ישראל.