Hebrew name ups and downs
June 14, 2010 9:43 PM   Subscribe

If I were to convert to Judaism, and my dad was already Jewish, would I need to know his Hebrew name?

I am a female. My mom is not Jewish, of course. I was just wondering if any of you have had any experience in this. I don't have his contact information, and I would feel like I was using him if I found him just to extract information. Would an English name be acceptable? I don't want to have to stick with the generic name converts get: "X bat Sarah", because I still want to recognize that I do have some sort of Jewish ancestry. I've looked for the information, but I couldn't find any information for this specific situation. This would be a Conservative congregation, if it counts.

I'd ask my rabbi, but I sort of want to know now so I can start trying to find my dad if I have to, and I'm not quite ready to have the old "I want to convert" conversation yet.

Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you ask his mother?
posted by lee at 10:02 PM on June 14, 2010

I very much doubt that you absolutely have to know his Hebrew name to convert (as you said, "X bat Avraham" or the like is always an option), but it sounds like you do want to use your father's Hebrew name, so I'd encourage you to pursue that route. An English name is likely not to fly, but that's really up to the whims of your congregation and rabbi. He/she might be up for coming up with a Hebrew version of your father's English name (this can be pretty easy for some names certainly) or helping you make up a befitting name for him (when I was Bar Mitzvah'd, my grandfather Victor didn't have/didn't know his Hebrew name or his father's, so we came up with one that translated to something like "Victorious one, son of the great" which seemed perfect).

You could also try to contact the your father's childhood synagogue, if you know past information about his life and he had one and if the place is still around. Jews aren't like the Catholic Church when it comes to keeping records, but it's possible they've got something floating around.

From some quick Googling, it seems like rabbinical opinions vary widely on Hebrew names for converts (here's one that is rather flexible in terms of picking your own name if you'd like). As the saying goes, ask a question of Jewish law to three Conservative rabbis and get four answers. The only thing that's particularly important to you is the specific preference of your rabbi, which I can't possibly predict. Perhaps if you crouched it in terms of, "hey I'm curious how this Hebrew name thing works exactly" and laid out your question, it would be little less daunting than the "I want to convert" question? The rabbi may well encourage you to talk more about your feelings about conversion, but that's a long process and nothing you need to rush into just to get a "technical" question answered.
posted by zachlipton at 10:32 PM on June 14, 2010

I am pretty sure you don't need to know his Hebrew name.

I think the generic is "ben Avraham." My dad, for example, is Catholic, so when I have an Aliyah I go by "Baruch Yosef ben Avraham."
posted by charlesv at 7:32 AM on June 15, 2010

If you're joining an egalitarian congregation then a spiritual mother will be part of the equation. So, the "generic" version would be X bat Avraham v'Sarah. Despite that being the common convention it's also a spiritually significant one. Converts are considered, essentially, new children who will be entering the covenant and as such they need to enter into that covenant with their Jewish spiritual parents, Abraham & Sarah. See: My Jewish Learning for more on this.

That said if using your father's name is important to you because of his role in your life I completely respect that. In my congregation in situations where one doesn't know the Hebrew name of a parent the clergy encourages you to do a little digging to find it. If you can't, or you're uncomfortable with the only options for finding out, then frequently it's like zachlipton suggested. Either "translate" your father's name to Hebrew or choose a Hebrew name that begins with the same letter/sound. Bruce = Barcuh, Michael = Moshe, etc. You'll need to discuss this with your rabbi though to determine how this would work halachically. In terms of Jewish legal documents though the English name would never work, you have to have your Hebrew name and your parents' Hebrew names on things like your ketubah, etc. so you have to make sure that using your father's Hebrew name instead of Abraham is kosher.
posted by mjones at 8:28 AM on June 15, 2010

Jewish names don't actually have any legal import - they're matters of custom. The practice of having separate Hebrew and secular names is pretty modern. Some women have 'Hebrew names' that aren't Hebrew at all, but Yiddish variations on Germanic names (ie, Perl), and they go by that for all their ritual stuff. Any significant legal document, like a writ of divorce, that refers to the parties by their Hebrew name ALSO writes any other name they are known by.

What the Rabbi who's converting you wants you to do will probably be according to their own sense of their community, tradition, etc.

Once you're converted, you can call yourself anything you want. No one checks your documents when you get called up to the Torah. The only possible thing your documents would be checked for is verifying your conversion, or verifying your children's Jewish status (for their own weddings, perhaps), and then what's important is that it's clear it's talking about the same person. In the last couple of years, I decided to use my and my parents' 'American' names for getting called up to the Torah and whatever other occasions I would use a name in a Jewish setting.

Conservative congregations seem to be getting more flexible. I know a woman who was thinking about using both of her parents' names (not Hebrew, clearly, they weren't Jewish, and not 'Hebraicized' either) not as a symbol of Jewish heritage but as a recognition that nowadays becoming Jewish doesn't mean cutting yourself off (or being cut off from) your whole prior community/heritage and pretending you never were anything else. She's a conservative cantor.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:20 AM on June 15, 2010

I know someone going through this exact same thing, and so far the reaction of the Orthodox (and right-leaning, 'Conservadox' Conservative) rabbis has been pretty strongly dismissive--it's bat Avraham or bust. It sort of sucks.

If there is a situation when you'd be able to use his Hebrew name, most shuls won't mind you using his English name, with the explanation that you never got to know his Hebrew name. When we pray for the sick in shul, we'll gladly pray for sick people, even if we only known their english names and their mother's english name.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:35 PM on June 22, 2010

So the friend I know going through this exact same thing has gotten permission from her (Orthodox) Rabbis to use "bas [not-Avraham]" for her name. Why? The Rabbi in question acknowledges that it's "just" minhag, and a minhag he sees no reason to keep in this case.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:42 PM on September 25, 2010

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