Friday, June 27, 2008

What's in a Name? The Story of Four Sisters

Some of my children are named after people my wife and I wanted to connect to spiritually. There is something about naming a child that feels like a dialogue with other worlds. Two of my children are named after sisters who came to America from Romania. There were many who came to this country in search of opportunities that were nonexistent back in Europe. Anyone who has looked at "A Vanished World". by Roman Vishniac can get a feel for life in Europe between the World Wars. Boys in yeshiva used to sleep and eat in private homes. There were days when the boys had to skip meals. Some of the pictures in the Vishniac book show Jews hiding from the "Endeks" or National Democrats. Well before the Germans invaded Poland, they spearheaded a national boycott of Jewish businesses that pushed Jewish families into poverty and onto the streets. It is hard to imagine some of the challenges faced by Jews even before the Nazis occupied most of Europe.
The allure of America was material, but it was a challenge to keep the faith. The two sisters after whom my daughters are named came here determined to marry religious men and keep the faith. Against all odds, they were additionally determined not to marry clean shaven men. There were many who came to America and lost jobs on a weekly basis. The work week included Saturday. There were signs up in shops that said "If you don't come to work Saturday, don't come in on Monday. Many were worn down by the fear of starvation. Some went into business themselves. There was no legal protection for the Sabbath observant. The two sisters after whom my daughters were named went back to Europe. There they married and had children. one family was wiped out by the Nazis. Another had some children who survived although she herself perished, along with her husband.
When I reflect upon the names of my daughters, I think of those who returned to Europe for Shabbos, and for a Jewish life. Some commandments are considered to be hiddurim, or extra strictness in keeping a commandment. Those who owned factories that they kept open on Shabbos argued that it was their right to make the rules for their place of employment. The decision whether or not to grow a beard is even more private according to common logic, although societal pressure to dress a certain way blurs the distinctions somewhat. These were two sisters who gave their lives for Shabbos, and in insisting on spouses with beards gave up their lives for a commandment affecting men only. The seemingly natural way to look at the world is to divide ones actions between those involving individual choice and those affecting the collective good. A society in which religious compliance is forced is an affront to a G-d that chooses to hide himself. The distinction in English between the word impel and compel is a critical one. With all of this taken into consideration, when I reflect upon the names of my daughters, I am reminded of the connectedness of the entire Jewish people. I am reminded that there are those who gave their lives for their faith, and even for the observance of other Jews. I struggle with the implications of that.
Shortly after high school, I picked up an album of Hungarian rock music. I noticed that the last names were written first and the first names written last. At first it looked impersonal. Then I reflected upon it. Writing the first name last was an expression of putting the good of the family before that of the individual. I started writing my name in the Hungarian fashion as an expression of this conviction. How does one reconcile individualism with putting the good of the community first? Conformity and primary consideration of the collective good are two separate ideas. Those whose care for the community is primary are often non conformists and trend setters rather than followers.
In naming my daughters, I am reminded constantly of the mysterious balance between individual choice and consideration of the collective good. The older I get, the more questions I have about what this means in practical terms. Today and every day, I remind myself to be Stettner Rudi rather than Rudi Stettner. Shabbat shalom. A Gitn Shabbos.

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