Editorial note: The author of this piece has subsequently chosen to go by both his birth name Chris and his Hebrew name, Chaim Ezra. He considers both names, however, to be equally Jewish, since they're both integral to his identity.
Names are an important part of one’s Jewish identity. We hold ceremonies dedicated to naming our children, converts to Judaism choose a Hebrew name, and figures from the Torah even change their names as their relationships with the Divine evolve (Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel). Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) even suggests that a person’s name is so powerful that it can literally shape their reality and determine their destiny.
But what do you do when you’re Jewish, but your name doesn’t “sound” Jewish?
I have one of the most definitively “non-Jewish” names on the planet: Christopher, or Chris for short. For reference, I was raised Christian but converted to Judaism at age 27 to reconnect to my Jewish ancestral roots. As part of the conversion process, I took on the name Chaim Ezra, a name I am proud of and that has deep significance to me for many reasons.
At times, I’ve considered abandoning my given name in favor of my Hebrew name to better fit in with the Jewish world, but I’ve decided that isn’t the path for me. Why? Because when one becomes Jewish, so does every part of them – including their birth name.
Contrary to what some might think, you define your name – and not the other way around. I identify as a person who is Jewish, black, bisexual, etc. All of these descriptors and more determine who I am, as do both Chris and Chaim Ezra, the name my parents gave me and the name I gave myself.
Some people have told me that to live a “fully” Jewish life, I must abandon the name Chris, which has connotations to another religion and is therefore treif (unkosher). To that, I pose the question: Would you say that to Ruth? As Judaism’s archetypal convert, she kept her Moabite (Jordanian) name instead of going with one that sounded “more Jewish,” and yet she was still openly welcomed into our Tribe and remains one of our most important figures.
Would you say that to Moses? If you could sit face-to-face with Judaism’s greatest prophet – the father of all prophets – would you tell him that his identity is treif because he was given an Egyptian name by his Egyptian mother?
The answer, on both counts, is no. Of course you wouldn’t! That would be preposterous and insulting. These figures have defined our very existence as the Jewish people, not despite their names but because of them.
Over time, I’ve grown to see more and more of the Jewishness in my name. Christopher – an Anglicization of the Greek name Christoforos – literally means “bearer of the messiah.” Many Jews believe in working toward a “messianic age,” or olam haba (the world to come), when the entire world will be at peace and dwell fully within the Divine presence. My responsibility as a Jew, as reflected and inspired by my name, is to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world); to work toward bearing a messianic age through acts of justice, mercy, and humility.
Like every Jewish generation, we are the future’s ancestors. We do not thrive on dualism and our identities do not exist in neat, tidy boxes, but rather flourish in complexity. Our names, an extension of our rich and beautiful Jewish identities, deserve to be treated with the same respect, regardless of where they come from.