“Ken, what’s your Hebrew name?”
The question came from my Israeli friend, Michal. We were standing in her kitchen at one of the weekly Shabbat lunches she hosts with her American husband, Josh. It was a good question, but before I reveal the answer, a little background. With Michal, as with most Israelis and religious people, I must handle my Hebrew with care. It’s dangerous to pretend to know more than I actually do. Being a monoglot American with a godawful Hebrew-school education, it’s way too easy for me to sound stupid.
But my Hebrew name? I knew that thing like the back of my yad.
“Kalman,” I said, with a proud sense of Judaic certainty.
“Kalman ben Z’chirah Mesha.”
“That’s not Hebrew.”
“That’s not a Hebrew name,” said Michal.
Josh, who has lived in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, came over and reported that Kalman Z’chirah Mesha was in fact a Yiddish name.
“Um… my parents always told me that was my Hebrew name,” I said, stupefied.
Land of True Jewish Ignorance
With one question, I had immigrated to a whole new world of Jewish guilt: The Land of True Jewish Ignorance. To not know the difference between a Hebrew name and a Yiddish name is one thing; to not know which category your own sobriquet belongs is profoundly embarrassing. I suddenly felt judged. Unfavorably judged.
I like to think I have a decent sense of the contours of my ignorance, and I’m always on the lookout to learn more. But no matter how many Sholem Aleichem or I.B. Singer stories I read–translated out of the mameloshn and into American, of course–I’m still almost completely ignorant of the mechanics of the true Jewish languages. Mine is a Jewish culture in translation.
The Language of the Jews
I’ve read that there were once fierce wars about what was going to be the language of the Jews. Though by the time I was born, in 1969, in New York, far from the Jewish state, it didn’t really matter. English was my Jewish language. Period.
Yes, I felt ashamed about l’affaire Kalman, but it was really only a shame I could share with Josh and Michal in their kitchen. Virtually every other Jew I know is an English-only person, and I can’t imagine many of them hoisting a dusky Semitic eyebrow at me for thinking that Kalman was a Hebrew name.
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