The Name Game
In 2012, songwriter Kendrick Lamar was giving interviews in advance of the release of his first major label debut.
He was asked, “You used to go by K. Dot but you’ve dropped the stage name. Why?” He answered, “If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.”
I have been thinking a lot about names during this busy wedding season. As an officer of the court, I sign the legal document sanctioning the marriage so I witness couples’ choices about how they will be called after they are married. I never questioned that I would take my then husband’s name when I married in 1988. It was just what was done. Recent studies show that this is still a trend. Amongst heterosexual couples, 70-80% of women in the United States still choose to take their husbands name, while a 2018 study  showed only 3% of men changed their last name to their wife’s.
This binary gender formulation is no longer a given. A recent New York Times article  lists all the many iterations couples of all gender combinations, including heterosexual couples, are choosing to call their married selves. They are combining surnames or choosing totally new ones. I never assume that couples will want to be pronounced as ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ or ‘Mr. and Mr.’ at the end of the ceremony. We often land on “the newlyweds” as many couples reject these limited and somewhat outdated titles.
And then there is the Jewish marriage document, the ketubah, to consider. How do couples identify themselves Jewishly or as an interfaith couple? Much like the civil marriage license legalizes a marriage in the State of California, traditionally, a ketubah serves this purpose in Jewish weddings. This tradition began some 2000 years ago. In ancient times, it was a legal document that detailed some of the rights and obligations of the bride and groom and offered some financial protection for the bride in the event of divorce, which some scholars say was a step forward for the rights of women, given the era in which it was written. The modern ketubah represents the emotional commitment a couple makes to each other and the language is egalitarian. The document contains the wedding couple’s Hebrew names. Jewish babies are given their English or secular name that they will be called by the community at large and they are also given a Hebrew name that their Jewish community will call them by at times of blessing and sorrow. Babies are often named for a treasured relative who has passed away, a biblical matriarch or patriarch (like Abraham or Sarah) or even for a Jewish value or an object in nature.
My English name is Janice Rose. I am told I was named for my great grandmother, Giovanna and my grandmother, Rose. My parents chose Yana Sharon as my Hebrew name. Yana means ‘God is gracious’ and Sharon means ‘fertile plain’ referring to the biblical land at the foot of Mount Carmel. Why they didn’t choose Shoshannah, meaning ‘rose’ I do not know, but Yana Sharon it is.
Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” said, ““What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” She is telling Romeo that a name is nothing but a name, and it is therefore a convention with no meaning behind it. I must disagree, Mr. Shakespeare. I resonate more with Confucius who is credited with saying, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” We should all get to choose how we are acknowledged and called, whether that be in marriage, or at school or by loved ones. If I’m going to tell my real story, I’m going to start with my name of choosing.
Gratitude for What Is
My head was down, feet crunching away at the decomposed granite path as Daisy and I were out this morning for an early morning walk in the neighborhood. I was pretty deep in thought, only interrupted by giving Daisy the occasional cue to 'leave it' or 'no, thank you' when she encountered a random squirrel or bird on the ground. As we rounded the bend of our little lake, a juvenile bald eagle swooped down over the water from a high redwood perch nearby. He was so close I could see his eyes and hear the stealth swoosh of his wings.
This isn't the first time I have seen eagles in the neighborhood but each sighting takes my breath away. Hundreds of migratory bald eagles select California as their wintering location, usually arriving during the fall and early winter. They normally remain until February, or occasionally April. So this eagle is likely a SLO County resident, part of the non-migratory eagle contingent. There are nesting sites at Lopez Lake, Santa Margarita Lake, and Santa Margarita Ranch, as well as the Pozo area.
Clearly, I was meant to encounter him this morning. He completely snapped me out of my morning ruminations and brought me right into the present moment. I stopped my determined plodding, followed his flight path to his next high perch and experienced a moment of awe and a reminder to be grateful for what is.
Go! Do the right thing!
I retired from the pulpit five months ago feeling depleted emotionally, spiritually and physically from the prolonged vigilance of guiding a spiritual community through years of unrest in our country and our world. I needed a break from teaching, activism and speaking out in the face of injustice and tragedy. I didn’t, and still don't, think this is a permanent break from my work but I clearly needed a rest. So, I began to read for leisure, exercise, seek out fun, participate in some good old fashioned binge watching and started some writing projects that I have put on the back burner for years.
One of these projects is sorting through fifteen plus years of my writing. I wrote regularly in response to tragedy, both natural and man-made, throughout my career because that is what rabbis do. We try and make sense of the senseless and try to find ways to channel our pain into compassion and action. Sermons following mass shootings are sadly part of my rabbinic canon and while the scenarios may be different, the heartbreak, helplessness, rage and resolve are a common theme in all these writings of mine.
Today, is the day after the latest mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and even though my psyche is still not fully ready to engage, I find I cannot stay silent. My own mental health concerns are nothing compared to the incomprehensible suffering and agony of the families that lost a child, the families that lost a wife or mother and the community that is changed forever from this hideous, senseless tragedy.
Our rabbinic sages taught that the reason God created only one individual, Adam, from whom all humanity is descended, was to teach us that if you destroy one life, it is as if you destroyed the whole world, and that if you save one life, it is as if you saved the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a). Yesterday, twenty-one worlds were destroyed. Twenty-one lives each of which was a world unto itself. These were worlds of love, of family, of potential and promise, and of futures that will never be realized.
Our children now cannot remember a time they didn’t know about school shootings. Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the New York Times dubbed these children the “Mass Shooting Generation,” as they grew up participating in active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. Parents tragically now must talk to their kids about threats and vigilance and contingency plans just in case something should happen at their school. They are now a generation who live in a world where every day they go to school but don’t know if they will come home. We can’t turn away from this plague of gun violence directed at innocents because our children deserve better. I certainly agree that responding with prayers and sympathy is not enough. We must have the radical empathy to stand in their shoes and sit with them in their classrooms to experience what they face every day. We must demand change so our kids know they can go to school in the morning and come home alive in the afternoon.
There are people smarter than I outlining the steps we must take as a society to reduce gun violence in this country. As an individual, I can only embrace the one weapon I have in my arsenal to bring about change and that is my vote. I am not naïve enough to think that gun reform legislation will suddenly occur when it has failed time and time again but I will not stop voting for candidates that support that kind of legislation. And I will continue to financially support organizations that work for reform such as Every-town for Gun Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Sandy Hook Promise.
I pray that one day my rabbinic portfolio will not include multiple sermons responding to the mass murdering of innocents and children. I pray that the children I have had the privilege to teach will grow up in a world where they do not fear for their lives while sitting in their school rooms. I pray that my sister, a middle school teacher, is safe at work. And I pray to God for guidance and help that as a society we remain alert, oriented toward action instead of becoming complacent to what is happening all around us.
The Israelites stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, trapped between the water closing in and the Egyptian army bearing down, and Moses stood on a rock above the water and called out in prayer, seeking God’s intervention to save the people. God responds to Moses by saying, “Mah titzak elai”, “Why are you crying out to ME?” Why aren’t you doing what is right and acting out of your highest values? That, in the end, is what will save you. Go! Advance! Do the right thing!” (Exodus 14:15)
Communication Style is the Key
I had the privilege to share my thoughts about effective ways for couples to communicate before, during and after their wedding with The Wedding Standard. Getting married is one of the most significant things you will do in your lifetime and making that commitment to another person requires not only love, but mindfulness, dedication and hard work. As is the case with taking on any meaningful endeavor, preparation is important if you want to be successful. I encourage couples to start early in establishing a healthy communication style to build a solid foundation as they begin married life.
I often say that the wedding planning process shines a bright light on relationship dynamics between partners, their families of origin and their friends. These dynamics don't automatically disappear once married life begins but show up often in their future life together. If couples can use the stressful time of planning their wedding as their bootcamp for developing and practicing healthy communication patterns, they will be setting off on the right path toward a successful partnership over the long haul. Researchers have found that communication style is the key.
The way in which you communicate, and argue, with your partner is an even more important indicator of a successful marriage outcome than your level of commitment, personality traits or stressful life events. Constructive communication means you engage with each other kindly. You learn to be an active listener, seeking to discover what your partner is feeling rather than problem solving or offering unsolicited advice. After listening to your partner carefully, repeat back to them what you heard so you really express an understanding of the issues at hand. You should even try to make your partner laugh. This type of positive strategy does not mean you shouldn't talk about stressful or difficult subjects. It is just the opposite. If you don't talk about these things, resentment and anger can be a result and there is nothing more destructive to a marriage. Couples that yell or resort to personal criticisms or those that withdraw from the discussion altogether are more likely to break up than couples that argue constructively. The key is learning to tackle difficult topics as a team, rather than as adversaries, in a positive and constructive way.
This positive nurturing communication style really is the key to a healthy and happy long term partnership. Check in with each other often. Take time out from technology to really focus on each other and share deep conversations. The time to start this practice is long before you walk down the aisle. (originally posted 11/2017)
When a rabbi walks in the forest...
I am an avid walker and hiker in large part thanks to all the four legged companions I've had over the years. My latest dog, Daisy, entered my life during the pandemic after the sudden death of my ten year old rescue lab, Ellie.
Daisy is an all-or-nothing kind of gal. She is either enthusiastically greeting the people and dogs she meets during our brisk walks or she is curled up asleep somewhere making sure that some part of her body is touching some part of yours. Since Daisy entered my life, walking or hiking daily is no longer optional but these daily outings satisfy more than the need for exercise.
It is a time where I meditate, clear my head and center my breath.
I often walk in an oak tree forest. In addition to the oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, there are pines, river willows, sycamores and an abundance of wildflowers in the spring. The fauna changes depending on the time of day but there are deer, squirrels, and even an occasional skunk on the trail. There are many birds and the sound of woodpeckers accompanies us as we walk. It is a time to steep myself in gratitude for nature, for beautiful San Luis Obispo County, for puppies and for the people who are dedicated to animal rescue.
I find incredible peace, calm and clarity walking in the forest and I savor the time I am unplugged from the Internet and untethered to the inbox. How often do we get the opportunity to just be with our own thoughts? As wedding season approaches, I look forward to sharing with you more of what I find out when this rabbi walks in the forest.
Community rabbi, wedding officiant, mother, Central Coast dweller