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 We often land on “the newlyweds” as many couples reject these limited and somewhat outdated titles.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.
Community rabbi, wedding officiant, mother, Central Coast dweller