by Rabbi Matthew Soffer
When Romeo “oos and ahhs” over Juliet in the most famous scene of any of Shakespeare’s plays, he utters a line that is often misappropriated today: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Translation: His beloved’s name is irrespective of her identity, her beauty, and her “sweet smell.” However, Shakespeare doesn’t bestow such a happy ending upon these two lovebirds, and Romeo’s words prove to be fatally naive considering it is the very fact of their names, (Capulet and Montague, representing their warring families) that will seal their doom. To simply import the phrase into common language as a truism misses the whole gist. Names and identity are inextricable– in Shakespeare, in life, and in Jewish tradition.
I met Jeremy and Stacy when they were seeking a rabbi, not just to officiate at their wedding, but to lead them to a greater understanding of the traditions. In an early meeting, I asked what their Hebrew names were. “Yirmiyahu ben David v’Yehudit,” said Jeremy. Stacy looked at me somewhat insecure, or unsure of what to say. So she came out with it: “I don’t know. I don’t think I have one.”
It’s not uncommon in my work with the Riverway Project at Temple Israel to encounter folks who either don’t have a Hebrew name or don’t know it. Our community is one with virtually no barriers for folks coming from either mixed backgrounds or a “thin” sense of their Jewish identity. But Stacy wasn’t satisfied with her answer. And she wasn’t satisfied with not having an answer. She wanted to affirm and celebrate her Jewish identity– and she did not want to stand under the chuppah until she felt authentically Jewish.
In the months that followed, we met often. We studied biblical stories and the Jewish wedding; she examined her own identity and how it reflects Jewish values. And very naturally, she found her name. As an individual devoted to teaching and healthcare she found resonance in the name Moriyah, which can be translated in a variety of ways. Together we rendered it, “teacher,” in the sacred sense of the term. But that wasn’t enough. She needed a ritual; an action that affirmed her name. I taught her about the mikveh and explained what an extraordinary resource we have here in the Boston area, at Mayyim Hayyim. And she agreed it would be a nice way of marking the transition and preparing for the wedding. But what she didn’t expect was the transformative impact of the ritual. In her own words:
“As I’ve entered adulthood, I have found a stronger and stronger connection with my Judaism. I decided that it would be important to take the opportunity to truly confirm my identity as a Jewish woman preparing for marriage and my future relationship. During the ritual at Mayyim Hayyim, I was shocked by how overcome I was by emotion. The contemplation and preparation prior, the naming ceremony, and the actual immersion in the waters of the mikveh all helped to give me a sense of my own true identity as a Jewish woman, which I knew would prepare me for my life and my Jewish marriage.”
For Stacy “the rose smelled sweet” in large part because it was named, “a rose.” Stacy’s Jewish identity was strengthened and enriched because she was named Moriyah bat Shaul v’Chaya. A rose cannot live and thrive, and cannot grow at all without water. The living waters of Mayyim Hayyim enabled Stacy to immerse herself in her own authentic Jewish identity, and to stand upright under her chuppah, next to her beloved. From the look on her face, it was the most alive she had ever felt.
Matthew Soffer is a rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he directs the Riverway Project, an initiative of Temple Israel (TI) engaging individuals in their 20’s and 30’s in Jewish life. At TI he leads Ohel Tzedek, the social justice arm of the community, which practices congregation-based community organizing, through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt lives in Roslindale, with his wife Nicole, a clinical social worker and therapist, and their son Caleb, who turns two on Valentine’s day (yes, quite the romantic).