Almost two years ago exactly, my father went into the hospital. His behavior had become extremely bizarre after he increased the dosage of the medicine he took to treat his Parkinson’s disease.
It was frightening to hear his delusions; he needed to be strapped down after he became combative. My siblings and I apologized sheepishly to the nurses for his outbursts, although they seemed entirely unfazed by them. To them, it was simple chemistry; too much medicine causes temporary insanity. They assured us it would take a few days but that he would be fine.
My father was in the hospital for a week, during which time I wondered if the man with the encyclopedic mind would ever regain any semblance of it. Of all the things that only he knew, the information I wanted to retrieve most from him was my sister Steffi’s Jewish name.Somehow, neither my mother nor my sister could remember it.
Fortunately, the nurses’ predictions were correct. Slowly, he returned to his right mind, and we left the hospital without his remembering much of anything that had happened. (Of course, watching this particular episode of the Twilight Zone has served as a stark reminder that it’s no small miracle that we wake up every day and know who and where we are…)
“You just took too much medicine,” we assured my father when he asked what he was doing in the hospital. “But you’re fine now.”
Although his physical health had been declining for several years, we were all happy to have him back to his original mental state.
As quickly as I could, I made sure to confirm a few essentials: where at least some of his family originated (Ozeran, a shtetl near Minsk) and, of course, my sister’s Jewish name (Simcha Gittel).
My father passed away six months later, quietly and without fanfare, as he was getting into my car to go to a doctor’s appointment. As his aide Moishe tried to revive him, I whispered his Jewish name into his ear: Avraham Gershon ben Leah Rudda.
I had heard that a person’s name is connected to his essence and I knew that hearing it could arouse something deep within him. But it didn’t. After almost ninety years, dodging health bullets since his early sixties, Avraham Gershon’s time had finally come.
Jewish names are paradoxical. On one hand, a name appears to be superficial. On the other, the unique arrangement of the letters of our Jewish name forms the pipeline through which our very soul enlivens our bodies. Our name is the most outer manifestation of who we are, yet it is connected to our innermost selves.
I don’t remember when I asked my parents what my Jewish name was, but it didn’t take me long after becoming observant to want to use it. I needed all the spiritual help I could get, and calling myself by the name that’s connected to my soul seemed like an easy place to start. If G-d calls me Lieba Yosefa, why shouldn’t everybody? (Okay, maybe not the Yosefa part.)
I look back on my children’s names, remembering the drama before each one received his or her name. The first three have English and Hebrew names. By the time the next two were born, we were naming them only in Hebrew. The game changer was our daughter Chaya Mushka, named after the Rebbe’s wife. I remember the conversation I had with my father, who initially protested a name which sounded so, so, so Jewish. It’s not easy to cross over with a name like Chaya Mushka.
“Why not Leah or Sara?” he asked.
“Daddy, we used those names,” I reminded him.
By the time Mushkie was born, there was no more walking the fence. We wanted to be a family of committed Lubavitchers. Besides, as I understood it, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka was a woman who selflessly shared her husband with the world; it was thanks to her that our family was able to return to Torah life.
Finally, after I pleaded in a way that only a daughter can to a father, he succumbed. Chaya Mushka it would be.
Mushkie and Nisson got married three months after my father passed away. Just over two weeks ago, they were blessed to have a baby boy. They decided to name him Avraham Gershon.
While my father merited a long life, the name Avraham Gershon remained largely dormant within him for most of it. But that name defined his essence.
I was a bit surprised Mushkie and Nisson chose an unfamiliar name over a recognizable Lubavitch name. It took a little leap on Mushkie and Nisson’s part, not unlike the one my husband and I took when Mushkie was born.
With G-d’s help, Avraham Gershon will become a Lubavitch name.
But I have learned that the naming of a child is strictly the domain of the parents. Parents are said to receive ruach hakodesh, Divine inspiration, to choose the name the child will ultimately carry for his or her whole life. The parents can go back and forth among names, but G-d enables them to settle on the right name that suit’s that child’s unique soul.
It’s unclear yet whether he will have any outward similarities to his great-grandfather, but AG undeniably shares the same soul power.
People with the name Avraham are said to be predisposed to kindness, as our original forefather was. This new little Avraham is off to a good start; his name alone has made some people here very happy.
And I can’t even begin to imagine how happy my father is.