Our names are caught up in our identity. Or maybe our identity is caught up in our names. My Hebrew name was not a very popular one when I was going to school. On the first day of school, when my teacher would ask me my Hebrew name, I would sheepishly and quietly answer, “Tziviya.” It’s one of those names that is pronounced differently in Israel so even when I went to seminary, I stuck with my English name. Tzviya, the Israeli pronunciation, just didn’t feel right. Many years later, I became involved in researching my family. With the treasure trove of family photos that I stumbled upon, I was able to piece together some sort of picture of my paternal great-grandmother, the very special woman for whom I was named. Tragically, she died in Auschwitz al kiddush Hashem. My grandmother was her only child who managed to leave Europe before the war and survive. Privy to this knowledge, I forged a connection to my great-grandmother, and as a consequence, to the name Tzivia. I still don’t use the name, but when I am asked what my Hebrew name is, I sit up straight and answer with pride.
My official name in English is Suzanne. I was not consulted when this name was chosen. And to this day, I am not quite sure what caused my parents to pick that name. My older cousin who was likewise named after my great-grandmother was given the name Susan. What’s wrong with that name? I don’t know. But it doesn’t bother me that much since, in any case, everyone calls me Suzie. I’m fine with Suzie and (almost) all my nicknames that come along with it: Suzie Q, Suzie Chapstick, Suz, Suzela, etc. The only problem is that most people spell my name wrong. They spell it with an “S” in the middle or with a “Y” at the end. I find it disconcerting. Like, it’s not really me. I also wasn’t thrilled when my fifth-grade teacher decided to call me Susan due to the fact that there were three of us in the class with similar names. The Suzanne kept her name (no problem for me). But the real Susan got to be called Suzie and I was left being called by a name that wasn’t my own. Every time the teacher called on me, it felt like she was scratching her nails on the blackboard.
My middle name is Tova. I love that name. It works in Hebrew. It works in English. It’s pretty. It gives its bearer something to aspire to. It’s a good name, just like its meaning. But since it’s my middle name, nobody ever used it.
Now, Baruch Hashem, I have some thinking to do and decisions to make. When I call my friends and relatives to share my wonderful news about the birth of my first grandchild, they almost immediately ask me what I plan for my delicious new bundle to call me. I hem and haw. Some make assumptions and jump right in: “Mazel tov, Bubby!” “How’s the new Savta?” Are they talking to me? It’s not just that I haven’t yet internalized the fact that I am now a grandmother, although that is definitely the case. It’s also a question of identity. Am I a Bubby? Am I a Savta? I don’t know. Different names conjure up different associations. I grew up with all kinds in my family; I had a Bubby and a Grandma. My mother was a Savta. All the men were called Zaida, which didn’t really match their counterparts. Even my great-grandparents were Grandma Rifka and Zaida Yaakov - I suppose, as a result of my great-grandmother coming to the United states several years before my great-grandfather. But, literally, as I sit and write this article, I suddenly have a vague recollection of my uncle calling his grandmother Bubba Rifka. I wonder if, like me, my Grandma Rifka questioned her identity and struggled with what she should be called. Regardless, I didn’t grow up thinking that one day when I get older, I will be called… fill in the blank. Because I grew up with a variety of names in my family, none of these options are an automatic shoe-in for me. Nothing fits like a glove.
The name Grandma is the most difficult for me to relate to, so I immediately took it off the table. In my mind, a Bubby is an old, European lady who wears a bun, sits in a rocking chair, and knits. That’s not a bad thing but it’s definitely not me, especially the “old” part, obviously. On the other hand, all my family research has led me to believe that I would have probably been very happy to live in a shtetl. Now’s my chance to have the tiniest taste of that lifestyle. My husband, on the other hand, thinks of a Bubby as someone American and fashionably dressed. Really? Where did that come from? I think of Savta as being young and energetic. American or Israeli. Is that me? Maybe.
So, here I am, groping like an adolescent, trying to form my identity of grandmotherhood. It’s my chance to write my own ticket and pick my own name, one that I can connect to and that feels right to me. Nobody will be pushing me into anything. The world is my oyster and I have the freedom to choose. But what will it be? I just don’t know. Be’ezrat Hashem, time will tell.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.