This is going to turn out to be the story of my name. But I’d like to start by talking about one of my favorite novels, The Chosen by Chaim Potok.
The Chosen was published in 1969, the same magical year Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, half a million gathered at Woodstock and the New York Mets won the World Series. But it takes place in the years before and after World War II, when two kids named Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter are growing up in Brooklyn. Both are sons of famous Jewish leaders: Danny Saunders is the celebrated first-born of a revered Hasidic rabbi, and Reuven Malter is the son of a controversial and secular-minded political journalist. The two are not meant to know each other, mainly because of the separatist traditions of Hasidic Judaism (which is highly mystical but ultra-conservative, and which does not welcome outsiders to the tradition). But they meet playing baseball, discover mutual interests and become best friends despite their vastly different religious backgrounds.
But Saunders, the Rabbi’s son, is fascinated with Freudian psychology, and he drifts constantly from his father’s teachings. Reuven, meanwhile, becomes caught up in the Israeli war of independence in 1948 and discovers himself filled with religious yearnings. The best part of the book is the end, when the boys have become adults and finally manage to complete their own transformations. In the book’s unforgettable final scene, Danny the Rabbi’s son shows up at Reuven’s door in a business suit, his long hair shaved and his earlocks cut off. These symbols of his culture seemed unremovable, and yet he simply removed them. Meanwhile, Reuven, who was raised to disdain religion, has become a rabbi.
Last week I talked about books by two Palestinian authors, Elias Khoury and Mahmoud Darwish. I wrote that I hoped Palestinians and Israelis would sometimes read each other’s books, but the honest truth is that I have never read a novel by an Israeli writer (not even David Grossman, who lost a son this weekend). If I had to recommend any one novel to represent the Jewish experience, though, that novel would be The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I also heartily recommend the 1981 film version starring Barry Miller (of Fame) as Reuven and Robby Benson, who is surprisingly good despite being annoying in every other movie of his career, as Danny Saunders. Rod Steiger also makes a great impression as the commanding Reb Saunders.
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Now, about the name. What intrigued me so much about The Chosen was the idea that humans can change themselves at the deepest levels. For the course of the entire novel, we cannot conceive of Danny without his heavy suit and long hair and earlocks. This is his essence, but he is somehow compelled to become something different. This is an expression of ultimate freedom, the type of freedom Jean-Paul Sartre and William James wrote about. It reminds me of the way we all transform ourselves during our lives, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.
Around the time I first read this book (ok, I’ll admit it, I saw the movie first) I was thinking about the name I was born with, a name I never particularly liked. Like many American Jews, I was stuck with a name that denied my own ethnicity: my first name is of Roman and French origin, and my last name is German. I never understood why an American Jew should carry around a German last name. I don’t even like my born name enough to tell it to you now, but I’ll just say it’s a familiar combination like one you could make by putting together one from column A and one from column B below:
I spent a lot of time thinking about names, and I decided that I wanted to honor my ethnic heritage by taking on a Hebrew name. This was not a religious decision, but it was an aesthetic one — I simply wanted a name I’d be proud to call myself by.
I also thought, around this time, about the fact that my grandmother had come to America from an Ukranian village called Potok Zloty, which hinted at a connection with Chaim Potok. I thought about taking a name from The Chosen, but neither “Danny Saunders” nor “Reuven Malter” had the right ring to it. But then, Chaim Potok had also written this other book.
And that’s how I became Levi Asher. If you’ve ever contemplated changing your own name, I can tell you that it’s not easy. Family members and old friends aren’t likely to ever get used to it. Former names also have a way of sticking to you, and sometimes you forget who you are.
Still, I firmly believe that every human being has the right to choose a name they enjoy living with, although they should try to avoid the Prince/P. Diddy syndrome of changing it too often. I’m going to be sticking with Levi.