Everyone knows about Bar Mitzvahs, but there’s also a lesser-known (and, let’s face it, less fabulous) Jewish ceremony called Consecration. Timing can vary, but it generally signifies the start of a child’s Jewish education.
For me, Consecration happened at the end of third grade. I remember the build-up. My Hebrew school teacher, Mrs. Herring – who was also the rabbi’s wife, so she was a pretty big deal – was kind, elegant, and serious. She spent months prepping us to get up on the bima and lead the congregation in its weekly Shabbat prayers. I still remember two specific things about Mrs. Herring. One, she often said her favorite word was “daven” (which means “to pray,” but soulfully, like when you’re really feeling it). Two, a classmate once meant to write “God is king” on some paper but I guess wrote the last letter sloppily and it read as “God is kink,” which threw Mrs. Herring into fits of joyful laughter. I didn’t get it at the time, but I do now. (I’ve accordingly re-assessed Mrs. Herring, even more for the better.)
Consecration was a big deal. After all the buildup, the day of the service went mostly as planned. We sang our songs, we did our speeches, we processed around the synagogue. Finally, it came time to pass out the ceremonial certificates. For some reason, the Cantor decided to call up all the girls first, then the boys. As the awarding of certificates began, I sat fidgeting in my scratchy dress clothes, halfway listening as the Cantor read down the alphabetical list of my female classmates. And then, right in the middle of the roll call of girls, the Cantor called out: “Elie Honig.”
I knew immediately what had happened – somebody had put my name on the girls list, inadvertently to be sure – but I didn’t know what to do. Somehow, showing a surprising bit of presence for a nine-year old, I pulled myself together, wiped away tears of embarrassment, walked over to the podium, and accepted my certificate, plus a public apology from the Cantor.
You see, as a kid, I sometimes hated my name. I suspect a lot of folks with ethnic names have felt the same, at some time or another. Why did I have to be Elie, I’d wonder, when other kids got to be Nick, or Antonio, or Danny? Heck, even the kids in my Hebrew school class had names like Chad and Lance.
The strange thing now, looking back, is that I was never actually teased or ridiculed for my name. I can’t recall a single time when any classmate poked fun at my name, even back during the insensitive, politically incorrect 80s and 90s. I guess I had good friends, and no vicious enemies.
The problem – as in the Consecration debacle – was that it was constantly confused for a girl’s name. And, wow, was I sensitive about that. I once received a soccer trophy depicting a female player with long hair and breasts. A lunch lady – sorry folks, that was the technical term at the time, and I use it now only with fondness and respect – once glanced at my laminated lunch ticket and observed, unkindly, “That’s a girl’s name.” At one point in maybe fourth grade, I idly flipped ahead in our Reading class textbook and was horrified to see a story entitled “Cinder Elie,” about a female track phenom; I counted down the days until that assignment with dread and resignation. (Again: nobody ever called me “Cinder Elie” out on the playground, but that’s probably because I just wasn’t fast enough to merit it.)
I’m named after my father’s father, Lazar Nuchem Honig. My full name is Eliezer, which is a variation on Lazar, and derives from the same Hebrew name. (Americans often stumble over my name; Israelis never do.) My grandfather was a Polish Jew, a young man living happily and prosperously in Krakow, Poland in the 1930s. You know where this story goes: the Nazis invaded, most of his family was murdered, and Lazar was sent to the concentration camps. He survived hell on earth. We don’t know all the details of course, but we do know that, at the very end, near death, he essentially freed himself. In 1945, during the final days of the War, the Nazis tried to march the few remaining prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp westward; chaotic spats of combat broke out, and my grandfather took off in the confusion. He ended up as a refugee in Sweden, where he met and married my grandmother, Gusta (also a survivor, who also had lost most of her family; she’d call me “Laizenu,” yet another ethnic variation on my name). They came to the United States in 1949 and settled in New Jersey, where they had my father in 1950. In 1960, my grandfather died from cancer, when my dad was just ten.
I never met Lazar, of course, and we only have a handful of surviving photographs. Even my dad’s specific memories are hazy at this point, 63 years later, though he holds a keen sense of his father’s presence and legacy. Indeed, I’ve always understood who my grandfather was, even though he died fifteen years before I was born. My parents have said that there was never any question that their firstborn son would be named Eliezer, after Lazar. It simply was to be.
(My unusual last name, by the way, is the Polish word for “honey.” Sometimes friends who are traveling in Europe will send photos of a store called the “Honig House,” or will send thin packages of honey labeled “Honig Sticks.” Yeah, I’m sweet like that. Ok, sorry.)
Now here’s the part that I’m not super-proud of, but I understand it in retrospect. In 1985, when I was ten years old, I was about to go off to overnight camp for the first time – a Jewish tradition far more important than Consecration in terms of holiness and cultural import. My dad, who was a lawyer, asked if I wanted to legally change my name, just for when I signed up for camp, to avoid gender confusion. I never hesitated: where do I sign? We chose Eliott – close enough, and definitely male – and did the paperwork. I ended up leading a double-life of sorts. All my camp friends called me Eliott, while people from home called me Elie. If somebody called my house during the winter and asked for Eliott, we knew immediately that it was a camp friend.
Fast-forward a decade and change. By the early 2000s, I was a lawyer, like my dad – and, thankfully, I was a touch less sensitive about my name being mistaken for a girl. I should be clear here: I’ve always understood the meaning and power of my name, even when I first changed it. But the embarrassment overwhelmed that, when I was a kid. As a grown-up (sorta), I decided it was time to change it back. So I asked my mom to dig up the old file and send it to me in Washington DC, where I was living.
I remember, a few weeks later, opening up a FedEx envelope to find a weathered manila folder, including an affidavit that I had written out in 1985. In the shaky handwriting of an elementary school kid, I declared under oath that I wanted to change my name not because I was a fugitive from criminal justice or a debtor seeking to escape my financial obligations – again, I was ten years old – but because I didn’t want to be mistaken for a girl anymore.
So I took those ancient documents and went down to the courthouse in DC. I did some more paperwork and paid some nominal fees and, ultimately, met with a kindly older judge. I told him the story you’re reading here, and he pleasantly asked me to tell it again to his clerks, because he enjoyed it so much. The judge signed some papers granting my unopposed motion: I was officially Eliezer, once again. This time, it ain’t changing.
A few years later, as my soon-to-be wife and I were filling out marriage licensing forms, one document asked whether I had ever been known by any other name. I checked yes, and indicated Eliott. When I explained the story to the clerk, she said they’d have to put an “a.k.a.” on the wedding certificate: Groom – Eliezer Honig, a.k.a. Eliott Honig. My wife, who (like me) was a prosecutor at the time, commented that she felt like she was marrying one of her defendants.
This name endures. It’s mine, for good; sorry, Eliott, you’re not getting a second run. My nephew, Micah – who got a damn cool first name himself – carries Lazar as his middle name. We pass these things down. They bind us together, and they let us see and feel a person we can’t ever meet, or fully know.
I often go long stretches without thinking too much about my name. But then there are times, like now, when it connects me to a larger family history, a broader religious and spiritual community. Like millions around the globe, I’m feeling those bonds acutely these past couple weeks. I won’t offer any geopolitical analysis here. But I share this personal story to express gratitude to, and solidarity with, a global Jewish community that just suffered the worst attack since the Holocaust – which my grandparents survived, generations ago. My appreciation and respect extend to countless non-Jews who have expressed empathy and support. We hear you, and it matters. Thank you.
So many things in this religious and cultural tradition come full circle; the name of a person who endured so much, so long ago, lives on, and is reborn. We draw strength from one another, and from our history. We remember, we carry each other, and we survive.
Note From Elie is part of the free weekly CAFE Brief newsletter.
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