Latest update: August 20th, 2012
I once asked my parents why they had named me Chana Malka, and they responded: “We didn’t, the rabbis named you.” For the longest time, I chose to be content with that answer, but then again, for the longest time I chose to be content with my assumed religious identity, and never felt the need to examine either subject too closely. I am the daughter of two loving parents, a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father.
But two weeks after my 19th birthday, in the food court of a Tel Aviv shopping mall, I was informed that actual halacha only considers a child born to a Jewish mother to have the birthright status of a Jew. My informant wasn’t a particularly observant person, but what she shared was stated as common fact. What was this halacha (a word I had never heard before)? Was it true I wasn’t Jewish? Would I have to “convert” to my own religion?
I was thirsty for answers and in need of consolation for the sudden state of confusion into which I was thrust.
What do you do about the kid who thinks she is Jewish but isn’t a real Jew; who has more connection and involvement in Jewish life than the child born with full-Jewish status according to Jewish law? Suddenly, I was that kid. And to this day, I still struggle with what to say when I meet someone in the same situation.
Do halachic Jews realize how difficult it is to admit you’re not Jewish; to simply walk away from an identity that fit your outlook on life; to be told you’re not a Jew but your friend with the non-Jewish father is; to realize you could be harming the very nation you wish to defend and connect with in so many ways?
We all have choices in life. The easiest choices in life are not always the wisest, let alone meaningful. I recognized that choice: I could continue to live my life hardly understanding what it meant to be Jewish, all the while knowing I was only considered a Jew by the Reform movement’s 1980s decision (recognition of Jewish identity when either parent is Jewish if the child is raised as a Jew). Staying as I was would mean that in the back of my head and heart I would continue to question my Jewish status, which didn’t technically exist.
I chose to convert according to the highest standards of halacha, by the approval and testimony of the Beit Din of Monsey. The Torah is the greatest treasure ever created, a gift given exclusively to the Jewish people as a reminder of our special relationship with the Creator of the world. This, in fact, is a privilege and if you do not understand why you were hired to protect the king’s crown jewels, then what value could they possibly possess for you?
In Judaism, names often reflect on the qualities of an individual. In the process of undergoing halachic conversion, I was given the unusual opportunity of renaming myself, so I wanted something with personal relevance.
I chose two Hebrew names – Batya Miriam. Why specifically those two?
The Midrash tells the following story: Pharaoh’s daughter decided to become a sincere convert to Judaism and was on her way to the Nile River for ritual immersion. Her name, Bithia, evolved into Batya. I chose this name because, like Pharaoh’s daughter, I consider myself born into a life of great opportunities and privilege, cognizant of the Jewish people but generally observing them from afar. We both saw past the complacence of our upbringing – what do I really believe? How do I want to live my life?
I didn’t go looking for change, but when confronted with the truth, I couldn’t remain complacent either. The more I learned of Torah-true Judaism, the more I discovered a life of purpose and joy. Was it an easy transition? No. Yet Torah doesn’t expect me to be perfect. I am expected to keep moving forward in life, improving myself in observance of Torah and mitzvot, which is the basis of Jewish life.
My decision was one based on finding truth, not upon emotion or the desire to rebel. I chose to be Batya because we both chose to help the Jewish people. I attempt to live up to that goal, looking for opportunities to serve the Jewish community, especially in times such as these when there are such great misunderstandings about what it means to be a Jew.
I chose the name Miriam because she was a great prophetess whose keen insight helped save the Jewish people during a period of slavery, persecution and wandering. Miriam is known for her leadership, her love of song and dance, her desire to maintain unity, and her dedication to the Jewish people.
From Miriam, as with all the matriarchs and patriarchs, we learn that it’s not always possible to be perfect; we learn from her mistakes to be careful about how we speak and conduct ourselves. These are qualities I also strive to incorporate into my life.
What’s in a name? Everything! I love my name, I’m proud of the person I’ve become, and I’m grateful for two wonderful parents who have respected my choices with a grant of unconditional acceptance.
I am Batya Miriam and I would not be the person I am today with any other name.
Batya Graber is a public relations assistant at the Orthodox Union. A native of Buffalo, NY, she graduated from Hofstra University and studied at She’arim College for Women in Har Nof.This article originally appeared in Shabbat Shalom, the weekly newsletter of the OU.
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