Photo by Mark Herpel.
Photo by Mark Herpel.

Tall Soy Misto. What’s your name for the order?”

Here I hesitate. I learned my lesson long ago: there is no place for “Zahava” in Starbucks. For many years, in the overpriced land of hissing espresso machines and foamed upper lips and green-clad baristas, Zahava didn’t exist. Instead, for the ten minutes I spent each day ordering coffee, I was Zoe, or Sarah, or Lauren. It was easier that way. But I resolved recently to tell the truth about my name.

“Zahava,” I said.


“Za-ha-va,” I repeat, more slowly this time.


“ZA-HA-VA,” I nearly shout over the buzz of impatient customers.

“Zohara. Got it.”


Defeated, I hand over my Starbucks Gold Card to the frustrated cashier. Not for the first time, I ask myself why I began this narcissistic campaign, why it means so much to me to share my birth name with every Starbucks employee who has the misfortune of taking my order.

I ponder this as I wait for my drink. My eyes drift to the snow on the ground outside. Then, smiling, I remember Great Grandma Goldie.

My father regarded his Grandma Goldie, particularly her caustic one-liners, with awe. She passed away when he was a kid, and he proudly named me for her (Zahava means “gold” in Hebrew). Apparently I was an appropriate namesake for Goldie: my dad and my grandmother tell me often how similar I am to her.

Based on the fragmented stories I’ve collected about my Great Grandmother, I imagine Goldie’s life to have consisted of a constant string of tragedies, punctuated only by occasional melancholy, Fiddler on the Roof type humor. Misfortune began with her birth, which took her mother’s life. On top of this guilt, Goldie and her sister Pearl were the two members of her large family to escape the Holocaust. There was no time for Goldie to dwell on this, though: upon arriving in New York from Poland in the early 1900s, Goldie became immediately preoccupied with the business of surviving. She worked as a baby nurse, a baker, and a bookkeeper while boarding with a family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Through this family, she met her husband, Morris, with whom she had two children. Their love story was short-lived: Morris died when their younger child was just two. Again, Goldie responded to tragedy with what she knew best, perseverance. She continued to work to support her two young children.

Through all this, Goldie remained bitter, sarcastic, and an excellent baker. She never revealed her age. She was a deeply religious, practicing Jew. In the winter, she watched people slip on ice outside her window and laughed.

Eventually, Goldie was able to send her son to college. She lived to meet six of her grandchildren, who can still taste her legendary blintzes. Despite this, I never got the impression that her story had a happy ending. Goldie never remarried, and, as far as I can tell, wasn’t known to do anything for fun (with the exception of watching people fall in the snow). Her life wasn’t a tale laced with the optimism of the downtrodden. Rather, Goldie maintained her pessimistic, skeptical outlook and sardonic sense of humor until the day she died. I picture her with a permanent, all-knowing smirk.

Goldie exists as an impossibly courageous, unapproachably wise figment of my imagination. She intimidates me from the grave. Goldie must have been, in every way, greater than I am, and I’m frightened I won’t ever live up to the comparison. Often, I feel immensely guilty (I supposed she passed along her Jewish Guilt, too): for having opportunities she couldn’t dream of having, for not making better, smarter decisions regarding the choices she was never given.

Sometimes, I find myself feeling bitter about an utterly minor first world problem (say, the spelling of my name on a Starbucks cup), and wonder what Grandma Goldie would think. Any grievance I have feels irrelevant and nonsensical when viewed through Goldie’s eyes. How could I be stressed by college applications when her teenage years were spent living alone in a foreign country struggling to support herself? How could I complain about my mother being overbearing when she never knew hers?

It seems unfair to me that Goldie should have been given petty, entitled me as a namesake. The responsibility of carrying her name feels, often, out of my reach. But here I am, Zahava.

Until recently, I used Starbucks as my escape from “Zahava,” and more importantly, from Goldie. It was the one place I could lie about my name without repercussions. Everywhere else, I was (and still am) usually asked to repeat my name multiple times only to get called “Sahara.” Sometimes, after three tries, the person I’m talking to tells me how pretty my name is, which I usually suspect is a pity compliment. But all this confusion was not what bothered me about my name; I quite like my unique title, even if it makes introductions difficult. My inhibition really came from the inevitable conversation that followed my introducing myself, the one in which I would need to tell people about Goldie.  Each time I shook someone’s hand, I was reminded of the pressure to live up to the force that was my great-grandmother. Though I wanted desperately to make Goldie proud, I mostly felt like I was failing her. So, if only for the brief time I spent each day in Starbucks, I got to be someone other than an insufficient namesake.

But then I imagined the tough old lady getting a kick out of seeing innocent freezing people hit the pavement, and I decided Goldie might be proud to see her cynicism and determination survive her. I resolved to carry her with me always, even in Starbucks. Goldie’s battles were infinitely more significant and challenging than are mine, her guilt more justified, her bitterness more appropriately placed; but I have come to believe she’d be wistfully happy to see those traits in her namesake, even in the form of my adamant, self-centered Starbucks cause.

So, I now insist on “Zahava” with confidence, and share Goldie’s story with anyone who asks about my name. And, sometimes, I intentionally fall in the snow—just in case she’s watching. It’s the least I can do.

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