I’ve never seen my birth certificate, but I know what it says. I can see the angular font in my head, bold blocky letters spelling out my name: Hannah-Sophie Vester. Perhaps the ink, thick and sticky, smudged just a little and that’s where that mark, printed defiantly between Hannah and Sophie, came from. Just a typo, a wayward smudge. Another look, though, and who wouldn’t recognize the hyphen for what it is?
When I was growing up, the only other hyphenated names I knew were old world imports, names popular among Ultra-Orthodox Jews like Basya-Leah and Baila-Rochel, heavy in my mind with images of the old, oppressive Russian countryside. I rebelled against my hyphen. If I didn’t write it down, if I left the space after Hannah gloriously blank, it would be almost like I had a real middle name. Sophie. Having a middle name was like keeping a secret. It was a little piece of me that I could divulge only to people special enough to find it out.
I wasn’t the first person in my family to have problems with their name. It is something of a family inheritance. My aunt, born Jill, became Jillian. My mom, born Debra, became Devorah. As a first grader, I was two years in to my Jewish day school education and about the same length of time into my mom’s experiment with religious observance. I had already learned what all little kids soon learn—how much we want nothing more than to fit in. Thinking I could make up for the audacity of having a non-Jewish father and a family mostly ignorant of Orthodox Jewish practices, I hebraicized my name and became Chana. As I grew up, I molded myself and my behavior to the peculiarities of the Orthodox Jewish community, creating the outlines of a new identity to go with my new name.
It took seven years for me to begin to shed Chana and with it many aspects of myself that had become irrevocably wrapped up in that name. Letting go of Chana was like letting go of the part of myself that obliged me to pretend to a certain type of religious observance and to remain invested in that façade. I became Hannah again in middle school, going through the transformations of that turbulent time with a new name in which to cast my new identity. My hyphen, however, never found its way back. My driver’s license reads Hannah Vester without a hint of the messy middle part I swept aside. My signature, mostly scribbles beyond recognition, has a defiant S looped proudly between the half-formed swirls of Hannah and Vester, daring you not to guess that it’s only the shadow of a middle name.
For most people, a name is a backdrop to many selves, a familiar constant that follows a person from youth to adulthood and beyond, but I’ve rarely felt that sense of familiarity. There is a schism in the way I think about myself. My childhood is full of memories of Chana, a girl I remember quite well, but, embodied in a name I no longer call my own, she exists outside of myself, distinct. The switch from Chana to Hannah did not happen overnight, although I remember the first time I handed in an assignment with Hannah printed boldly at the top, heart racing with giddy excitement at the certainty of what I was doing. Even so, Chana embodies one version of myself, and Hannah another. They aren’t labels that I can tack on at will. Instead, they stand, concrete and substantial, the outlines of two different people. Chana was a girl created, in many ways, from the demands of her surroundings. Hannah is my constant reminder to define myself independently of and often in contrast to what is around me.
If you thought my relationship with my name couldn’t get messier, you’ve never heard strangers try to pronounce it. Chana, for obvious reasons, is a challenge. Hannah should be simple, an all-American badge, easy for phone orders, substitute teachers and Starbucks. It’s not Hannah, though. It’s /hännə/, the first “a” like the vowel in “car,” not in “can.” People get my name wrong all the time, but as a rule, I correct them once and that’s it. When they mess up, I tell them it’s okay, and I mean it.
I grew into myself and into my name in the same years. Hannah—not Chana, not Hannah-Sophie, not Hannah (the “a” as in can)—is a crucible of the same choices, conscious or not, that turned my seventh-grade self—the girl embodied in the name Chana—in to the person I am today. The real reason it’s okay when people get my name wrong is because there’s nothing I enjoy more than that first time they get it right: the way their lips wrap around the shape of my name, exploring its unusual sound, holding me for a second on the tip of their tongue before letting me go, my name lingering in the air between us like a floating piece of myself—and for a fleeting moment, by knowing my name, it’s as if they know every inch of who I am.