My father chose the name and my mother chose the spelling. My father—for the High Priest Aaron of the Israelites, Moses’ fallible brother who leads the priestly order of Levites but is forever tainted by his participation in the building of the profane Golden Calf. My mother—because she had once dated someone who spelled it that way and thought it was more interesting. (Until very recently, this individual was described as “a friend,” and it was not until I sat down at the kitchen counter and said in a voice none too sure of itself, “Mom, I wasn’t named after one of your ex-boyfriends or anything, was I?” and she said, “Yes, why?”)
I attended a Jewish elementary school in which my single A stood out among innumerable Aaron’s, Ari’s, and Ariel’s. I got a thrill each time I saw it appear in the credits of a movie or in a book (as a surname, more often than not), and my mom and I would always point out these mini-miracles to each other. Among Jews, Aarons are a dime a dozen, but Aron is a name that dwells alone (though we all share our ancestor’s Hebrew name, Aharon). Even when my neighbors, teachers, and family members (including, once, my grandparents) spelled my name wrong on birthday cards, I was always proud to be a little different — the fact that they couldn’t spell it meant that my name rested on a mysterious plane beyond the reading compression of the average well-wisher. The proudest moment of my time at Princeton and, perhaps, my young life, was when an Ivy bouncer handed me back my prox and told me I had a “cool name.”
In just over nine months, I will be moving to Israel to join the military, after which I will hang around the Holy Land for some amount of time between a few months and forever. When I get there, I’ll have a choice to make: I can adopt my Hebrew name which, though common, does mean “High mountain of God.” Or, I can continue to go by Aron (pronounced in Israel as something closer to “Ah-rone”), which means “Closet.” This is funny because my best friend in America is an Israeli whose name, Dror, means “Sparrow” in Hebrew and “put clothes in me” in English.
In Jewish school, we were always taught that we had two of everything—two homelands, two birthdays (lunar and solar), and two names—and that we could hold onto both simultaneously. I don’t think any of us really believed it. If you want to live in America, you can’t be living in Israel. Charles was born in July, not the Hebrew month of Elul. Willie never went by Ze’ev, and I’ve always been Aron. Our Hebrew names were never the equals of our English ones. They were mystical, semi-unpronounceable titles that signified our belonging to our religious community, but I don’t think we ever would have said that they described who we were. Our parents didn’t use them around the house. The only times we heard them were in Hebrew class or at our bar mitzvahs, and each time our teachers and rabbis spoke them, it was to convey some sort of obligation: to learn Hebrew, to talk about Israel, and to think about Judaism.
In Judaism, adopting a new name often represents changing oneself. In the book of Genesis, before Abraham and Sarah become the forbearers of the Jewish people, they are called Abram and Sarai. God makes a covenant with Abram promising that his descendants will be various great nations and tells Sarai, who is barren, that she will have a boy. To mark the occasion, God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. The difference is not so large, but it marks an intense shift in identity. They are no longer the offspring of whatever nations bore them, but are now the progenitors of a new one. Similarly, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, wrestles with an angel, God tells him, “Israel shall be your name.” Jacob, in the past, has often relied on trickery to get what he wants, and has also fled in the face of danger. Jacob’s new name, which means “To Wrestle with God,” highlights his decision to confront his struggles head-on instead of running from or avoiding them. The tradition of changing names continues today. When individuals convert to Judaism, they append “son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah” to indicate that they have joined a new people.
These new names, though, are more than just recognitions of transformations. They also have the power to intensify those changes, and further alter the identities of their bearers.
Abraham and Sarah’s new names do not just signify that they will give rise to a great nation; they are a constant reminder of their responsibility to do so. Moreover, they emphasize the fact that they cannot go back to their old lives—Abram and Sarai no longer exist. Likewise, once Jacob defines himself by his willingness to struggle, how could he revert to his former cowardice? As for Jewish converts, their new names both mark the fact that they have left their birth families behind and, I imagine, also further estrange them.
Calling myself Aharon would create a similar endogeneity. On the one hand, it would send a message to everyone around me that immigrating does not just represent another chapter in my life, but the beginning of an entirely new book. At the same time, the name would change me: it would not make me Israeli, but it would certainly make me less American. Each time I used it, I would be saying that Aharon the soldier is not Aron the student or Aron the brother or Aron who is here right now.
I suppose I could always revert to Aron, but until I did, my American identity in some small way would cease to exist. Unlike Abraham, though, I don’t have God telling me that I have become something different and can’t return. As long as I stay Aron, it will be a way out—a way of telling myself that I have not changed, that America will always be there to welcome me back.
This is the way most of us deal with the biggest changes in our lives. To whatever degree we are willing to throw ourselves into them, we also want a safety net. We will teach halfway across the world for a year, but only if we know that we can come back home afterwards. We will make friends in new schools, jobs, and cities, but only as long as we can keep a few of the old ones in case they don’t work out. There is a part of me that says I will only go to the army if I do not have to become a stranger to my family. I know I may do things my parents will not understand, that they will not recognize me in a uniform or with a gun, but I want them at them to know what to call me.
There is a plot of graves of foreign-born Israeli soldiers on Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. On each is inscribed two dates: the day they fell in battle, and they day they moved to Israel. Though the people they once were had been foreigners, the graves say, the people they had become when they died had been born in Israel. I wonder if, whether or not I want to or know it, I will have become more Aharon than Aron by the time my service is ended. Israel will change me. The army will change me. Maybe the minute I get there, I will start becoming someone my family will not quite recognize, different eyes or accent or hands, and we will all call me Aron until we are ready to admit it. Maybe we only pretend that we have safety nets so that we can leave ourselves behind more easily.