Naming and Food
My new granddaughter’s name in Hebrew is :Tova Shoshanna. The first name “ Tova” means good and the second, Shoshanna ,connotes for my daughter a happy memory of a beloved Hebrew school teacher who showered her students with delicious delicacies, thereby making after school learning sweeter.
I like the idea that Jews are, in a sense, double agents, in that they have public names, but also private secret ones in a foreign language, Hebrew, as if a secret code ring will only reveal their true identity to the persons who know the covert language.
People play fast and loose with the naming, some insisting that the letter of the English and Hebrew be the same so for example, the” J” in the English one Jordan and the Hebrew one Joseph ( actually Yosef) be related by the first letter of each. When I named my children, I wanted the meaning of the names to coalesce so that Jordan’s second name Bryan, strong, warrior, and meant the same as the name Israel, ( written in Hebrew or Yiddish -Ysrul, for the person named) .
Yet totally unrelated, my grandfather’s name in English was Sam, no doubt , someone assigning the Jewish monikers, Sam and Sarah, to all Jews, even though my zaida had arrived from Romania early in the 20 th century, not post war. What connection had Sam to Ysrul- a name my daughterinlaw insists does not exist at all !(curious and curiouser, says Alice).
And because the vowels in Hebrew are added at the bottom of the letters in Hebrew, Ithought I would again play with the interchange between the English and Hebrew names so that I changed my grandmother’s name Molly to Amanda for my elder daughter, Ariel’s second name, (which for some reason she deplores) and which means well loved. But Sam/Ysrul’s wife was Molly, Malka, or queen in Hebrew (someone more than a hundred years ago following the first letter “M” rule) so I figured in my own strange logic that since there are no real vowels in Hebrew, I could transliterate and add the” A” to Molly’s” M “and make it Amanda. Besides queens such as Purim’s Queen Esther were extremely well loved as in Amanda.
And similarly , my husband Howard’s Hebrew name is El Channon, the El disappearing into the first consonant “H” for Howard so his mother must have figured likewise. In the end, the child winds up having two separate names, usually only being called the secret one in a Hebrew Schoolroom when he or she is called formally to the Torah.
Or to confuse even more, if the English name given is actually a Hebrew one such as Orly or Shira , it stands in both languages.
I like the idea too that Shoshanna is associated with a delightful food experience for my daughter. When I taught English at Northern Secondary, twins Helen and Mia, who worked at Phipps bakery were given the cakes that did not sell after two days. Over German chocolate cake or peach pie, we would discuss Shakespeare or Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, lessons made more palatable by an atmosphere that included coffee and cake. The entire tone of the classes changed. Instead of bleary sleep-filled eyes and lax limbs, students perked up in their early morning class, providing powerful insights to discussions. I too looked forward to the excellent bakery’s leftover treats that could feature foamy meringue, streams of bursting blueberries, and gooey moist caramel embedded in their baked goods. I am forever a patron of the bakery restaurant pondering which to select for my family’s birthdays, such as The Celebration Cake or Dad’s Special, their offerings as delicious as they were twenty years ago.
As well, sharing a desert or a meal seems to me an important feature of bonding to Jewish families. Marc Chagall wife’s memoir,Burning Lights from her life in Vitesbek, Russia, evoked for me the holiday meal, of a clan gathering and being together so many years ago. And for secularized Jews who may go light on the services, meeting for the family meal to inaugurate the beginning of a new year( Rosh Hashanah), or commemorate a biblical tale or triumph over slavery such as Passover , is based on our coming together to eat symbolic foods.There is the lamb shrank, the bitter herbs and the all time favourite of Chorosets, which is a mixture of apples, nuts and wine to commemorate the mortar Jews were forced to make for their bricks in Egypt under Pharaoh.
My favourite story concerns one of my grandsons on Passover. Thinking it great fun to dip fingers into the wine glass when reiterating the Passover Plagues, but not comprehending the Hebrew words, he enquired what were the words we were singing out, associated with dipping his fingers. Solemnly explained, they were the plagues of grasshoppers, darkness, frogs, locusts… death of the first born, he stopped and open mouthed, eyes huge, announced , “Those are not good things.” Indeed, they are not.
But the connections with food and love do continue. And I think fondly of finding something especially delicious to greet my grandsons when I get them at school. When the elder was at daycare, he developed a passion for macaroons, then just becoming popular. The tiny pastel- coloured gems were his delight for awhile. His brother, a chocolate addict is wild for the golden coins, Lindt bunnies and an entire wide range of anything sweet and chocolate. Tonight for their pickup, I made a special trip to the Chocolate Messenger to purchase the chocolate marshmallow treats adorned with multicoloured sprinkles. Their interest in cupcakes, even from Bakes and Goods, that uses Belgian chocolate and to my mind, the best bar none in the city, wanes and waxes. The occasional bag of sun chips or cheesies may suffice although I much prefer something homemade..
This is all to say that my daughter in naming her child reached deep into her store of memories that included a beloved teacher’s name, one that was fused with food. On Friday nights, my mother prepared her fricassee, chicken soup and roasted chicken, but her fricassee was outstanding. When asked what was the special ingredient she used, her answer was always the same: love.