It’s traditional for Jews to have Jewish names that we use at sacred occasions—such as when being called to the Torah or when signing a ketubah (marriage certificate)—while for virtually all other aspects of life we are called by our civil names. When we receive our Hebrew name, which is essentially a spiritual name, it is usually conferred as part of a ritual—circumcision for boys, and in modern times through a variety of naming rituals for girls. By contrast, our secular names are typically generated through the mundane filing of bureaucratic paperwork.
Today I engaged in a legal process with relatively little precedent, at least among my peers. With the help of the courts I inserted my spiritual name into my civil name. The Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara decreed that henceforth Charles Douglas Ballon shall legally be known as Yeshaya Douglas Ballon. This raises a number of questions that I will try to answer not only for others but for myself as well.
Why did I do it?
To answer this requires a little background starting with the oddity that, contrary to Jewish tradition, my mother named me after her living father, Charlie. To avoid confusion—or perhaps to create confusion—she then proceeded to call me only by my middle name, Doug. I don’t think I even knew Charles was my first name until I was well into grade school. Not surprisingly, I have always bristled whenever I have been called Charles.
When I was eight days old I was given the Hebrew name Yeshaya Dan ben harav Shimon. Yeshaya, meaning Isaiah; Dan, as in the tribe of Dan; ben harav, son of the rabbi; Shimon, my father’s Hebrew name, the equivalent of Simon.
Friends and family know that I started asking to be called Yeshaya, at least in spiritual circles, only about four years ago. They probably don’t know—as I had all but forgotten myself until I opened some old journals recently—that as far back as the 1980’s I was contemplating using my Hebrew name, and doodled imagined business cards with Yeshaya ben harav Shimon and other variations of my name.
Thoughts about changing my name persisted. Ten years ago, shortly before my mother’s death, I was so taken by the spirituality that was emerging from her in her final days that I then added her name to my already lengthy Hebrew name, becoming Yeshaya Dan ben harav Shimon v’Yonit. For me that was more than a tribute to my dying mother. It also gave me a sense of wholeness, an integration of the attributes of both of my parents—two extremely different personalities that I had long struggled to harness within myself.
Taking the plunge to being called Yeshaya in circumstances other than during Jewish rituals is part of a long tale of my spiritual odyssey that I won’t recite now. On the other hand, my recent use of Yeshaya arose in a discrete, spontaneous act. In May 2007 I was checking in for a workshop at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. When they handed me a nametag to fill out I thought, “What the heck? We’re all Jews here!” and I wrote the large block letters Y-E-S-H-A-Y-A. For several days I was called Yeshaya. I loved the sound of it, and never turned back.
Having adopted the use of the name Yeshaya in one part of my life did not necessitate a legal change—so why do that, and why now? At the most mundane level we can thank the TSA—the Transportation Security Administration. In their often-nonsensical folly to tighten the noose around terrorism they recently enacted a rule that a person’s name on an airline ticket must exactly match one’s government issued ID. Since my driver’s license and passport read Charles Douglas Ballon I could no longer book tickets merely as Doug Ballon. Remember how I said I bristle at being called Charles? That also applies to airline ticketing kiosks asking me if I am Charles Ballon. Increasingly banks and computer forms and various agencies have been forcing the issue of my name. With Yeshaya now in play, using it officially seemed like the path of least resistance. I am not discounting the possible intangible elements to the change, but clearly the TSA pushed me over the edge.
What is the significance of it?
This is a much harder question to answer. It would be presumptuous to offer that the use of my Hebrew name in some way reflects any higher spiritual evolution on my part. However, adopting its use in the last four years, at the very least, parallels my increased desire to move along this path. During this period I have engaged in far more Jewish study than previously, and I have extended myself through greater service to the Jewish community. The effect specifically of inserting Yeshaya into my civil name remains to be seen. I won’t be changing my IDs until September after I return from some travel previously booked as Charles Douglas. When I start to see the new name on my driver’s license, credit cards, and tax forms, etc. who knows how it will effect me.
Legally marrying my primary Hebrew name, Yeshaya, with my preferred English name, Douglas, has power of its own. As when I added my mother’s name to my father’s, it is another form of integration. In this case infusing my entire life with Jewish consciousness. In a way it’s like taking a vow. It’s putting my Yeshaya consciousness up front causing me to take greater note of who I am.
Every name change in the Torah occurred at a moment of transformation in the life of one of our ancestors. Having the TSA push me into this is a far cry from God renaming Avram to Abraham or the angel blessing Jacob and naming him Israel. Nonetheless, the precedent has been established that our names are a reflection of the responsibility that we carry going forward in the world. It will be my self-imposed challenge to live up to my new name.
Some things won’t be changing. My Facebook page has already read Yeshaya Douglas Ballon for months. For the foreseeable future I expect to continue to be called by my middle name at work as I have always been. I hope not to chastise friends and family (too much) who do the same, although they should know I increasingly find the sound “Doug” to be a bit jarring, while “Yesh” (pronounced yay-sh) is music to my ears.
Is there a reason to create a ritual around changing one’s civil name?
Several persons suggested having a ritual around this. My first response was that I had already had a naming ritual on the eighth day, and that this “naming” is a civil action not requiring more than a judge’s decree. But I listened to my rabbi and other spiritual advisors. Inserting the spiritual into the secular is a significant act worth sanctifying in some way. This morning I attended the mikvah. Tonight a few of us read some poems, recited the sh'hechiyanu, scarfed some cookies and ice cream, and told stories about our names. On Shabbat I will be called to the Torah, and be asked to share a few thoughts about my name with my fellow congregants. Writing this blog is another way of marking and sharing this day as special.
“Yesh Indeed” is the name of my blog. Most men named Yeshaya, when choosing a nickname, go by “Shai” or “Shaya.” I would be remiss if I failed to mention the sweet way my now daughter-in-law (then my son’s girlfriend) offered a nickname for Yeshaya that seems to be uniquely mine. When I met Alana she politely stated, “I understand you want to be called Yeshaya. That’s a lot to say. Would you mind if I call you “Yesh”? Yesh means “there is” in Hebrew. In Kabbalah it’s paired with the word “ayin” which means “there is not” much as Yin is paired with Yang in Eastern thought. These words are sometimes more freely translated as “something” and “nothing.” Yesh is also an exclamation of delight in Modern Hebrew parlance. How could I refuse? Having Yeshaya morph informally into Yesh provides yet another facet to my evolving identity. Now I’m really “something!”
If I were to summarize this entire story while standing on one leg it would be this: Yeshaya Douglas Ballon—Yesh—is who I am, who I have always been, and who I hope to become.