My Journey Back to Leah

Why Elizabeth Mark gave herself three Hebrew names to honor the personal transitions in her life.
by Elizabeth Wyner Mark

It’s been over 100 years since my grandmother, a young immigrant woman recovering from serious illness, decided to follow an old Jewish custom that supposedly ensures good health: she changed her name.

From then on, rather than “Golda” she was known as “Gussie.” Ostensibly the change was intended to put the pursuing malach hamavet (the angel of death) in a state of confusion, not able to locate his intended victim. However, as Grandma recounted the story perhaps 50 years later, I always suspected that part of her motivation had been to acquire what she imagined was a more American name. Though she may have failed on that score, she did go on—as Gussie—to become a rather powerful community activist. Before there was feminism, I would say that Gussie was a feminist.

Choosing Elisheva

The first change in my own Hebrew name had nothing to do with the malach hamavet, though I had had my first cancer by then. But it did resonate a bit with Grandma Gussie’s feminist spirit. My parents had told me that my Hebrew name was Leah. I was named, they said, for a great-grandmother who lived her life in the old country. Though my mother had never known her, she liked connecting me to someone she had heard called “the shainah Leah”─the beautiful Leah. She understood that description to refer to Leah’s kindness and generosity. The name Leah, however, meant nothing to me (or so I thought) since in my whole life I had never participated in a Jewish ceremony that required the use of a Hebrew name─no baby-naming, no bat mitzvah, no calling up to the Torah. When I joined an egalitarian havurah (innovative Jewish community) about 25 years ago, I decided to name myself. That’s how I became Elisheva, the closest name I could find to Elizabeth. It was a pleasure to be called to the Torah by the name I had chosen as an adult.

About 12 years ago I had a second breast cancer, this time labeled “advanced.” I began to think about Grandma and her busy life as Gussie. While I could only approach the idea of outrunning the malach hamavet’s hot breath with a slightly humorous attitude, it still seemed like a take-charge kind of response to a situation that I really had no control over. Besides, there are metaphors and there are metaphors, and some of them draw you right into their interior places. Though I might think that I was operating in a tongue-in-cheek mode, I knew that the hot breath of the malach hamavet would at some level seriously describe, and convey to others, my sense of intense confrontation with mortality.

As it turned out, the emotional impact was enhanced by a mysterious coincidence that I designated a miracle. I had intended to make the ritual announcement of my new name the next time I had an assignment to read in Hebrew from the Torah during a service. Lo and behold, without any advance planning, the Torah reading for that day was from Vayishlach, the parshah in which Jacob’s name is changed to Israel after wrestling with an angel. My particular segment included Jacob’s moving words about the change of name experience:  “I have seen God face to face and my soul has survived.” In our house, there is a paper-clipping recalling that Shabbat, which I read often in passing.

I decided to follow a different strand of tradition from Gussie’s, one that adds the new name to the old one. I couldn’t give up Elisheva and the implications of the self-naming.  I wanted to add on to my present life and not turn my back on it, to keep on going rather than starting over.

Next comes Zilpah

I had been researching and publishing on the subject of the secondary wives of Jacob─ Bilhah and Zilpah─ the maidservants of Rachel and Leah. They are the mothers of one-third of the tribes of Israel, yet when in the name of egalitarianism people add “the mothers” to the liturgy, they actually pass along an ancient caste exclusion by including only the upper-class mothers. Zilpah has been excluded to the point that her name is omitted from the comprehensive Jewish Encyclopedia of the turn of the 20th century, so taking her name as my own felt like an act of radical inclusion. Besides, in an upstairs/downstairs sort of way, as Leah’s maidservant Zilpah would bring me a little closer to Leah.

So that’s how I became Elisheva Zilpah.

A little more than two years ago, the malach hamavet began to close in, bringing me pancreatic cancer. Life expectancy was figured only in months and I considered just accepting palliative treatment. To please my children I agreed to try chemotherapy and had a good response to it, though one not expected to last long. The Havurah’s healing service at our house was wonderfully comforting, expressing as it did the gift of community support and caring. I lived in the moment and was continually surprised by the new seasons that followed one another. When spring came I gardened, and in summer I was still gardening. More of the grandchildren became adolescents. A little granddaughter had a tough recovery from a cochlear implant but came through and heard sounds she had never heard.

A Return to Leah

About a year after the healing service, the Havurah honored me at a Shabbat morning service. What more appropriate response, it seemed to me, than to add again to my name, signifying my recognition and acceptance of a new phase of living without denying the hot breath aspect.

Once again the parshah miracle emerged. With the date of the event chosen only on the basis of calendar considerations, the portion revealed itself as our familiar Vayishlach. Once again I found myself declaring in Jacob’s stirring words: “I have seen God face to face and my soul has survived.”

A new kind of miracle emerged. Out of my printer—to my mind, out of thin air—came a portrait of the shainah Leah. A distant cousin had seen my name on the Internet and was sending me family pictures. Leah appeared as a very old lady dressed in a dark 19th-century dress with matching bonnet, looking to me as if she might have been thinking end-of-life thoughts. Most striking was that on a table in front of her lay a large open book, content illegible. I don’t know if Leah was an insatiable reader or just chose a book as her preferred prop for a portrait. Either way she was “bookish.” Either way I knew that Leah and I had made the connection my mother had hoped for, that I wanted Leah to return to my name. As a bonus, Leah’s return would reunite Zilpah and Leah, not this time in a domestic relationship but in the narrative of my expanding name. And this time Zilpah’s name would take precedence over the name of her mistress.

Identifying with Leah set me to thinking of my parents, envisioning them as a young couple, younger than my own children are now. I could imagine the joy and love they brought to the name Leah at a time when they were still mourning the death of their first baby daughter. Her name is recorded only on a small gravestone near our grandparents’ graves. Because her name is there, I was born and had my journey of names.

In what felt like a full circle experience, 10 months ago on Shabbat Vayishlach (the Sabbath on which this portion is read in the annual cycle of Torah reading), I became Elisheva Zilpah Leah. Another spring and another summer have passed since then. My garden has never looked so splendid.

About the Author

Elizabeth Wyner Mark
It is with great sadness that we announce Elizabeth Wyner Mark, a close
friend of HBI, recently passed away. For more than a decade, Elizabeth
was a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at
Brandeis University, where she authored many provocative articles about
Biblical issues and edited the book, The Covenant of Circumcision: New
Perspective on an Ancient Jewish Rite, published by the
Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. An extraordinary teacher, leader, therapist
and scholar, Elizabeth died on December 29, 2006.

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