My Life as a Shulamit

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by Shulamit Reinharz

My grandparents’ names were Heinrich and Karl, Henrietta, Tekla and Teresa. One of my great-grandmother’s names was Hedwig. They were all German Jews, as are my parents–Max and Ilse–who also grew up in Germany. But my name is nothing like theirs. Nor am I called “Vanda” or “Helga,” typical Dutch female names, in spite of the fact that I was born in Amsterdam.

My parents broke the chain of diaspora names in our family when they named me Shulamit Tirzah, my sister Tova Chaya and my brother Yonatan Efraim. These are modern Hebrew names, and all, other than Tova, are Biblical. Shulamit, for the record, is the woman to whom Solomon sings the Song of Songs. I am grateful that my parents broke the chain. They did it, I believe, because they lost faith in Europe during the Holocaust. Love of Israel, my mother told me recently, replaced her former misplaced faith in European civilization. What is the point of being named Heinrich and Hedwig, when the non-Jewish Heinriches and Hedwigs want to kill you? This transformation of traditional naming for individuals also has a proud history in the Bible. The story of Avram becoming Avraham and Sarai becoming Sarah is the story of the founding of a people.

When my family moved to New Jersey in 1951 Tova quickly morphed into the familiar Toby, and Yonatan into Jonathan (or Jonny), new names doled out by their friends. But Shulamit doesn’t morph into anything familiar, so I simply shortened it to Shula. The New Jersey town in which we lived had almost no Jews so my name made me stick out even more than I did by having non-American parents. Growing up as Shula Rothschild made it unnecessary to actually tell anyone I was a Jewish kid (after they asked me where my name came from), and that was fine with me.

Perhaps because of my parents’ experience growing up, I wanted to fit into the culture around me, but did not need to fit in all the way. Somehow I was extremely proud of being a Jewish girl in a non-Jewish suburb. In part, Israel made me proud and it “belonged” to me.

People frequently assume I am Israeli because of my name. When I was a girl, in order to simplify things, and because of my immaturity, I answered “yes.” Now I tell them it’s Biblical. Some ask me “where in the Bible?”  And we’re off and running. Most people notice the name, especially given the difficulty in figuring out how to pronounce it. Sometimes I make a joke and say, “Shula, like Don Shula, coach of the Miami Dolphins.”

Many Jews don’t realize that we can take on Hebrew names without being Israelis. I remain proud of my name, and I found it natural to honor that tradition when my husband and I had the opportunity to name our two daughters. We chose Yael (Biblical) Dahlia (a flower); and Naomi (Biblical) Carla (for my grandfather, Karl). I’ve noticed that Yael, in particular, has to explain her name quite a bit, just as I did. She too doesn’t seem to mind it at all.

About the Author

Shulamit Reinharz
Shulamit Reinharz is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University, and the founding director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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