The last time my sister and I saw each other before the Great Cat Scandal was December 2003. Her family visited us in Philadelphia for a couple of days before Christmas. We kept the visit short because J and I had an event for his family up in New Jersey on Christmas day. This would be the last time my sister and I were on speaking terms, yet I do not regret heading up to New Jersey for what can only be described as a remarkable reunion of my husband’s family.
J’s paternal grandfather, Martin, left Germany in the 1930s and began to build a life for himself in the United States. He brought over his two brothers and the aunt who had raised them. As it became increasingly apparent that it would be prudent for any and all Jews to hightail it out of Germany, Martin sponsored many German Jews, helping them establish lives in the United States. There were several relatives among them. And, on Christmas day 2003, we headed up to New Jersey to meet one of them.
Martin had died in his 40s, and so his children had lost touch with many of the relatives he had sponsored. J’s father – Martin’s son – had never met this branch of the family and was only recently in touch with them. When we arrived, we realized the significance of what J’s grandfather, a man he had never met, had done. We met the man he had saved, but we also met the large family this cousin had gone on to have. Without Martin’s encouragement and material aid, this man would have remained in Germany and surely have been interred and killed, and this multi-generational family would never have come to be.
When we got in the car to drive back to Philadelphia, I would like to say we talked about how extraordinary the day had been. Instead, we returned to our all-consuming obsession: wondering whether or not I was pregnant this month. I had been giving myself shots, so we were hopeful that maybe this month we had beaten the infertility.
We talked about what we might name the baby. For Ashkenazi Jews, naming babies is complicated. We are supposed to name for a dead relative. Actually, we only need to use the same first letter as the dead relative, but that can be onerous enough. The letters are almost always terrible, and when there is a good letter, it has been completely used up by the rest of the family. M names for boys, for example, had been exhausted by my in-laws on their sons’ first and middle names. As we drove down the Jersey Turnpike, we agreed that, if it was a boy, maybe we’d name him after J’s maternal grandfather and my grandmother.
Nine months later, that’s exactly what we did.
It got more complicated with our second boy, whom we wanted to name after my mother. Her name started with a G. There was not one single name we both liked that started with G. After J rejected Gideon and Gabriel, we settled on giving a first name we liked and a middle name after my mother. It’s the Hebrew name that counts, anyway. The Hebrew name is the “real” name as far as the religion is concerned, and Benjamin’s Hebrew name does indeed closely follow my mother’s.
The boys got their Hebrew names at their brises, although I must admit I was too traumatized by the whole surgical part of the event to be as moved as I could have been by the symbolic portion. Tomorrow, Lilah gets her Hebrew name at our synagogue. There will be relatives, there will be friends, there will be food, and there will be no cutting, so I should be able to pay attention.
Tomorrow, Lilah will be named Michal. She will be named for Martin.