The Hardest Part of Converting to Judaism – Naming Your Neshama

Applying to the Internal to the Eternal

As some of you know (or don’t know, you’re about to find out) my conversion to Judaism had been a long time coming. The coursework was challenging and I spent many nights into the early morning with my nose in the rabbi’s coursework material. Sometimes, I’d be so engrossed in a text or writing an essay that I wouldn’t get to bed until close to 3am or even 4am. Even as hard as that was, one item of conversion was actually the hardest – choosing a Hebrew name. 

Frazzled Israelite
For those of you who don’t know, a Hebrew name has a basic layout: first name followed by the family name. The most nuts and bolts rendition of this name is Whatever Ben (“Ben” meaning “Son of”) Father’s Name. If you were to apply this formula to some of the patriarchs, you’d have Yitzchak Ben Avraham (Isaac, Son of Abraham) and Yaakov Ben Yitzchak (Jacob, Son of Isaac). The Hebrew name in history of Israel has played a special role among the people. When the Israelites were taken into exile, their captors would attempt to wash out their Hebrew identity by changing their names. Because of this, Israel has clung to their Hebrew names as a means of preventing the loss of their identity as the children of Israel.

First traditionally given to Jewish children in infancy, a Hebrew name is interesting because whereas a regular name is the name of an individual externally, the Hebrew name is specifically the name of the neshama – the Hebrew soul. This is why this is the name that is used when calling someone make an aliyah to come up to read the Torah, what is used for misheberach prayers for the restoration of their spirit when they need healing, or what is used to recall their memory by for a yahrzeit – the anniversary of a person’s death. It’s traditionally the name assigned to the soul of a person – something one can feel that their soul answers to. 

For a conversion to Judaism, deciding upon a Hebrew name is especially difficult because it forces someone to attempt to learn the name of their Hebrew soul. Many people who don’t even grow up in a Jewish home, at some point, feel that they have a Jewish or Hebrew soul. Whether they feel a kindred connection to concepts in the Torah, the Jewish people, or the Land of Israel, this soul can be felt moving in response to such spiritual stimuli. In some instances, people who feel this way do research into their family history and find a rich Jewish ancestry. Other times, this feeling remains a mystery as to why God would plant a Hebrew soul in a non-Hebrew body. 

Looking back in retrospect, I can see the signs of my neshama stirring throughout my life. Even as a young child, I fell in love with the sounds and content of reggae music. The lyrics, often straight out of the Psalms of King David as well as the prophets would be of the longing to return to a spiritual Zion. (My passionate knowledge of reggae music even allowed me to help my 4th grade academic bowl team win in competition!) Later, I always looked to the roots of my faith. Even as a Lutheran, I wanted to know about the roots of Lutheranism, the roots of Christianity, the roots of it all. When I finally made it to Jerusalem in 2009, Orthodox rabbis that I hung out with in the Old City asked me if I had researched my family history for Jewish relatives. I had and had found none. They seemed confused because they told me I seemed to have a “Jewish soul.” Years later, in an attempt to officially join the Jewish people and have a “kosher” body to go with my already kosher soul, I decided to officially convert. That brings me to now. 

Sitting and waiting for a Hebrew name to come to someone didn’t really get me anywhere – I had to go out and find it. Some parents that practice more alternative parenting don’t name their children until after they’ve had a chance to spend time with them to observe their personality. Sometimes, they’ll call out names to the baby to see which names they respond to. In many instances, this is how people name animals as well – call out names to see which one an animal returns to them after hearing. Discovering your Hebrew name (if you have a Hebrew soul, anyways – not everyone does and there’s nothing wrong with that), is much the same way. By looking through the Hebrew Bible, by reading Hebrew names, one can “try on” many names to see how they resonate with their neshama. Eventually, a name will resonate with you internally as though you’re calling out names to an unborn child. 

Kenneth To Yefet

When it came time to decide upon a Hebrew name, I thought about which Biblical figures I most inspired to be like. I thought about what Jewish scholars I most enjoyed reading. Even through all of these, thoughts of my parents came back to me. They’ve always been a great source of spiritual inspiration and support – more than any spiritual leader, any rabbi and any Biblical figure. I knew that they had given me a name and that name was important as well. I looked for the meaning of that name and found it’s Hebrew counterpart. Suddenly, Kenneth became Yefet, or Japheth, one of the sons of Noah that endured the hardship of the flood with him aboard the ark. This was who I was named by my parents and in so doing, they had also named my neshama. 

Traditionally, when one converts to Judaism when they have no Jewish father, Avraham, or Abraham, is assigned to them as their spiritual patriarch. In those instances, the last part of their Jewish name would be “Ben Avraham.” Others choose Adam – the first man. However, even though I had no Jewish father, my father was still a spiritual mentor and a great help to me from God throughout multiple hard times. He was my Ezra, literally meaning “help” in Hebrew. When I came across this name and this meaning, my neshama leapt within me like an excited baby in utero. My neshama was named and it was Yefet Ben Ezra.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to legally change my name to Yefet Ben Ezra. All of my non-Jewish friends and family will continue to call me Ken because that’s who I am – I will want them to. Some of my Jewish friends have already said they wish to call me by my Hebrew name, which I’m fine with, but that’s their decision. I feel blessed to be dually named. Though I am excited about where I am headed on my spiritual path, I will always be the Ken I’ve always been. 
that they had given me