What's In A Name?

The spirit who guards the bridge asks three riddles. Fail to answer any of the three and you will die. Why is the third question always the difficult one for the hero to answer? Why do none of them ever falter, as I do, on "What is your name?"

* * *

July, 1983.

"What's your name?" the girl asks me.

"Beth," I tell her.

I am eight years old. I am talking to a blonde girl about my own age at a campground swimming pool, somewhere between Seattle and Los Angeles. I am also lying through my teeth.

Beth is a safe name, one with no implications. My real name, Batya, could be too easily recognized as Jewish. And my brother, three years older than I and infinitely more knowledgeable, has told me that there are people out there who don't like Jews.

I know it's true, of course. There's a name for it, antisemism or something like that. It doesn't happen in my neighborhood, but in some places Jewish kids get called names, even get beaten up, by non-Jewish kids - my grandfather was, when he was a kid. And the girl, who has introduced herself as Jessie and who seems quite friendly, is wearing a silver cross on a chain around her neck. There is no way she could guess that I'm Jewish, and I am not about to tell her.

We talk for a while, and she points to her father lounging by the pool (tall, blond, running just a bit fat) and asks which one is my father. He isn't out here, I tell her, silently thankful that he stayed back at the campsite to set up the tents - his full beard and kipah would be an even bigger giveaway than my name.

The blond man calls Jessie for dinner a little while later; she says goodbye to me and pulls herself reluctantly out of the pool.

Naturally, I never see her again.

* * *

Two hundred years of slavery in Egypt was nearly the destruction of the small desert tribe, so the story goes. They had forgotten their fathers' God, forgotten the covenant that bound them to Him, and had taken on the foreign customs of the pagan Egyptians. Three things only they retained of the old ways, and in the merit of those three things they were saved: their manner of dress, their language, and their names.

* * *

June, 1990.

"So, what's your name?" the woman asks me.

"Bonnie," I tell her.

I am fourteen years old. I am waiting in line for one of the most popular rides at Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, and have been waiting for over half an hour. The people in front of us - a young couple, newlyweds, as they tell us later - have started a conversation with me and my school friend Rochel, for lack of anything better to do while waiting. Rochel gives me an odd look, but follows my lead and gives the English pronunciation of her name, Rachel.

The line is taking an absurdly long time to move, and we keep talking. Their names are Joe and Lisa, they have been married for a week now, and they're from Philly. We're high school students, we tell them, here on a class trip from New York.

Joe gives a sympathetic-sounding chuckle. "Catholic school, huh?" he asks, indicating the long Biz-type skirts that both of us are wearing - an odd sight here, in this heat; virtually everyone around us is wearing shorts, including Lisa and Joe.

I laugh also, hoping it doesn't sound forced. "Religious school, yeah," I say.

I would find it hard to say just why I want to hide anything this time. Could I still be worried about anti-Semitism - even now, even when I know that here bigotry of any kind is recognized as wrong? Could that be it?

Or perhaps it's just that I feel self-conscious about my name, which nobody can ever pronounce on the first try, my name which people always spell wrong, my name which nobody has ever heard before. That for all my much-vaunted individuality and my disdain for conformity, I still, deep down, don't want to be different.

* * *

I do have reason to fear, don't I? Names can be powerful things.

How many stories? How many? The mage turns back the dragon, forces it to swear never to attack the city again - to swear in the dragon-tongue, in which one cannot lie. Such power, to compel a dragon, but it is simplicity itself; he knows the dragon's secret name. The evil sorceress forces the young maiden to help her hunt down the defenseless winged sprite, and the maiden cannot defy her; the sorceress knows the maiden's soul-name. The boy-hero saves the magical kingdom and its young Empress from destruction by doing something that no one else can do - calling the Empress by her true name.

* * *

I have lost track of my pseudonyms. For the radio DJ who answered my winning phone call, I was Bea. For the lady at the prize booth at the carnival, who asked for my name so she could pick out a nice capital-letter keychain with my initials, I was Barbara. For the swim instructor who couldn't pronounce my name, I was Beth-Debra (from my middle name, Devorah - necessary, because there was another Beth in the class).

July, 1985. I am nine, no, ten years old. We are visiting the Seattle Science Center exhibit on name origins. Lights blink on and off, the computer hums to itself in smug satisfaction - it knows all about names - and out spews the list: a dozen, two dozen, two hundred variations on my name. Which one is mine? Which one is me?

* * *

"A file must be given a name to be saved." "Deny thy father and refuse thy name...." "I am a Namer. The Echthroi (the enemy) would un-Name." "The Queen will never win this game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name!" "You have to be careful with names, the spell book says. They're a way of saying what you are..." "The naming of cats is a difficult matter; it isn't just one of your holiday games..." "Give me your soul-name, beloved, and I will give you mine...Soul and soul - we are one." "Oh, God, for shame; I do not even know your name...." "But I know you and can name you, and so all your shadows are gone!" "As is his name, such is he..." "Pleased to meet you; hope you've guessed my name." "You must give it a name, and then it will be yours, forever." "As for my name!...You have heard it before, I think. Yes, you have heard it before." "He counts the number of the stars, and He calls them all by name." "No traveler shall pass by me, unless he answer riddles three: What is your name?"

What is my name?

* * *

September, 1993.

"And your name is?" the young woman asks me.

I am eighteen years old. I am sitting in a dorm lounge in Elliot Hall, at Commuter Camp, for Orientation at Barnard College. The girl talking to me is one of about a dozen other commuters from Class of '97, sitting in a circle on the chairs, sofa and floor, doing the let's-all-get-acquainted routine.

For the first time that I can remember, I am in a completely non-Jewish setting without feeling like an outsider. Maybe that's because, while one of the girls wears a twin to Jessie's silver cross around her neck, another has her hair covered in Islamic tradition, and another wears a South American good-luck pendant. Maybe it's because the skin tones in the room run the entire spectrum from deep chocolate to Nordic pale to golden to coffee, and mine doesn't stand out any more than the others do. Maybe it's because I've already heard several of their names: Katerina. Jie. Ofemi. Alia. Johna.

Or maybe I've just done a little growing up in the past few years. Maybe I just don't feel like hiding behind an alias anymore. I know my name.

"My name's Batya," I tell them. "Batya Levin."

New York
February 1994

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