Wouldn’t it be nice to have one solid name that you used for everything? One name, one identity, one home?
I doubt I will ever have that luxury.
My name is Yakov, and it has always been Yakov. Every person I knew growing up, along with anyone I know now who ever was Orthodox, knows me as Yakov.
My name is Jeffrey, and it has always been Jeffrey. It says so on my birth certificate as well as countless other government records. Ski instructors, receptionists, lawyers and law students – all have known me as Jeffrey.
My name is Jacob, too, according to a 2016 court order changing my legal name from Jeffrey to Jacob Jeffrey. A handful of recent acquaintances, people who were never Orthodox, know me as Jacob.
When I meet somebody for the first time and the moment comes to introduce myself, I have only an instant to cycle through my list of first names and decide which one I should use. Yakov for the frum and ex-frum. Jeff for those who have already been grandfathered in to that name. Jacob for the non-Jews.
My list of names comes with no instructions in the packaging for the trickier situations. What if I can’t tell whether someone is Orthodox or not? What if it’s a Jew who isn’t Orthodox but who strongly identifies with his Jewishness and is familiar with the name Yakov? I tend to wing it when I find myself in these kinds of scenarios, producing a set of contradictory results.
Then there are the instances when the names collide. Being at a social event where people know you variously as Yakov, Jeff, and Jacob can lend itself to some really sticky predicaments. It would make for great comedy except for the fact that I’m the butt of the joke.
The heart of the problem, though, does not come down to awkward or embarrassing experiences. It comes down to the fundamental question of who I am and how I understand myself. Names, at least for me, are a microcosm of identity.
On the one hand, I’d like to use Yakov across the board because it is easily the name I most identify with. On the other, using Jacob outside of the frum bubble empowers my secular identity.
Each option has its downsides, too. The Yakov-Jacob option concedes the inside-outside duality that I absorbed growing up within the frum bubble. I’m not sure I want to be maintaining for myself that invisible wall between the two worlds.
Going with Yakov across the board would nicely defy the invisible wall and help make my two worlds into one. There is empowerment in this option, too. Yet it also feels like bringing something very personal and private into a zone where its meaning would be lost.
Ultimately, I worry about which alternative captures the truth. Does my Orthodox identity stay behind when I interact with the broader world – Jacob? Or do I take Yakov with me wherever I go, doomed to feel kinship with a frum society that has no real place for people like me?
I’m not sure it’s really possible to keep your identity in two pieces the way I have been attempting to do with Yakov-Jacob. It may just be a comfortable illusion, a lie that allows me to pretend to myself that I am not imprisoned by my Orthodox roots.
I am afraid of the possibility that I will always be so imprisoned.