The Life of Sarah

Last week’s Torah portion, Chayye Sarah, begins with “the life of Sarah,” only to say how long it was – 127 years.  In other words, it says “life” but it means “death.”  Or does it?

A tool that some people use when setting priorities is thinking about what it will mean when it’s all over.  In other words, we can refocus our life by thinking about our death.  Very few people sit on their deathbed wishing that they put more hours in at the office and spent less time away from their family.  Few people will think about a grade on a test or the amount of hours they spent watching television (or on Facebook).  How would you like to be eulogized after 120 years?

Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan.  Avraham came to eulogize and to ask the locals for a proper place to bury his late wife.  The sons of Heth, who inhabited the place call Avraham a נשיא אלקים , a prince of Gd, and he strikes a business deal to bury Sarah in Maharat HaMachpelah, which exists in Hebron to this very day, and next door, Kiryat Arba, has a thriving Jewish community of about 10,000 people.

This year I was invited to visit Kiryat Arba during Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, and I accepted, because it’s a big Havaya (which literally means “experience” but actually means some big mob scene built around a quasi-religious event).  Even though I hate mob scenes, I couldn’t resist.  I can’t tell you how cool it was to see my Shabbat host asking his daughter questions about the parshah, and one of the hints was “It’s where we live.”  Upon mentally preparing for it, I realized for the first time that I really should have more of a connection to the parshah.

Since making aliyah, I’ve received phone calls and been called into waiting rooms as “Sara” (my name drops the “h”.)  For some unknown reason, Israelis skip over my first name, and jump right to my middle name, which I suppose is more familiar.  If the Misrad HaPnim (Ministry of the Interior) had heeded my request to change “Ilene” to my Hebrew name, “Ilana” in the first place, we wouldn’t have such problems.  Anyways, I’ve been addressed as Sara, a name I’ve felt very little connection to.

A name is an extremely powerful thing.  Judaism emphasizes the importance of finding an appropriate name for children, as it believed to reflect their character.  How do I identify with Sara, the initial Jewish matriarch?  That’s a tough role to stack up to.

But I didn’t take the time to examine Sara’s characteristics she exhibited in the previous two parshiyot, Lech Lecha and VaYeira.  Instead, I took this new consideration into account and thought about my Hebrew name more broadly.  Name is such an essential part of identity, and in moving to a new country, I have the opportunity to rebuild it.  Do I want to go by my Hebrew name or my English name?  What are the repercussions of each?  Which do I identify with more?

Secular Israelis tend to specifically not pick biblical names for their children.  Their Israeliness is separate from their Jewishness, and they connect to the land.  This is expressed in nature-themed names.  On a hike up North over Hol HaMoed Sukkot, I heard a woman call to her daughter, Kinneret, the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee.  Another name I’ve heard a few times is Te’ena, Fig.  In the United States, I think you’d be hard pressed to even find a flower child naming their child Fig!

Of course, these name choices are stereotypes, but generally speaking, the closer to you get to the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi side of the Jewish spectrum, the more you’ll find Yiddish or traditional biblical names like Yitzhak David (probably pronounced Yitzhuk Dovid), and the closer you are to a car-trip-to-the-beach-on-Saturday type of Israeli, the more likely you are to find a Tal.

“Ilene,” or איילין then, celebrates my Americanness.  It’s as unnatural to say in Hebrew with the יי and as obviously foreign as אי מייל, e-mail.  “Ilana” אילנה is an Israeli name meaning “tree,” that I believe my parents picked simply because it was the closest thing to “Ilene” in Hebrew.  Like a tree, I try to keep growing up, and up, and also in various directions, because you never know exactly where you’ll get the best sunlight, but always, always staying firmly rooted to the ground.  “Sara.”  See, that’s so much trickier.  Throughout my integration process, I’ve been so preoccupied with choosing a first name, that I continued to neglect my middle name.  The “Sara” is the core Jewish connection that I carried around for so long but did not connect to in spreading my branches far and wide.

My full name, whether it’s with an “Ilene” or an “Ilana,” has elements of both the modern and secular and the traditionally Jewish.  I think that suits my character well.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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