“A person has three names:
one acquired from one’s parents;
a name others give us,
and one that we call ourselves.”
Although my birth certificate lists me as Janice Sylvia Pearlstein, in the Yiddish speaking household of my early years we were called by Jewish names—mine was Sima Yenta. My grandparents affectionately called me Yentele, as did most of my aunts and uncles. To my playmates on the block and in school I was simply Janice.
When I was enrolled at the Ashford Street Talmud Torah in second grade, in 1947, I was known as Yenta. The other kids quickly caught on, especially the boys who teased me mercilessly, “Yenta, Yenta, Yenta talabenta,” or “Yenta is such a nosy body.” Often I’d come home and declare, “I’m not going back to that place.” But of course I did.
Mercifully, my fourth grade Hebrew teacher, a young bearded man with a number tattooed on his arm, who smelled of unwashed clothes, and cigarettes declared in accented English, “Yenta, we should call you by a more modern name. How about Yona? It means bird and it is both a girl’s and boy’s name.”
It sounded better to my nine year old ears, even though I wasn’t entirely pleased with sharing a name with the male sex, I agreed. Anything was better than Yenta. It didn’t take long for the boys to catch on, especially since I was the only girl in my class by that grade. Four afternoons a week, and Sunday mornings the teasing took on a new chant, “Yona, Yona, little bird, sing for us.”
No matter how many times I got off the Sutter Avenue bus and ran home in tears, my mother insisted, “You can do this, Janice, it builds character.”
Hebrew school and years passed. I married Marvin Alper, Moshe ben Zelig under the chuppah, and since I can no longer locate my original Jewish ketuba I can only surmise that my name says Sima Yenta bas Kalman Lev. I never gave it a second thought until I decided to make a career change and enroll at the Hebrew Union College. In Hebrew class my wonderful teacher, Rivka Dori asked each of us our Hebrew names. Now, the mother of four children, who had Hebrew, not Yiddish names, I proudly said, “Yona.”
A few weeks into the class Rivka suggested the name Yonena, a more popular Hebrew name, still little bird. It had a nice ring and became my identity. Working at Jewish summer day camp in my community, most of the campers were friends of my children and addressed me as “Mrs. Alper.” It didn’t work well in such an informal setting, so I suggested they call me “Yonena.” They liked that and it stuck. So much so, that after all my children became B’nai Mitzvah and had their own Kiddush cups for our Shabbat table, my husband graced me with one that is engraved in Hebrew Yonena bat Kalman Lev v’Tova. It is something I treasure to this day.
As I took on more of a role in Jewish spiritual life and was often called to the Torah for an Aliyah or to read Torah, it was and still is a pleasure to announce my name as Yonena bat Kalman Lev v’Tova. Adding my mother’s name to mine has solidified my heritage.
Marv and I took a year off in Israel in 1992-93 and were prepared to introduce ourselves to new friends and colleagues as Yonena and Moshe. It surprised us when our Israeli friends preferred ‘Marrveen’ with a rolling ‘r.’ He reveled in it. I never got a chance to introduce myself as Yonena anywhere in Israel, I was simply called ‘Ganeece.’ We laughed at the irony of it all.
Uncle Dolly, my mother’s youngest brother, who was called Gedalia by his parents, spent his last years in Israel as “Gil/Geel.’ The last time I saw him I held his hand and said, “Uncle Dolly, it’s me, Janice.”
He gave me a blank stare. I said instead, “It’s me, Yenta.”
His eyes lit up, “Oh, Yenta, how are you Janice?”
Now in my sage years, I have returned to Sima Yenta. You can find me on on-line Mah Jongg as Sima Yenta, and on Scrabble as Yenta 1. You can also recognize my car with my new personalized license plate, YENTA40.
I’ve been through the Talmudic cycle of three names, maybe a few more, but now if you call me Yenta I’ll smile and say, “That’s me.”
“A person has three names:one acquired from one’s parents;a name others give us,and one that we call ourselves.” Kohelet Rabbah Although my birth certificate lists me as Janice Sylvia Pearlstein, in the Yiddish speaking household of my early years we were called by Jewish names—mine was Sima Yenta. My grandparents affectionately called me Yentele, […]