Today, I had the joy and honor of bringing my new son into the covenant of the Jewish people and bestowing upon him his name. More thoughts to come on the experience of circumcising my son – I actually performed the circumcision, with the help of an expert mohel – but in the meantime, I wanted to share some reflections about his name, for those who are interested:
Shemaya Ziv Knopf (שמעיה זיו בן הרב ירוחם יוסף ואדירה תפארת נסיה נוף)
Shemaya means, “God listens,” and today, we certainly feel as though the Holy One of Blessing has listened to our prayers for a second child. We continue to pray, to the One Who Listens to Prayer, that our son grow to live a life of Torah, commitment to righteousness and justice, and loving and respectful relationships. We pray further that You listen to and answer the prayers of all those who want children but whose prayers have as yet gone unanswered.
Shemaya is also the name of one of the earliest rabbis who teaches in the Mishnah, “Love work, detest authority, and do not make yourself known to the government.” We pray, Shemaya, that you live the Torah of your namesake, a life of selflessness, humility, and devoted service of the Holy One.
Shemaya is named for his great-great grandmother, my great-grandmother, or GG, Sylvia Olin, of blessed memory. I am very lucky to have grown up knowing my great-grandmother, who lived until just before her 100th birthday. From her, I learned the secrets to living a long life: never waste your time exercising, never eat vegetables, and never, ever give up your independence. Shemaya, I hope you live a life full of years by these important principles…just start doing so once you’re 18 and out of the house. Until then, get plenty of exercise, eat your fruits and vegetables, and always do exactly what Ima and Abba tell you.
GG was known for her generosity. Growing up, no visit with GG was complete without a gift. Every time my siblings and I would see her, she would invariably reach into her purse and pull out some special trinket or sweet treat. This ritual continued until the very end of her life. I remember visiting her in her nursing home as a college student. She didn’t have the opportunity to get out shopping much those days, so she had to be creative. As soon as I would walk into her room, she would smile, and immediately reach for her nightstand drawer and pull out packets of sugar and cream that she had taken from the dining hall.
GG’s giving nature was a quality she embodied throughout her life. For instance, in 1939, she and my great-grandfather, Samuel, arranged safe passage to America for a young Viennese girl at the cusp of the Holocaust. Not only did they save her from near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis, but they took her into their home, providing her a place to live and a livelihood.
GG was also known for being an elegant and genteel woman. Never would she be seen in public – or even around the house – without being fully dressed in fastidiously maintained and fashionable outfits. Her make-up was always perfect and her hair always meticulously coiffed. She was a stickler for proper diction, grammar, and speech, and was deeply sensitive to social mores. Emily Post had nothing on my courtly great-grandmother. Part of GG’s formality was doubtlessly due to the fact that GG was the first of her nine siblings to be born in the US. She was determined for her and her family to be accepted as fully and properly American: she insisted on her children developing non-regional dialects, conforming to the norms of American high society, and being college-educated. None of this was rooted in vanity: She was dignified because she respected herself, and she honored others.
Shemaya, your Ima and I pray that you love yourself and honor everyone you meet, enabling you to grow to be as generous, refined, and sophisticated as your namesake.
Your middle name is Ziv, which means radiance. In our tradition, ziv is most closely associated with the Shekhinah, God’s feminine, indwelling presence. Tradition teaches that God’s presence has a ziv, a radiance, which is the most tangible manifestation of the Divine. The ziv ha-Shekhinah is that element of godliness we can most closely feel in our world: moments of connection with God through transcendent prayer, invigorating study, and acts of of kindness and justice. We pray, Shemaya Ziv, that you regularly come close to the ziv ha-Shekhinah and, more crucially, that you become an embodiment of the ziv ha-Shekhinah through your performance of mitzvot and ma’asim tovim.
Your name Ziv is for your Uncle Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zt”l, one of the radiant lights of the Jewish people in the last century, who left this world this past July. Your Savta Carol will now share a little bit about Uncle Zalman:
“Dearest Little One,
Trying to tell you about the man for whom you’re being named may sound like a tale about a character from a Yiddish folk tale, but believe me …. all of what I am telling you is true!
You are being named in honor of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who was our teacher, our mentor, & our dear friend for more than 50 years.
Often he was like an older brother or wise counsellor to us, & he was most certainly a wonderful “uncle” to your Ima & to your own uncles, throughout their lives!
Our family shared many Shabbatot & holidays with him, especially Pesach, the holiday of “Higadatah L’vinchah ” the festival of teaching our children the sacred lore of our people.
To most of the world Reb Zalman was a survivor of the Holocaust, a Rabbi ordained by the (Orthodox) Lubovitcher movement, who also received his Masters & PH.D (in counselling psychology) from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, & who, along with his best friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, began the Jewish outreach effort to college campuses across the US.
Zalman was also the visionary founder of Judaism’s 5th movement, known as Jewish Renewal, which Sabba & I were privileged to be a part of, from its very inception.
Your uncle Zalman was a Hillel director, a Professor of Near Eastern & Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba, & later at Temple University in Phila.
After retiring from academia, he was appointed to the Chair in World Wisdom @ the Naropa Institute , in Boulder, CO.
These credentials are quite impressive,on their own, but add to that a life-long commitment to Interfaith Dialogue (speaking on the same podium with Desmond Tutu & the Dali Lama) & the amazing linguistic ability he had to translate ancient texts into contemporary language (whether those texts were written in Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic or Sanskrit) & you have a taste of the many talents that R ‘ Zalman actually possessed.
My task today is to provide our family & community with a thumbnail sketch of this remarkable teacher & rabbinic leader, but it is also to share with you, dear little one, the qualities of spirit, mind & heart that we hope you will inherit, along with his name.
Zalman was curious, inventive, creative & resourceful.
He was the one person you’d want to be on a deserted island with!
He could cook & sew & weld & carve.
As well, he could learn difficult passages from the Talmud, decipher mysterious teachings from the Kabbalah,
understand complex psychological concepts, & explore the realms of physics as well the depths of many of the worlds ‘ religious teachings.
Above all he was kind & compassionate to all living beings.
He cared deeply about our planet, & he worked tirelessly to sensitize the World to the need for a Shabbat, a time out
from our busy, technologically driven, lives.
He also introduced the notion of Eco- kashrut into the lives of many of us.
He was daring & courageous, & he led the way in creative Ritual practices, & he helped make the language of prayer accessible to many who never understood that vocabulary before.
Zalman was a fabulous story teller, & he loved to laugh & play various instruments, & he sang the old Chassidic melodies with pathos & joy.
We hope that you grow into his Loving Heart, his Expanded Mind & his Inclusive Spirit.
And, like your namesake, we hope you will be blessed with a long & productive life.
Mazal Tov to your parents, your sister, your entire family, & to the community you now become a part of.”