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Unravelling the Mystery of My Father's Hebrew Name

Unravelling the Mystery of My Father's Hebrew Name


I was due to give birth in less than a week, and I still didn’t know the exact name to give our about-to-be-born son. I was starting to panic. Then a late-Friday-afternoon phone call from a Chabad rabbi thousands of miles away turned my anxiety to joy.

Here’s the story.

My father went by the Jewish name Kushel Kalman. That’s the name I’d heard growing up, and on my ketubah, my Jewish marriage certificate,I was starting to panic I am written in as the daughter of Kushel Kalman.

After my father passed away, my mother wanted to order his grave marker. She called my father’s uncle to check on the exact Hebrew name and spelling since Uncle Clarence and my father shared the same name. They were named for the same family member, Uncle Clarence’s grandfather, my father’s great-grandfather. Their English name was Clarence Calvin Lewis.

Family legend held that the original Clarence Calvin was a wonderful man. He was a butcher and lived a long life. Beloved by generations of family members, there were 10 descendants named after him from the Lewis and Mendelsohn families.

Uncle Clarence, only eight years my father’s senior, was still alive after my father died. He was the “religious” one in the family, sure to know the right name. He told my mother that the actual name was “Kushniel,” and he’d heard it read one time during the reading of the haftorah, the additional reading after the Torah service.

My father’s grave marker was inscribed Kushniel Kalman.

When I was expecting, I found out that our baby was a boy. Of course, we wanted to name him for my father. My husband checked the Concordance, which lists in alphabetical order the words and phrases found in the Bible. Kushniel was not listed. I spoke to our wonderful rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Aberman. I told him that my father went by “Kushel,” but it seemed the proper name of his ancestor was “Kushniel.”

Rabbi Aberman told us that it was unlikely that Kushniel was the real name. And Kushel was clearly a nickname. He thought the real name might be Yekutiel, one of Moses’ names. He suggested we do more research.

I spoke to our friend Zelda, a Yiddish professor. She called a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who was an expert in Jewish names. He told her Kushniel was an Edomite name from the Second Temple period. No one named Kushniel was ever recorded to have divorced.

Rabbi Aberman was skeptical and said to check further. He asked if I knew where my father’s ancestor was buried. Uncle Clarence told me that his grandfather was buried in Reading,There must have been Hebrew on the grave marker. We needed to find out. Pa. Rabbi Aberman suggested that we ask a family member to check the tombstone.

Uncle Clarence had retired to Florida, so I wrote to my father’s brother, my Uncle Meyer, and asked if he would please check for me. A few weeks later, I received a letter telling me that Uncle Meyer and his wife, my Aunt Grace, went to the old cemetery, and they found the right grave! The name was written (hold your breath here) “Cusniel Kalman.”

Rabbi Aberman said that there must have been Hebrew on the grave marker, too. We needed to find that out.

Uncle Meyer and Aunt Grace were in their 70s. I didn’t feel I could trouble them to go back to the cemetery. My due date was rapidly approaching, so my friend Yehudis Wisnefsky suggested that we call Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, one of the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Philadelphia. He referred me to Rabbi Yosef Lipsker in nearby Reading.

I called, and asked if the good rabbi might be able to please call the cemetery and ask to check their records. He laughed. “I can see you’ve never been to that old cemetery! There isn’t anyone there to call.” But he offered to go to there himself.

Indeed, he and his brother-in-law went to the cemetery, and they, too, found the stone with “Cusniel Kalman” engraved on it, along with a date from 1903. They realized that there must be Hebrew on the back of the stone, but the nearby bushes were so overgrown that the back was completely covered. That’s why Uncle Meyer and Aunt Grace had not seen Hebrew writing—there was none on the side they saw. The two rabbis used a machete to hack away at the bushes. Finally, the Hebrew side was revealed. Inscribed were accolades of a G‑d-fearing and pious Jew who died at a ripe old age. His name was written as יקוסיאל קלמן—Yekusiel Kalman. It was misspelled, with the Hebrew letter samech instead of tav. Whoever engraved the stone must have written the name phonetically, and had not checked on the proper spelling. (Yekusiel is the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew name Yekutiel.) And the Hebrew date and the secular date did not coincide.

Rabbi Lipsker’s brother-in-law called late Friday afternoon and gave me all the information. He told me that he and Rabbi Lipsker both prayed at the gravesite, recited psalms and told Yekusiel Kalman that, G‑d willing, he would have a great-great-grandson carrying his name. My husband and I practically jumped for joy! We felt overwhelming gratitude toward both Rabbi Lipsker and his brother-in-law.

At our son’s brit milah (circumcision), he was inducted into the covenant of Abraham our father, with the proper name of my wonderful father and his esteemed great-grandfather. We were so happy and thankful!

After my mother passed away, my sisters and I ordered a grave marker for her and a new one with the proper name for our father as well. When going through our parents’ house, we found our parents’ ketubah, with my father’s name, of course, listed as Yekutiel Kalman.

When my son was 9 years old and my daughter 6, we were living in Los Angeles. We knew that the following summer, our family would be moving back to Israel. So we went for a trip to Reading, to visit with Uncle Meyer and Aunt Grace. For Shabbat, we went to the Lipskers. How wonderful to meetWe visited the old cemetery the man who had helped us so many years before!

We also visited the old cemetery and saw where the original Yekusiel Kalman was buried. And we went to the newer cemetery and visited the graves of my grandparents, and Uncle Clarence, whose stone read: “Yekutiel Kalman.”

The translation of Yekutiel is “to hope in G‑d.” It’s a wonderful name for our son, especially appropriate as we were married for six-and-a-half years before he was born, but we never gave up hoping that G‑d would bless us with a child.

Our son turns 19 next week. He has grown into a wonderful young man. Our thankfulness to G‑d only increases.

Jolie Greiff is a journalist and a mother. She lives with her husband and two children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Jack Jerusalem October 2, 2016

Made in America This is an American phenomenon where Jews like Clarence Calvin became so disconnected from their faith that a story like this became possible. Interesting? Maybe. But also sad. Reply

Samuel Lee Singapore September 30, 2016

Maurice Lamm writes:
“Much care must be taken to direct one’s personal prayers at graveside to God. To pray to the deceased, or to speak directly to him in the form of prayer, borders on blasphemy. It is sheer necromancy outlawed by the Bible, along with sorcerers, soothsayers and enchanters. Not all the good intentions in the world can justify praying to the dead as intermediaries. That is an abomination to a people that has based its faith on the unity of God and has abhorred spiritualizing via ghosts and wizards. Better no visitation to the cemetery at all than one which induces “inquiring of the dead” (p. 194) Reply

Sarah K NYC September 30, 2016

Yashar Koach! Love Love Love Reply

Anonymous NY September 30, 2016

Typo >It was misspelled, with the Hebrew letter samech instead of tet.

TUFF (Suff) Reply

Anonymous September 29, 2016

What a beautiful story of family history! I wonder did you have to fix the name on your ketubah? Reply

Sarah Los Angeles September 29, 2016

Thanks for sharing this inspiring and beautiful story! Reply

Anonymous September 29, 2016

Tav (not Tet) instead of Samech Touching story!
Let's end the chain of spelling errors, though. Reply

jim dallas September 29, 2016

i love hebrew so much! how could I pass up such a classy jewish article full of hebrew, rabbis (and so many), a jewish woman who became a mother to a young man, generations of family, and to top it off, a moving to Israel! you did a terrific job of telling the story, i will read more of your writing, thanks for a late night delicacy, i enjoyed it. Reply

Yekutiel S. Miami Beach August 7, 2016

Thanks for Sharing I enjoyed the story. My parents were similarly uncertain of my great-great-grandfather's name (after whom I am named) but with some diligence it was resolved correctly. Thanks for sharing. Reply

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