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The Rebbetzin Will Keep Her Name

The Rebbetzin Will Keep Her Name


One of the great debates after I became engaged to a Rabbi was how I would be addressed by my husband’s congregation. I did not plan on changing either my first or my last names after my wedding, but this would be an unintelligible decision to these parishoners. The world seemed to be clearly divided between those who cannot imagine why one half of a couple would change one half of her name upon entering into the holy bond of matrimony, and those who cannot imagine not doing so. The members of my husband’s congregation fell into the latter category, and so after I agreed to wed both my husband and his position, we debated how I should introduce myself without unduly violating their delicate sense of propriety.

We debated how I should introduce myself

“Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss,” was one brilliant suggestion. It was in the fashion of the British royalty, à la Sophie, the Dutchess of Wessex. This was somewhat of a mouthful, though, and eventually it became, “Hello, this is Viva, ahh, err, the Rabbi’s wife.” There was always a slight hesitation after the “Viva,” as if I had to remember to delete my last name, in deference to cultural sensibilities of the congregation.

The members of the community, in their consummate wisdom, renamed me Mrs. Weiss. This particularly annoyed my husband, “If you’re here at all, it is purely in the capacity as my Rebbetzin. You certainly would not have chosen this uplifting crowd as your community if you had been untitled!” I never corrected anybody, though, whatever they chose to call me. Keeping my name is not part of a moral crusade for me. My name has always been Viva Hammer and I could not see any good reason to change it. To provoke an argument over my personal philosophy every time I introduced myself seemed futile. You either understood the concept or you didn’t.

My in-laws were somewhat in disbelief that they had acquired themselves a daughter who would not take on their name. My mother-in-law had written a well-publicized article denouncing the practice of keeping two names in a family. She argued that it detracted from the wholeness of the marital unity, and cited the verse: Mishpachotam l’vet avotam. Their families according to the houses of their fathers. After Aaron and I read the article together, I became worried and thought Aaron might start getting cold feet about my decision. He laughed. “This is my guide: is it written in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)? If there was some Jewish legal prohibition or strong custom, of course I couldn’t be an accomplice to your doing this. But family names are a gentile addendum to our own naming system, in which a person is the child of its parents from birth to death. I’m not going to forbid your keeping your last name based on some questionable extra-legal mumbo-jumbo.” What a relief! I thought to myself that there were certain benefits of marrying a man who was a strict interpreter of the law…

Keeping my name is not part of a moral crusade for me

Still, my husband’s family always addressed me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and I did not correct them. In fact, letters that were addressed to us as Rabbi Weiss and Viva Hammer were so rare that I used to cut them out and keep them in a special file, the Hammer-Weiss album.

Things became more complicated when I found I was pregnant. I had never made the children’s names a deal-breaker issue between us. Following my original philosophy, I was concerned to preserve the name I had used since birth, but did not feel strongly about how one acquired the birth name, since it was such an arbitrary process anyway. So offspring Weiss was fine with me. But my husband felt differently. He had always wanted both of us to hyphenate our names, but knew that this would make him a laughing-stock with his congregation and the rest of the religious world. Aaron felt that if the children only had his name, it would belittle the enormous physical and emotional sacrifice I would make to have them. He wanted our partnership in their lives to be manifest wherever they went. Besides, if the children started off double-barreled, they and the world would be used to the concept by the time they became spiritual leaders of congregations, or whatever profession they pursued. I was so proud and grateful to have married a man who thought this way.

So we navigated the bumpy territory between Aaron’s world and mine, and sometimes I found myself Mrs. Weiss and sometimes Viva Hammer, and sometimes Viva Hammer-Weiss. At my work, I was the master of my title, and no one had to know about the naming choices I had made. I had started my career as Viva Hammer and had never changed. It turned out, however, that in my white-shoe law-firm, they were just as prejudiced as in my husband’s congregation. One day, an invitation arrived for a holiday party, addressed by hand in florid calligraphy.

Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Hammer

It read in bold letters. “What’s this about?” Aaron asked, outraged at the error.

“Darling, now you know what it’s like to be retitled in honor of one’s spouse’s employer’s sensibilities. I think it’s quite a good compromise, don’t you? And G‑d created Adam, man and woman He created them. A single, indivisible unit with your first name and my last…”

And I cut out the lovely lettering and added it to the Hammer-Weiss file.

Viva Hammer is a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm Crowell & Moring LLP, and a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University. She has published in the Washingtonian, the Forward, Jewish Action, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, as well as various anthologies.
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Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY April 1, 2008

Jewish Names In the Ashkenazic custom, when praying for a Jewish person's recovery from illness, we use the person's Hebrew name, ben (son) or bas (daughter) of the mother's Hebrew name. Many modern surnames of Jews whose families originally came from Russia are based on women's names: Leikin (Leah); Sorkin (Sora); Chaykin (Chaya); Rivkin (Rivka); Rachlin (Rachel). Don't forget the most famous name of this type, Lenin (from Lena). The mother's name has always been very important in Jewish life. Here the mother's name signifies Life (Viva) while the father's name stands for pursuit of peace (Aaron): noble role models for children, indeed. Reply

Tina Aviles Segal Ensenada, Mexico December 24, 2007

surnames Personally I like the Spanish custom of keeping both your father and your mother's last name. Many women today never use their husbands last name, but if they do it's after their own names, not instead. Reply

Gael Sage Sydney, Australia August 16, 2007

Women who keep their names Don't you love Shakespeare, who said it so succinctly? "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?" If Tuesday Weld married Frederick March III, and became Tuesday March III, what will your modern day feminist poster say about name conventions defining us? Um.. ..Dated??!! Russian modern day conventions have women with their father's patronymics. So all Russian women have "Chava's curse"? That's how many hundred million women who are" prideful and stubborn"? Surnames were introduced in England in 1690s and in Russia in 1790s. None of your writers will have had surnames for much more than 200 years - a nano-second on the Jewish time line. There are surely some women here whose minds seem to need both educating and liberating. Luckily Viva Hammer is not one. She writes cogently and delightfully. Reply

Anonymous Boston, MA August 16, 2007

surnames As the commenter above demonstrates, keeping one's birth name can also be a way to honor her father and mother, particularly when there is no one else to carry on the family name. This has been a deciding factor for many women I know. I am saddened by the commentator who labels this as "prideful" or "stubborn." I am sure he or she did not mean to be "prideful" or "stubborn" by dismissing other people's feelings on this personal issue. Reply

Anonymous via February 8, 2007

While it's true that surnames were imposed on the world, I cannot agree that it does not define us today, Sarah Masha. That's simply how human beings are -- Jew or gentile -- we ARE defined by our names and surnames are a convention of our day and has been for centuries. Perhaps it's just my experience, but women I meet who refuse their husband's surname tend to have a obstinate and feministic "spirit" about them.

I have been the modern-day feminist -- I do not recommend it. Reply

Sarah Masha w bloomfield, mii via February 8, 2007

names, and changing names Is this all about the last/family names that much of the world has required us to have? All of us have names that never change: Ploni/Plonit ben/bat Avraham & Sarah (or later ancestors). These are the only names that really stay with us, that we relate to, that define us. The family name can change precisely because it does not really define, or relate to, our souls. Reply

Anonymous via February 5, 2007

I don't admire women who refuse their husband's name. It's prideful, stubborn, and a part of Chava's curse. Reply

Ann Houston, Texas February 1, 2007

women's names I wish I could get in touch with the girls I knew in elementary school.

I vividly recall their first and last names.

But I have not seen them since sixth grade and do not know the names of the men they married. And the buildings where they once lived have all been torn down. Every clue of their identity is gone. I spent two days combing through the marriage records seeking just one name, all in vain.

So ladies, consider keeping your name--not for your own sake, but for the sake of your first and oldest friends.


Beth Vanek Toronto, Canada January 1, 2007

great article That's a very funny article. Good for you for sticking to your position with such intensity. I would only naturally change my name, but I always admire woman who keep their own. All the best to you. Reply

Anonymous CA December 27, 2006

Names I chose to keep my name when i married 26 years ago and we never considered hyphenating. As I was an only child and my uncle had 3 daughters my Father was always concerned that there was no one to keep up the family name which had survived WW II. When I was pregnant with our son my husband decided that he should have my last name as my husband had little attachment to his parents and his father's side had changed their surname when they came to the US. At first my parents were taken aback, and our son wanted to take Daddy's last name, but with age and closeness to my late Father he seems proud to keep the family name. When people call and ask for me by my married name or for my husband by my name we know they are sales calls. When people who know me invite us or send cards using my last name , my husband answers "approximately" and we just laugh. My surname is who I am and I am happy I chose to keep it when I got married. Reply