My mother named me so for her best childhood girlfriend in Iran. They promised each other, in a sincere moment of closeness, that they would name their eldest daughters for one another. Years later, on a snow-filled day in S. Paul, Minnesota, my mother kept her word and called me Elham… I often wonder if there’s someone out there in the world named Soheyla, after her.
Elham means intuition, inspiration and revelation in Arabic. Growing up in an insular community in the Midwest, I went to a small Hasidic school where we were a class of ten, spanning three grades. Names like Chaya, Chana and Mendel were the most common and Elham, spoken with a twinge of Hasidic, stood out like a lone piece of baklava on a plate of vanilla cookies… or maybe like a thread of saffron in a bottle of garlic powder. You get the gist. My name was an obvious signal- to myself and to others- that I was completely different. I did not come from the same place as my friends, and seemingly, was not going in the same direction either.
I remember one time at shul; I must have been nine years old. Engrossed in play in our synagogue’s basement, conversing with my friends, I lost track of time. Then suddenly my father’s loud, booming voice, calling me from the top of the steps: “ELHUUUUUUUUMMMM!” I froze. I was mortified. I mean, everyone knew my name. But to hear it aloud, piercing our play, felt like the ultimate branding of #outsider.
“Elham the Arab”
“Elham, E, Larry, Harry, A, Mary”
“EL-HAM, HAM like PIG”
I still don’t know if I heard those taunts out in the world, or inside my head.
I always felt like I was pushing myself against the glass, peering in as close as I could into this world that I wished would absorb me but the thinnest, most meager thing stood between who I am and who I wanted to be. I yearned to fit in so badly and my name was a constant reminder that I didn’t.
When I was 14 years old I went to sleep away camp for the first time in my life. I felt free. Here, no one knew my name was Elham. Here, no one would out me on my splintered identity. Here, I would be to everyone- including to myself- Yocheved.
I was suddenly popular. I made a ton of friends. I was captain of Color War (we lost). I got a sweet taste of what it is to fit in, even for a little bit… And it was so, so good.
And then, when I came back home, I was no longer Elham. My name was Yocheved.
It was hard to switch gears, to ask family and friends I grew up with to suddenly call me by the Jewish name I was given at birth. But I am blessed with understanding people in my life. And on some level, the switch was easy… Yet not complete.
I always loved surprising people- a dark haired, Sephardic girl who could bust out the Hasidic lingo like the best of them with perfect intent and accent (you should hear my ‘Mamash’) and could rip apart a Hasidic discourse- in Yiddish- like a born and bred Chosid, going back generations. I felt exhilarated that I did not fit into any box, not into anyone’s idea of what an ultra-orthodox Jew should look like or what a Persian girl should sound like. I defied perceptions… Yet I was still pained. You see, there’s a certain uneasiness that comes when your own name sounds strange to your own ears. So still, whenever someone asks me what I’m called, I hesitate…. Just a little. Because every time I say my name, I choose my name. I am making a choice.
I am Yocheved to the world, to my friends, to my husband. I am a person who is passionate about building community with a cohesive mission and purpose. Yocheved is involved, Yocheved has a voice, Yocheved can be seen.
Yet I have not completely let go of Elham. It is the name that my grandmother, with whom I still speak Persian, calls me with the most perfect intonation, with a familiarity as though she birthed my heart. It is the name of my culture. The name that causes me to walk slower through the Arab shuk, slightly at home in the vibrant space of a guttural language, loud bargaining, rich colors and smells. Cumin. Turmeric. Cardamom. Spices that are deemed exotic, but were part of our delicious nightly fair growing up. It is the name of the token girl who can appropriately move to Middle Eastern tunes busted out at Hasidic weddings while most of my friends try to keep up, swaying their hips a little clumsily to the beat. It is the name I remember my grandfather, who passed eight years ago, affectionately calling me as I bounced on his knees and he said Shema with me at night, telling me stories of Moshe, the Jewish people, Hashem and the miracles that expressed a love affair of no other caliber… Elham. Ellllhuuuuuummm.
It is the name of the girl who is forced, everyday, to make something whole and beautiful out of broken pieces.
In my Hasidic school in Crown Heights, the Chabad Hasidic epicenter of the world, you can hear my legal first name, Elham, spoken all the time. Every time I run payroll, make purchases, with school legalities, leases, permits and more. E, L as in Larry, H as in Harry, A, M as in Mary. Elham. And everytime I hear it said, usually slightly mispronounced, I still feel a twinge of shame, still a little uneasy… But I also feel this great sense of irony. And victory.
Now, Elham is not only a reminder of that part of myself that still feels fractured and does not belong. My whole life I told myself that I had to fit into a notion of what others want and believe to be true- to have one name. But at some time, after many, many bumps, I learnt that it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately it is between myself and G-d. And He knows me… Knows who I am, who I want to be, who I need to be, my inner most core that defies all structures and context and perception and judgement… The part of my soul that is beyond all names. Elham reminds me of my journey – of seeing Truth and feeling that it was out of my reach- and learning that all along, what I wanted for myself was not untouchable… It was right inside of me, waiting to be called out.