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Jewish Journal

The Rebbetzin Will Keep Her Name

by Viva Hammer

August 8, 2002 | 8:00 pm

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 the parishioners.

The world seemed to be divided between those who could not imagine why half of a couple would change half of her name upon entering into the holy bond of matrimony, and those who could not 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.

"Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss," was one brilliant suggestion. It was in the fashion of the British royalty, a la, Sophie, the duchess 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, Aaron. "If you're here at all," he said, "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 a decade before 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 got worried, thinking 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 extralegal mumbo-jumbo."

What a relief! I thought to myself that there are certain benefits of marrying a man who was a strict interpreter of the law.

Still, my husband's family always addressed me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and again 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 out 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 us both to hyphenate our names, but knew that this would make him a laughingstock 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 had made 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 the children became spiritual leaders of congregations, or whatever other 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.

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