Menachem's Writings

So What's in a Name

Our Sages teach that one's name is the very essence of the person, the quintessence of a human being, that parents are endowed with a special power of prophecy (רוח הקודש) when naming their newborn. A name affects a person's entire life. A given name, we are told, is engraved into one's very soul.

My family originates from central Europe, from the regions of greater Hungary. Hungarian culture dominated this region, which, in addition to Hungary itself, incorporates Slovakia, parts of Romania, the western Ukraine and northern Serbia. Unlike in most of Poland and Lithuania, Hungarian Jews give their children two sets of names, one for the street and one for the synagogue — one for the goyim, the gentiles, and one for the Jews.

This sometimes resulted in incongruous combinations. For example my maternal grandfather was known as Emmanuel, a nice Hebrew name, meaning "God is with us". You can imagine him being called up to the Torah, "Arise Emmanuel the son of Shimon", but no, his Jewish name, his Hebrew name, like mine, was Menachem Baruch (מנחם ברוך). My other grandfather, Baruch, was known as Béla (at least the first letter was common, perhaps not by coincidence, but since he was born in 1853 I have no-one with whom to verify this). His wife was Fanny, but in Hebrew Feige (which is really Yiddish meaning "a bird" — so in Hebrew she perhaps could have been called Tzipora). They called my father Emil, though at his barmitzva he was called to the Torah as Yisroel Moshe.

I can give you lots and lots of examples from my family: Agi who was Breindel (which means "brunette" in Yiddish), Eliezer who was Laci, Magda who was Devora, Bozsi who was Sara — in fact everyone in my family circle fit this mould.

So no-one was surprised when I was born that I was given two sets of names. [The surprise came much later when we had our own children and we were determined, much to the chagrin of everyone still in the galuth, to give them only Jewish, Hebrew (certainly not Yiddish names) — but I am getting ahead of myself.]

Being the first child in my immediate family of Holocaust survivors, there was no surprise that I was named after perished relatives. (I am lucky that I was not the girl my mother was sure I was going to be — no ultrasounds yet ... nor sexual fluidity — because then I would have been named Beatrice or Beatrix, probably accompanied by the Hebrew name Rivka, after my maternal grandmother.)

Giving me an English name which would hold me in good stead in the new world, presented difficulties. These survivors, while angry with God over their losses and suffering, were not prepared to discard their Judaism. But they did want to hide it as much as possible — leave it in the home and in the synagogue. And having a good English name was part of this process, which I am going to call assimilation into the surrounding culture.

The difficulty however lay in the fact that my mother had been in the country for just over two years, and did not yet have a command of the local language, let alone know too many Australians as they referred to their non-Jewish neighbours. My father had had nearly three additional years in the country, and had worked in the outside world, but I do not think he had too much more to offer in the local vernacular of names.

As my mother tells it, one morning, soon after I was born, while we were still in Paddington Hospital for over a week, she was reading the newspaper — looking at the pictures or perhaps trying to get a grasp of the words may be a more accurate description. Whatever the case, the headline that day concerned a doctor whose first name was Jeffrey. "My boy vill be doctor too" (famous last words) so I too became a Jeffrey. (For those of you who were there and are old enough to remember the story, this headline was not related to the famous Bogle and Chandler double murder story which gripped Sydney for months. I remember the episode clearly — I was already ten years old — and anyway Mr Chandler's first name was Geoffrey, the English spelling, and not Jeffrey, the American basterdisation. By the way, I recently found some interesting new background information on this old episode.)

To Jeffrey they tagged a name that worked in Hungarian, and in English too, so I became Jeffrey George Kuchar. I remember once complaining to my father that I had three names, when one forename and one surname were surely sufficient (unlike American assassins who all seem to have three names, e.g. Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacy, John Wilkes Booth, Leon Frank Czolgosz and James Earl Ray — if you've watched the movie, Conspiracy Theory, you'll know what I mean). My father told his nine year old son, "it's useful — maybe you'll prefer to be called J. George Kuchar one day in the future".

As it turned out, my preference is to be known as Menachem Kuchar. No-one who knew me as Jeff Kuchar would have known who I was, had I left a phone message with their secretary from J. George Kuchar — well the Kuchar may have been a giveaway, but you know what I mean — Menachem Kuchar could be equally misleading. (Every year when the new phonebook arrived, we checked to see if there were any other Kuchars inserted. It took many years until there was, but it was suffixed.)

I would have been happy had my father done what he intended to do back in the sixties before he passed away, and changed our surname to Cook. Then I could have been Menachem Cook, learning at the famous Mercaz haRav Kook Yeshiva in Yerushalayim — I could even have been mistaken as a scion of that illustrious family ;-)

In Australia, in theory, you can easily change your name to anything you want. I emphasise, in theory. For years I was called Menachem by just about everyone with whom I had contact, including my Bellevue Hill Commonwealth Bank manager. I had already lived a number of years in Israel where very few had any idea that I was not always and only Menachem. My old friends still call me Kuch, something that will never vary whether I am Jeff, Györy or Menachem.

Ivor Francis Stowe gained fame by standing for the Australian Parliament eighteen times on a platform of spelling reform, using his legal name of Mr F.

I too finally decided the time had finally arrived to formalise my name change, though not for reasons of easing the burden of English spelling. Mr F never received my vote.

We were back in Sydney in 1989 for a few weeks. As we needed new passports anyway, this presented an ideal opportunity. Jill and I turn up to passport office (you could do it quickly at a post office, but I wanted to make sure that I got what I wanted — a new name). We arrive armed with everything one needs along with the applications: old passports, new photographs, birth certificates, wedding certificate. We wait for forty-five minutes in the busy office in the centre of the city until our number is finally called. We sit down opposite a pretty passport office bureaucrat. We hand over our forms. Everything is in order. There's one thing, I tell the bureaucrat. I would like to change my first name.

I knew the law of the land. In England and Australia one can change one's surname (family name) by Deed Poll. A Deed Poll is a legal document which differs from a normal contract in that it only concerns one party to the agreement. It must be brought before a judge for verification and seal. The document states that you abandon use of your former name, that you will use only your new name at all times and that you require everyone to address you solely by your new name. But I was not changing my surname, well not this time, only my, what the Australian bureaucrats officially call, my Christian name. For this change one is only required to prove usage.

No problem she says, you need to prove usage. I guess I should have brought my old bank manager with me, but all I had was some business cards from Israel (even in Israel where everybody knew me as Menachem, officially I was still Jeffrey George Kuchar. The Israelis will only accept the entry in your foreign passport as your legal name. Changing your name, first or surname, requires filling out a form at the Interior Ministry.)

That's not sufficient I am informed. Driver's license, credit card, anything like that that proves usage of the alternate name. Whatever yarn I could spin was insufficient. "OK, then I'll go and do a deed poll", I suggest. She retorts, "You do not need a deed poll to change your Christian name". Well, then please change it. No, you have to prove usage. After fifteen minutes of beating around the mulberry bush — deed poll, usage, deed poll, you do not need one — we both knew we were getting nowhere. Our heels were dug into our entrenched positions.

"Could I please speak to your supervisor." No problem, sir. Off she goes, returning a couple of minutes later with another bureaucrat, nicely dressed in the suit and tie which was then still a requirement of the Australian Public Service. "What appears to be the problem?" And around and around we go again. OK, then I'll go and do a deed poll I suggest. They retort in unison, "You do not need a deed poll to change your Christian name". Ditto, ditto, ditto. Another fifteen minutes elapse.

Then he breaks the cycle. "What's wrong with Jeffrey anyway?" I am sure why, but it was only then that I glanced at his name tag, "Jeffrey Green". Oh no, I think to myself, I am stuck with my old identity forever.

"There's nothing wrong with Jeffrey, Jeffrey. It's really a very fine name, but it's not what anyone calls me any more, not how I wish to be known."

Another round around the mulberries, and he again diverts, "Where did you get this name, Menachem, from anyway?"

I explain that all Jewish boys are given a Hebrew name as part of their circumcision ceremony, that the name I was given was in memory of my late grandfather, Menachem. (I did not want to confuse him with Baruch part — one name was sufficient for me.)

Oh he said, in that case there's no problem. "Please fill out a statutory declaration (no judge needed for this — this could be countersigned by a Justice of the Peace of which there was always at least one in the passport office) explaining what you have just told me and we can issue your new passport, Menachem."

Yes, Jeffrey's new Christian name was now Menchem!

As a postscript to this story . . . armed with my new passport, I go to the New South Wales Motor Registry Office, to renew my local driver's license. They take my photograph (this was the first time — new technology) and I go to the counter to pay. "Could I change my first name on the license, please", my hand in my pocket, ready to pull out my new, shiny, Menachem passport.

"No problem love, what would you like us to change it to?"

Menachem Kuchar, 4th October, 2009    
16th Tishrei, 5770


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