Why This Rabbi Gave Her American Kids Hebrew Names That No One Can Pronounce

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A rabbi whose journey led her back to Israel after 30 years in California, and a man whose name became a self-fulfilling prophesy

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Michal Kohane and Or Yochai Taylor.
Michal Kohane and Or Yochai Taylor.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Michal Kohane, 58, lives in Haifa, and Or Yochai Taylor, 25, lives in Washington, D.C., and is flying there

Hello, how did you spend your time in Israel?

Or: I work for an American Zionist organization and I was here as a guide on a trip of American college students. And I’m Michal’s son.

Are you a college student?

Or: I was. I studied security and political science, with an emphasis on extreme situations of the kind that can cause a catastrophe.

Sounds familiar.

Or: No, Israel isn’t part of the picture. I’m talking about events that can cost the lives of millions, such as nuclear war or climate disaster.

Heaven forbid. And you also came to spend time with Mom?

Michal: No. I came to him. Just a day ago I landed here from Brooklyn. For good.

You made aliyah?

Michal: No. I’m a returning resident, after 30 years. I was born and raised here, I served in the army and got my B.A., and then I got a backpack and traveled to the Far East. And as I always say, if you go far enough east you reach California.

All roads lead to Hollywood.

Michal: I lived in California for almost 30 years; my six kids were born there. Every year it was, “Maybe we’ll go back next year,” but someone was always finishing elementary school or high school. There was never a perfect time. Meanwhile, I worked and went to school. I have degrees in psychology and Judaism. I taught yoga and lived in an ashram. Three years ago, after all the kids had left home, I moved to New York to attend a Modern Orthodox women’s yeshiva called Yeshivat Maharat, an acronym [in Hebrew] for leadership, Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

I didn’t know that Orthodox women had such options.

Michal: There’s very broad diversity in religious Zionism. We study four years, from 9 to 5 every day, and you can then become the rabba [female rabbi] of an Orthodox congregation – to deliver sermons, even to be a gaba’it [female synagogue beadle]. I have one more year of studies, which I’ll do in Israel, remotely.

Why did you come back to Israel?

Michal: I felt I had to complete my journey. My father was one of the founders of the first Conservative synagogue in Haifa: Moriah. I remember that when I was little I went there with him, and people would say, “Here’s the little rebbetzin” – but no one told me that a rebbetzin is not a rabba in her own right but the rabbi’s wife. Maybe that’s the reason I’m a rabba today.

What is it like being a rabba in Israel?

Michal: I can order coffee in Aroma and they’ll say my name [correctly], and I won’t have to hear “Michael.” That’s very symbolic for me. Three years ago, I wrote a novel called “Hakhug” [English title: “Extracurricular”]. It’s about Israelis in northern California, who are kind of stuck there. Israelis who go to the U.S. make up local names for themselves, because they can’t find themselves there. So you become “Jacob” instead of “Yaakov.” I always gave my kids names that no American could pronounce. They were angry, but Or complained most.

Or: Every time someone said the word “or,” I jumped.

Wouldn’t you have preferred your kids being able to integrate easily there?

Michal: There’s a choice here. My home is Israel. Actually, there’s also a complicated halakhic question here, too. When I pour liquid from one vessel into another, which vessel does it belong to during the flow, when it’s in the air? To the vessel it’s being poured from, or the recipient vessel? It’s usually ruled that the liquid belongs to the second vessel, because of the direction it’s moving in, where it’s going. And I, too, belong to the place I’m going to.

You’ve already gone so far. Ants in the pants?

Michal: When my youngest son made aliyah and entered the army, it was a time when everyone scattered. By chance or not, I got into my car and crossed the U.S. alone. It was a 12-day trip. In the first 24 hours I was scared, I held the wheel tight with two hands like the old Chinese women everyone laughs at, so I wouldn’t freak out in the middle of Nevada. After one day, I felt that my car, with 230,000 miles on it, was saying, “Don’t worry, you drive and enjoy and I’ll take care of the rest.” So I stopped being scared. It was fun.

Omri Meshorer-Harim.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Omri Meshorer-Harim, 26, lives in Basel and arriving from there

Well, I have to ask: Is “Meshorer-Harim” [poet of the hills] your Native American name?

“Meshorer” is my mother’s surname; “Harim” is from my father. They both Hebraized their names, and that’s what resulted. It’s nice to have a beautiful name. What bothers me about my name is that I really do write poems, and everyone who meets me in a literary framework thinks it’s a pen name. There’s nothing I can do about it, except try to live in hilly areas. (Laughs)

How did you come to be in Basel?

My partner is Swiss. We met in Israel. We were both doing volunteer work at an anthroposophic community for people with special needs – I was doing national service, she was a volunteer. It’s a community of families that integrate into their lives adults with special needs. The goal is for everyone to contribute what he can. There’s farming, a bakery, a laundry and a packing house, but the place exists thanks to the volunteers, many of whom are Germans.

Are you into anthroposophy?

I went to an anthroposophic preschool, and to an anthroposophic school in Jerusalem until the eighth grade. The transition to a regular high school actually worked well for me, because I thought I had been in a special place, for good and for bad, and I wanted to get out a little and be part of something more conventional.

What will you be doing in Israel?

I’m here to visit my parents and friends. I’ve been living in Switzerland for almost two years.

Is it tough in exile?

Not really. I had a feeling I’d live abroad sometime, and it happened naturally. And anyway, my way of life in Israel was pretty free, I didn’t have a steady job, there was nothing for me to leave.

What do you do in Basel?

I’m home a lot, a bit of a house husband. Here and there I teach Hebrew privately, even though a lot of pupils lose their motivation fast. It’s hard to teach Hebrew in Switzerland, because there’s no one to talk to. I translate German poetry into Hebrew, and of course I write. I have creative serenity in Basel. It’s a very intimate, quiet city, and sometimes it seems like I can hear my thoughts more lucidly.

Waiting for the muse or fighting with the computer?

To write a new poem I have to be in a situation where I feel I can write. I can’t just decide when to write; it’s not something that’s only subject to my will. But if I already have the start of a poem or a draft, I can decide to sit. Recently I’ve been trying to translate poetry. Translation is more like work that I can decide to sit down and do.

Whom do you translate?

Mostly poets from the early the 20th century – Stefan George, Georg Trakl and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Generally I prefer lyric poems, short soul poems. The poems that attract me deal with eternal things, themes that will always occupy the individual in the world. Anyone who encounters a poem like that can connect to it, because it’s not related to a particular event, but to things that always engage the human soul and spirit.

Do you manage to sell your work?

One poem of mine has been published in the internet journal Hamussach, and I also have translations that appear in the latest issue. I’m working now with [Israeli poet] Dory Manor on a first book of poems, but these are things that take a long time. It’s not so much in the spirit of our time, more in the spirit of life a hundred years ago.

Modernity doesn’t interest you.

Both the things I’m interested in translating and the things that I’m interested in writing about have timeless value. I feel that many times people talk about the new and the original, but for me it’s not about new forms but in the words themselves – in combinations of words that every new soul brings into the world. I am trying to do something beautiful, because everything that is beautiful is by necessity interesting, and I am fine with that.

That’s no little thing. Give us a couple of lines.

This is the first verse of a poem from a book whose provisional title is “Youth Dew.”

“I gave my heart to every drizzle and every thorn

Sparkle of thistles and dew of grasses within me melded

I gave my heart to every melody yet unborn

In the warp of my life unexplored tunes have blended.”