In 2004, Madonna announced that along with Kabbala, she had taken on a new name: Esther. “I was named after my mother. My mother died when she was very young, of cancer,” the singer said in an interview at the time. “I wanted to attach myself to the energy of a different name.”
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The idea that changing one’s name can change one’s life is part of Jewish tradition, says Professor Aaron Demsky, founder and director of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names at Bar-Ilan University, and academic adviser on the database of surnames at Beit Hatfutsot − The Museum of the Jewish People.
When someone is sick, the names Chaim (Hebrew for life) or Rafael (“God has healed”) are traditionally added to help them heal. Names may be changed just to change bad luck, says Demsky, relating the story of a neighbor’s daughter, unmarried at 26: “She had a name change in the synagogue, and sure enough a year later she got married.”
This practice derives from the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud, which says: “Four things annul the decree that seals a person’s fate; namely, alms, prayer, change of name and change of deeds.” But there are also Biblical precedents, the earliest being Abram’s name changing to “Abraham” − “father of many nations,” in Genesis, and Sarai’s changing to “Sarah.”
Fooling the angel of death
Kabbala holds that the world was created with words, and that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have significance and powerful spiritual energies, says Itzhak Aharon of the Hochma Center in Petah Tikva. But in recent years, in a sort of hybrid of new-age trends and Jewish tradition, secular and religious Israelis alike have increasingly taken to tampering with their names in times of crisis.
Sitting on a white sofa in his apartment in the central Israeli city of Holon, Daniel Kalif-Koren, a self-described practitioner of name therapy and Jewish psychology, recalls the impact of changing his first and last names some 15 years ago: “It changed me completely. I didn’t believe a name could do something like that. It gave me strength I didn’t have, and it got rid of something that had accumulated, like a stone, which needed to be cracked. It took me a while to understand my new reality.”
A firm believer in destiny, the 43-year-old former journalist quips that perhaps he was always meant to work with letters. In the 14 years since he left journalism, he estimates he has helped hundreds of Jews alter their name based on his own method of numerology, which is not Kabbala based.
Even unbelievers will turn to people like him when in crisis, says Demsky, who sees this as a psychological issue more than anything else. “People are in distress. You can’t blame them − they try anything. You try alternative medicine, you try homeopathy, you try name changing. The rationale is you are putting blinders on the angel of death. You are no longer on his list, you have a new name.”
Low point in life
Kalif-Koren, who says that Kabbala is part of his ideology if not of his method, admits that most of the people who come through his door are at a low point in life. Others just don’t feel like they have the right name. Some are getting married, and want to make sure they are taking on a propitious family name, while others want to choose the right name for their baby.
His clients, who he says are a pretty even mix of male and female, are both religious and secular, and come to him via word of mouth. Analyzing a numerological chart and taking into account their date of birth, he tells them what is blocking them on their path in life, and sometimes − but not always − he advises them on making a change to their name.
Kabbalistic numerologist Matty Hilya Sternberg started out 10 years ago specializing in helping parents pick names for their children, but has also worked with adults. From a “very secular family,” she is nevertheless a believer in Kabbala.
Jewish mysticism and the power of the Hebrew letters are what make numerology in Israel unique, she says: “As Jews, we have tools in our tradition that don’t exist elsewhere.”
The uptick in name-altering, which roughly coincides with Madonna’s decision to adopt the name Esther, happened as Israeli society has since the late 90s become more open to new-age trends like numerology, says Dr. Marianna Ruah Midbar (Hebrew for “Desert Spirit” − yes, she changed it, but as a feminist gesture with her partner, not because of Kabbala or numerology), who heads Mysticism and Spirituality Studies at Safed Academic College.
Not always about Judaism
Secular Israelis who change their names aren’t necessarily interested in Jewish traditions. For Tal Elyakim-Zeevy, 54, the move had nothing to do with Judaism. “I felt very sharply my lack and surplus of energies at a certain point in my life,” she explains. In her mind, name changing brings better, quicker results than going to a psychologist, and she believes this is down to the energy of the name.
Others think otherwise. Take Asaf Hanaaman-Halel, 42, who, unlike other name-changers, doesn’t mind recalling his former name, Assi Nachum. He says that what happened in his life after he changed his name a decade ago was “like a fairy story,” but he doesn’t know why, and won’t go as far as saying his new name made the difference. “I don’t get it, I don’t know what happened,” he says, “but it worked for me.”
Practitioners are wary of the false belief that name changing is an easy solution. Shuki Gabay, in the numerology business for the past 25 years, is furious with some irresponsible peers whose methods he describes alternately as “bluff, bullshit and charlatanism" for profit.
“Here’s your headline:” he says, “Changing your name won’t change your life, it will better equip you to deal with life. If a bird changes its name to lion, will that make it a lion?”