We asked people on our email list about how they chose their Hebrew name. Here's a powerful and thoughtful reply.
My Hebrew name is Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu.
“Why Orev (עורב)”? I've been asked.
Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake. Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and
misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that
partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because
of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.
"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of
the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and
returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the
dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the
ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).
Where did the raven go?
Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is another example of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove. The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and myth-making. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy, and it’s a primary reason I’ve chosen to convert in the stream’s mikveh.
But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah. This orev "flew the coop," so to speak, but has at last come back to the ark (through covenant).
I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב .Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.
Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.
But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.
This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerge from mikveh, I will (halachically) be a Jew. Were you to ask me then if I stood at Sinai, I would confidently say ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past will inform my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I expect to be actively engaged in my Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), I know that my very "Jewishness" will sometimes be challenged. Some fellow Jews will review my attributes and deem me kosher; others will say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews.
The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.