The fourth instalment of The Ponderings of a Transgender Jew, a new blog by Surat Knan who is a female-to-male (ftm) transgender person on a transitioning journey. Click here for previous instalments
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (W. Shakespeare)
The day had finally come.
Sitting in a South London courtroom waiting to be called up to make a statutory declaration to have my name changed ‘officially.’
This, way before my legal status change from female to male. This all being optional, as my counsellor keeps saying gingerly.
I clenched my sweaty palms.
I wasn’t really nervous about the procedure itself which is no big deal, just a formality; but I was nervous because I knew the clerk would be reading out aloud my dreaded birth name in front of a sizeable audience.
It was just a handful of strangers, who probably couldn’t care less and were staring into nothing; a couple of unruly Poles reeking of alcohol, a detached-looking youngster.
I guess most of them were more concerned about their criminal cases than my very uninteresting personal declaration. But that made no difference to me.
Being trans feels sometimes like being on a massive stage with the audience scrutinising my every move under a gigantic looking glass.
For years, my nightmare fantasy was about waiting to board a plane with an announcement blurting out my FULL birth name ‘…please come to the check-in desk..!’
In my mind everyone would gawp at me, shake their heads in disbelief and then nod knowingly that it was true, yes, I was really female.
As for many trans people, a lot of my angst in official settings has been around my ‘dreaded’ birth name, which to me sounds even more awful in Hebrew.
As a matter of fact, let’s add some T-etiquette here:
Don’t ask a transgender person what their “real name” is.
For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a tremendous source of anxiety, or it is simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind.
Respect the name a transgender person is currently using.
If you already know someone’s prior name don’t share it without the person’s explicit permission.
To tell the truth, I had already changed my female Hebrew name into a male one a while ago – thanks to the very understanding rabbis of Progressive Judaism’s Rabbinic Court.
This adjustment had no impact on my Jewish life, but it was a very profound moment for my spiritual-emotional self.
I would assume changing names is a rite of passage for every transgender person.
Perhaps it’s a bit similar to changing your family name to your spouse’s after getting marriage; it symbolises some sort of a bond, a covenant, a change of personal status.
As a Jew, a new Hebrew name marks a fresh spiritual start for me, a new covenant with myself, with G-d, with everyone and everything. It’s a deep thing.
My name shall be Shaan.
What’s in a Jewish name?
In Jewish thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random combination of sounds.
The name conveys the nature and essence of the ‘thing’ named.
It represents the history and reputation of the being named.
Especially when moaning about being misgendered, some my friends have asked me:
‘Why have you not chosen a more straightforward Jewish male name – like David, Adam, Benjamin or Aaron?’
Well, first of all, as I have always stressed I identify as non-binary, gender-variant or genderqueer rather than simply a trans man.
Perhaps transmasculine would describe ‘me’ more accurately;
‘Surat’ is already quite gender-neutral (it means ‘face’ in Turkish and is rare South-Asian male name meaning ‘awakening consciousness’).
But let’s get into knitty-gritty of gender labels later on in my blog series.
What about consulting Genesis? In Avraham’s story, G-d[i] bestows new names on Avram and Sarai [ii].
Neither shall thy name any more be called Avram, but thy name shall be Avraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have made thee (Gen 17:5)
And G-d said unto Avraham, as for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. (Gen 17:5)
G-d honours the couple’s journey: Avraham’s circumcision making him the father of all nations, and Sarah’s bond with him signifies their joint destiny. I feel inspired by this symbolism. My name change marks not only the beginning of my physical transitioning, but also my spiritual journey as a trans Jew.
Although I had always used ‘other’ names, I had lived for over forty years with a name in my birth certificate that did not resonate with my inner self.
Now, Avraham was ‘my co-pilot’ [iii] into my true destiny.
Having chosen ‘Shin’ שׁ as the first letter of my new name, ‘I carry my past in my name by retaining the first syllable of my birth name my parents gave me’ [iv].
I would never deny my past nor my given names, and this is how I can link my past to my future journey – just like Avraham’s call for a new beginning.
Shin also stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God. The letter Shin is often inscribed on the case containing a mezuzah, a scroll of parchment with Biblical text written on it.
The text contained in the mezuzah is the Shema Yisrael prayer, which calls the Israelites to love their God with all their heart, soul and strength.
Shaan means to be at ease or at peace, rest securely. Yes, I feel at ease now, because I can be who I am, who I have always been.
In William Shakespeare’s play, Juliet argues that the names of things do not matter, only what things ‘are.’
Indeed, my name change does not change me as a person.
It does also not erase my past or present situation.
What it does is affirm what I already know about myself.
[i] In Jewish tradition, writing “G-d” without ‘–o’ is a way of giving respect. Personally, I feel it highlights the abstract, multi-layered, non-gendered nature and the many names and faces of G-d.
[ii] This passage is inspired by Lech Lecha! By Eliron Hamburger in: Balancing on the Mechitza. Edited by Noach Dzmura. California, 2010.
[iii] from Lech Lecha! By Eliron Hamburger
[iv] from Lech Lecha! By Eliron Hamburger