Let me tell you about the time I write a story about werewolves living in Colorado. In it the werewolves are Jewish and one of them is queer. One is non-binary and that one is a stand-in for me. Because of course it is. Because what is fiction but a chance for self-insertion? Just kidding. This is how you can know I am a poet. And even that is queer, living somewhere on a spectrum zipping back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. Let us parse out who the “I” is.
I write a story about a werewolf. I name them “Ze’eva.” Literally? This means wolf. But the “A” at the end, that “ah” sound confers a girl meaning. I am lucky to live in a language ungendered. But my given name tethers me, my name meaning tree, girl tree, its “ah” ending roots sunk deep below the Earth’s surface.
Let me remind you. Among Eastern European Jews there is a custom of naming babies for a dead relative. This makes me time machine, carrying with me a grandmother I have never met. To cast her aside would make me uprooted.
But there is a long tradition too of changing names, of re-titling babies to evade the evil eye, to dispel the angel of death as it approaches. And then there is of course my favorite Biblical hero: an orphan girl called Hadassah who becomes Esther to become queen and save her people. If this sounds like I am piling on evidence to prove a case, it’s because I am. Why shouldn’t I save myself? Why deny myself the chance to be royal?
I gift myself a new name. A name meaning lion in Russian; in Hebrew meaning heart. A Russian name for boys, an Israeli name for girls, and me in the middle or skipping laps around them, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes neither, sometimes both. When I rename myself I do it to keep the evil eye at bay, to cling to life in a time when darkness surrounds, to shield myself in a technicolor coat, to mark the end of confusion’s flood with an arked rainbow.
But I keep the old name with me. A name fixes letters, syllables, sounds to a being living in a body. Before we’ve met face-to-fact a name can start to tell my story, hints of what to expect to see when you lay eyes upon my body. I adorn myself with two Jewish names.
Why does everything come back to being Jewish? Why, dear heart, connect yourself to a genderqueer God you may or may not believe in? Maybe it’s because the best my voice has ever sounded is in prayer, in a chorus. Because I’m searching for community, a minyan, a quorum. Even in a religion that sometimes literally builds walls to separate gender, I have found ways to figuratively dash around them, found Jews and queers and Jewish queers who hear me name myself without question. After ten years a dire isolatto, a wolf without a pack, a tree without a grove, I have found myself people who speak the same fluidity. I am a heart still beating. I have found myself a home.
So when friends ask, “Do you want us to call you by your new name?” I know they’ll understand when I answer, “No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Sometimes. Both.
More info: Contact the author at elana (dot) friedland (at) colorado (dot) edu