Some basics of Jewish names
Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.
Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.
Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].
One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.
As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.
At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.
Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].
I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.
The Legend of the Gordian Knot
Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?
At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.
The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans
I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)
I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.
The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.
In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):
|בעשרים וחמשה [בטבת] יום הר גרזים [הוא] דלא למספד יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלהינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתנו להם באו והודיעו את שמעון הצדיק מה עשה לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ישראל עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהן וכל הלילה הללו הולכים מצד זה והללו הולכים מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הללו אמרו לו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפטרס זרחה חמה ופגעו זה בזה כיון שראה לשמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לפניו אמרו לו מלך גדול כמותך ישתחוה ליהודי זה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי
||The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.
In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.
Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:
… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named “Alexander.”
Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.– ‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin
I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.
‘Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’
I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.
I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.
Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.
Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.
This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:
David ben Alexander.