When He Wouldn’t Say My Name
Recently I went away for Shabbos. People close to us sponsored a kiddush in our honor, and it was to be hosted at shul. When I got to shul, it was already pretty late and davening was almost over. I slid into the back of the women’s section and opened a siddur, and began to pray. I was in the middle of Shmoneh Esrei when a man began the weekly announcements.
He announced all the important zmanim of the week, which shiurim would be taught on Shabbos, and what time mincha would be that afternoon. Then, while holding the shul bulletin in hand, he began to read off of it, “This Shabbos, Kiddush will be sponsored by Mr. X. and his wife, in honor of the impending aliyah of Mr. X and his wife.”
“And his wife.”
Not, “And his wife, Shira.”
HIS wife. Hard stop.
I know for a fact that my name was written on that piece of paper, along with the rest of the announcements. He chose to skip over it.
He erased my name from the equation, a practice that is becoming increasingly common in certain Jewish communities. Removing the names of women is done to preserve modesty. In the past I had wondered about this phenomenon, imagining how it would feel to be told that my name is immodest. Or to have this practice projected onto me.
In that moment, I felt I had become an accessory, an afterthought, a dishonorable mention. My name was too suggestive to come from his lips. Too provocative for the congregation to hear. Perhaps, too non-essential to waste time on mentioning.
As I sat there in the back corner of the women’s section, processing what had just transpired, my mind starting floating back to being in school and learning about the women of Tanach who were mentioned as “The Wife Of.” “The Wife of Noach,” “The Wife of Manoach,” “The Wife of Lot” – the list goes on. “The Wife of” “The Daughters of”- there are many women in the Torah who are given no name, but a description that indicates possession- as in, their existence is conditional on someone else.
I learned differing explanations for this omission: “She is not a main character in the story, and so her name isn’t important.”
“It was just a way to identify her, as back in the day women belonged to their men. She didn’t need a name because she had his.”
And the more punitive, “The Torah is very intentional about whose names are mentioned. The removal of her name was a punishment. She did X and X wrong, and so the Torah punishes her by making us forget her name.”
In these examples, either the woman is sidelined as an unimportant character, a possession of another human being, or being punished.
Yet, we hear the names of other righteous women many times over the course of Tanach. We know their names and they live in our text and liturgy: Chava, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Devorah… the list goes on. The passages of the Torah never indicates that their names are too holy to mention, their stories too provocative to tell, that modesty should write them out of the narrative.
And yet, here we are in 2018. This small instance that happened to me is happening all over parts of the Jewish community. Women are being written out of the narrative. Pictures are being erased, names are too immodest to mention.
Mr. X and HIS wife.
Mr. X and HIS Kallah.
Mr. X and HIS daughters.
So what is the message? Are women ancillary characters to the plotline?
When he wouldn’t say my name, I felt like an afterthought.
Watching this trend frightens me. The implication is tremendous. If we can’t give a woman’s name its proper kavod in the communal sphere, what about the rest of her contributions?
How can she advertise her business to support her family?
How much will it hurt to not to be included on her son’s wedding invitation?
What is the message that a woman is supposed to believe about herself and her place in her home?
What is the implication about the nature of the relationship between husbands and wives?
What is the lesson that we are teaching our daughters and sons about how they should interact with each other?
What does it mean for a woman who is not married; does she only get namelessly acknowledged if she is someone’s plus-one?
Women are vibrant as we live and breathe. We are main characters in the stories of our families and our communities. We are the heroines in our own narratives. We contribute while we open the doors to our tents and welcome guests in. We contribute while we work side by side outside, in our varying fields.
Women deserve to be mentioned along with the rest. Their stories deserve to be told. They deserve to be treated with respect along with the rest of the tzibbur.
Though this moment was personally painful because of what it represented, it is a moment in time that has passed. My individuality does not rest in the hands of the man on the bima. His choice, made me feel the weight of this omission being made on a grand scale, every day.
I don’t know where this trend will lead. But for today, I can do what carried me through the moment after that fateful announcement: Ask God to fill the growing spaces between us and give us the ability to bring each other in close to the community. I pray that God should make it that those around us feel seen, heard, and valued; not just by what we accomplish, but for being who we are.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism. She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira made aliyah with her family a year ago to Jerusalem.