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You Can Call Me Chana

By Chana R. Schoenberger

No one can pronounce my name correctly. Most people think it's "Shana" or "Chayna" or "Shanna." It's not hard, really: just say "Hannah," only with a guttural ch sound, like "Chanukah."

Even fewer people can spell it. So, like any unusual, foreign-sounding name, mine is somewhat of a handicap when leaving phone messages. When reporting, I spend at least half of my time on the phone spelling my name to secretaries.

"Hannah? H-a-n-n-a-h?"

"No, it's C-h-a-n-a. Chana. It's Hebrew," I explain patiently.

"Oh, with a C? Never seen it spelled that way before. That's pretty," the secretary says, obediently copying it down.

I never thought that this experience was so unusual until I over-heard one of the other interns in my office this summer leaving a message.

"It's Sarah Collins," she said confidently, and then, without the uncomprehending pause I always encounter on the other end of the phone, she skipped directly to the phone number. No "How do you spell 'Collins'?" or "Sarah, my, that's unusual."

I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a pair of New Yorkers who did not want to give me a more ordinary American name like Jennifer or Jessica--names by which I now call almost all my female friends. As my parents intended, my name sets me apart from the mainstream. There has never been another Chana in my class (although a Harvard classmate spells it Hanna). This uniqueness made it harder to blend in when I was a preteen and wanted to disappear into a crowd. But now that I'm older and value individuality, I appreciate the merits of not being just another Mary or Susan.

My parents also wanted me to have a distinctly Jewish name, with a Hebrew pronunciation. Because of my name, my religion is one of the first things most people find out about me. So no one can ever call me a dirty Jew behind my back, as my mother explained to me years ago.

Having a Biblical name also connects me directly to Judaism. Just as keeping kosher reminds me who I am every time I eat something, my name constantly reminds me and others that I'm Jewish. It's an undeniable fact; true to my parents' wishes, the sheer obviousness of my religion makes it a non-issue. One upshot of the difficulty non-Jews have with my name is the comfort I feel around Jews. After a summer of spelling my name, the visit of an Israeli cousin who could spit it out in full guttural glory was soothing. People who say my name right on the first try win my instant approval and trust.

I called my first doll Elizabeth, the quintessential American girl's name. Elizabeth was always my favorite name, the name I intended for my first child. We would call her Liza, though, to set her gently apart from the gaggle of Lizzies and Beths. But as I grow to understand my parents' reasoning in naming me, their logic makes more and more sense, and the chance that I would give my own child such a typical name fades.

After a lifetime of explanations and pronunciation lessons, would I bestow a Hebrew name on my own child? Absolutely. For the same reasons my parents used, I want my children to grow up thinking Judaism is something to wear proudly on your name tag.

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