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“What’s her Jewish name? She needs a Jewish name,” the rabbi whispered


"Oh, so I guess your name is Penina because you were born on Rosh Hashanah?”

I stood there in my host’s dining room, just before the meal on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and wondered how I had managed to reach my 21st birthday without ever making that connection.

When I was born, my parents weren’t frum, but my father had always been dragged to shul by his observant grandfather. After marrying my mother, he continued to attend services at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia, the shul my mother had grown up attending.

I was born toward the end of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which fell out on a Friday that year. After spending time with his wife and his newborn little girl, my father drove to Friday night services, as he always did. That particular Friday night he was eager to share the exciting news that he had just become a father. The gabbai told him he should come back the next day to get an aliyah and name the baby.

My father arrived late on Shabbos morning. As soon as the gabbai spotted him, he nabbed him and brought him toward the bimah.

“Quick, you almost missed Krias HaTorah! You have to name the baby.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it, we already named her in the hospital.”

Ignoring him, the gabbai brought my father to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the rabbi of our shul. He leaned over and asked my father the baby’s name.

“Francesca Beth,” my father said, beaming.

“What’s her Jewish name? She needs a Jewish name,” the rabbi whispered.

My father gave it a moment’s thought and answered “Okay. Francesca Beth.”

By the grace of G-d, the rabbi wasn’t an ignoramus who would have left me with a Catholic name as my Jewish name. “How about Penina Batya?” he asked my father. My father agreed and Rabbi Feldman bequeathed a name that he figured would next be used in Hebrew class, should my parents make the choice to send me to a Jewish school, and on my kesubah if they didn’t.

In Hashem’s infinite kindness, He planted my parents in a community that would lead them to Torah. Although my father drove to shul the day I was born, several months later he told Rabbi Feldman he was no longer comfortable driving on Shabbos, but he lived too far away from shul to walk to services.

Rabbi Feldman told my father that he would never tell him he wasn’t welcome in his shul — but he would also never tell him that he should drive on Shabbos. For the next decade, until my parents bought a house that was close to Beth Jacob, unless we were invited to families in the neighborhood, my father davened at home on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

All my recollections are of home in which chillul Shabbos was unthinkable. By the time I was a year old, my parents were well on their way to complete shemiras hamitzvos.

I continued to be called Francesca, but I was also called Penina. Some secular names have pretty obvious Jewish equivalents. With a doozy of a name like Francesca, I assumed Rabbi Feldman had simply chosen a name that, at least in the Hebrew alphabet, started with the same letter. It had never occurred to me until that day on my 21st birthday that Penina was also in the haftarah of Rosh Hashanah.

I had the opportunity to speak to Rabbi Feldman not too long ago. “If I could go back in time,” I asked him, “and whisper in your ear, ‘Do you see that man in front of you who drove to shul on this holiest of days and hasn’t even considered a Jewish name for his child? This man and his baby will be frum Jews. All of his grandchildren will be born in Eretz Yisrael, where they will learn and keep Hashem’s Torah,’ would you have believed me?”

He told me he wouldn’t, couldn’t have believed me.

Nearly four decades after Rabbi Feldman had named me, I gave birth to a baby boy. My husband and I were trying to choose a sandek whom we hadn’t already used for one of his older brothers. I couldn’t think of a better choice than Rabbi Feldman. Didn’t the man who had given me a Jewish name when no one else would have, and curated a community that would lead me to actually use it, deserve the nachas of seeing a family of bnei Torah?

Hayom haras olam. Today the world was created. But I can’t help but think about that day so many years ago — the day I was also born. A man driving to shul on Rosh Hashanah, close enough to Hashem to go to shul, far enough away to not consider a Jewish name for his child. My life today is light-years away from the destiny that baby appeared to have. I’m humbled and grateful that I didn’t have to stumble through life searching for the truth. My parents and community served it up to me on a silver platter.

And now, decades later, a continent away, I consider: Having been served the truth, what will I do with it? When I pass like a sheep under the staff of my Master, can I say that I used the gifts I’ve been given to the best of my ability?

On this day, Hashem recreates the world, and all the possibilities are open before us. Yesterday’s mistakes belong to last year. Today, I bow before Hashem and accept the task I’ve been given.

Hashem has given us another chance, a fresh start. The year ahead is bursting with potential, and we can grow in ways we never have before. Like a newborn baby.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 758)

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