As told by Hannah Kahn.
When I was in kindergarten, I tried to change my name. “Hannah,” I had decided, was far too plain.
I wanted something exotic. Something romantic and bohemian that screamed, “I am like no one you have ever met before!”
I chose “Juliette.” It didn’t work.
For weeks I begged my parents to legally change my name, and wouldn’t respond to my friends unless they used my proper title. Despite tireless efforts, my attempt to reinvent myself at age five failed miserably. I counted my losses and returned, tail between my legs, to the name and personality waiting patiently for me at home. While “Juliette” fluttered along to the next unhappy young girl, “Hannah” waited by the doorstep, greeting me like an old friend.
It was here that I learned the importance of names. No name would ever house me, protect me, or love me quite as “Hannah” did; and in return, no person could ever wear the name “Hannah” exactly as I did. Not because it was my birth name, but because “Hannah” is just who I am.
Names are important. They are a unique stamp of personality, a form of self-expression that no one will ever have quite as you have. In a world where our society values personal success above all else, the art of remembering and valuing names is rapidly disappearing.
At Rosh Hashanah services one year, my rabbi introduced an interesting concept to the congregation. Welcoming the stranger, she stated, was not an act that should be relegated only to the week of Passover. Every day there was someone somewhere who felt isolated, alone, and confused. One day it may be our neighbor, our friend, or someone we pass on the street, and one day it may be us. She told us that it was crucial to remember what it felt like to be uncomfortable, to be outcast, and to always make a conscious effort to bring in a stranger, not just when the Torah tells us to.
Remembering names is my way of welcoming the stranger. Since age five, when I accepted “Hannah” as my identity, I have been a fierce practitioner of remembering names.
While some may categorize my ability to name all 80 members of a new school program in one go on the first day as a natural knack for memorizing names and dates, I see it as much more of a skill that requires constant practice and dedication, just like anything else.
We all know what it feels like to be the stranger, to walk into a room and feel utterly invisible. Our names act as little microscopes that make it easier for others to truly see us. As a global community in a world where the importance of the individual is consistently shrinking, we could all focus a little less on the self and a little more on the stranger, and what better place to start than learning someone’s name?