My parents unknowingly named me after the popular Yiddishism, “shayna maidel.”
My name is Shana Medel, pronounced Shah-nah Muh-dell. Over the years, it has been butchered by one too many people to count — teachers performing roll call, congregant members at my bat mitzvah, the announcer at my college graduation and even my first boyfriend.
Calling out for someone who doesn’t exist usually results in confusion. I can’t blame them, though. The spelling of my name can easily lead to slip-ups. However, for many Jews well-acquainted with Yiddishisms, my name elicits a raised eyebrow, followed by a smirk and a question: “How do you pronounce your full name?” As it turns out, Shana Medel looks curiously similar to an endearing Yiddish phrase your bubbie may have cooed while pinching your cheeks: “shayna maidel,” which translates to “pretty girl” in English.
I used to redden with embarrassment when asked if shayna maidel was my name or possibly a pseudonym, dreading another round of explanations. Could I be taken seriously when the mispronunciation of my name was stealing the spotlight? However, over the last few years, I’ve realized my confusing name is the ultimate ice breaker. Engaging in conversations about shayna maidel — again, not my name — has made me feel more connected to other members of the tribe and ultimately, my Jewish heritage.
The playful comments and genuine questions have followed me from my native Florida to my first apartment in Maryland. Each conversation is a repetitive loop, always concluding with a remark about the great deal of thought my parents expended when choosing Shana. Yes, to a certain extent, I explain. Like many expecting couples, my father and mother spent weeks flipping through baby name books, searching for a combination of letters that spoke to them. Shana was immediately a promising candidate. There was a nice ring to the name, and surely, it would set me apart from others without being the source of trite jokes.
The phrase “shayna maidel,” although commonly uttered in Jewish communities, especially by grandmothers to their granddaughters, was actually foreign to my parents. Neither of them were very familiar with the Yiddish language. My mother, an Ashkenazi Jew with Russian and Polish roots, was raised in a secular home and gradually became more observant after I was born. My father, who emigrated from Chile to New Jersey at 6-years-old, grew up in a Catholic household. The comedic aspect of my full name appeared to be a strange coincidence.
Sharing this story with others begged me to consider a more serious question. Do names, even ones that prompt stifled giggles, have a purpose aside from a mode of identification (or confusion in my case)? The answer, from a Jewish perspective, is of course, yes. Names are said to capture our essence — our soul. Neshamah (נשמה), the Hebrew word for “soul,” has two middle letters: shin (ש) and mem (מ or ם). Those two letters form the word shem (שם), translating to “name” in Hebrew.
Jewish text is brimming with characters whose names illustrate their essence. Take Queen Esther, who saved ancient Persian Jewry from persecution. Her name is derived from the Hebrew word hester, meaning “hidden.” The narrative is void of open miracles — no splitting seas or manna raining from the heavens. Rather, there’s a hidden godliness in Esther, who conceals her Jewishness to save her people.
There’s also Miriam, a prophetess whose name has several translations, including “water.” Ever the dotting sister, Miriam ensured the safety of her infant brother Moses as he drifted in a basket along the bank of the Nile River. She also led the Israelite women in an epic dance with timbrels after crossing the Sea of Reeds (Remember the folk classic “Miriam’s Song” by singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman?). Most notably, a spring of water accompanied Miriam, providing sustenance as the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years.
According to a midrash, an interpretive commentary on the Torah, when someone dies their soul is asked, “What is your name — and did you live up to its potential?” I never looked at my given name in this light before.
Shana is commonly translated as “year” (think of Shana Tova). Recently, I learned my name can also mean “change” or “repeat.” Those seemingly opposite meanings led me down a rabbit hole of research into scholarly Jewish thoughts on Shana and ultimately, ended with a call to a Hillel colleague and friend, Rabbi Charlie Schwartz. He echoed the American poet Walt Whitman, who famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Like Whitman, Judaism contains multitudes, and the Jewish name Shana is no exception. Welcoming each year is a repetitive tradition — a prescribed time for serious introspection and personal growth. As Jews, we’re given a yearly reminder to examine and change our ways as we strive to become better versions of ourselves, Rabbi Schwartz told me. So, upon analyzing the separate meanings of Shana, one can surprisingly find cohesion and wholeness (and hopefully a starting point on living up to its potential).
Names are an integral part of our identity, providing us with a glimpse into who we are and who we can become. They have power, even ones butchered on the daily. Ironically, feeling irked and slightly amused by the mispronunciation of my name as shayna maidel pushed me to unearth its multiple meanings. Turns out, I must credit my mistaken identity for motivating me to search for nuggets of Jewish wisdom about my real name — a lovely bundle of confusion laced with meaning.
Shana Medel is a senior communications associate at Hillel International in Washington, D.C.