|Z, My Name Is Zalman
by Zalman Velvel
They chose the last speaker at this Chabad dinner for his wisdom and humor. Unfortunately, he got sick. Now you’re stuck with me.
I really don’t have a lot to say, and there are many here that say "Thank God" for that.
Tonight, I just want to talk about names. One of the interesting things about Judaism is our Hebrew names – they tell a story about our families. My American name is Stu Silver, no big deal. But my Hebrew name is Zalman Velvel ben Israel Yaakov, and there is a story there.
The Velvel comes from my Great Grandfather. He was born in Russia, and was an orthodox Rabbi. We’re pretty sure he was Hasidic, because he had a long beard, wore dark clothes, and smiled alot, even when he wasn’t drinking Vodka. Velvel left Russia 100 years ago because his family was getting too much education. By day, he pounded wisdom into his children’s heads. By night, the Cossacks did the same thing, only with clubs. So Velvel traveled to America with his three sons and wife.
At Ellis Island, under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the Immigration official asked my great Gampa his last name. "Yussalovitch," Velvel replied. "Sounds like Silver," the official concluded. The man next to him, Rushevsky, became Diamond. Poppavitch became Goldberg. The logic? Who knows.
Next stop – the shtetl. Brooklyn.
Life in Brooklyn was not as hard as Russia, but it wasn’t so easy, either. Everyone had to work. When it was the middle son’s turn to go out into the business world, Daveed ben Velvel, my future grandfather, made an astute observation. He saw Hasids everywhere, ten rabbis on every corner. He decided to open an Hasidic men’s clothing store. He didn’t realize a Hasid, no matter how much money he makes, has maybe two suits – the one he’s wearing, and the one in the cleaners. And he wears them thirty years – the styles never change. Even worse, every Hasid has an uncle who could get it for him wholesale. Grampa Daveed starved.
Daveed looked outside shtetl at American society and he saw ladies’ fashions changed four times a year, with the seasons, instead of every 300 years, with a Hasidic prophet. So Grampa Daveed moved outside the shtetl, to the real America – Astoria, Queens. He opened a ladies’ sportswear store. And charged retail for a change.
Daveed had a problem right away. There were Blue Laws that prohibited working on Sunday, and in the real America, a merchant did a whole week’s business on Saturday, our sabbath. Daveed maintained he was still an orthodox Jew. He just cheated a little, he worked on shabbos, to make a living for his family.
My father, Israel Yaakov ben Daveed, was born in the back of the store, among the Playtex Living Bras and girdles. He didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, either. He became a "professional man", a dentist. The pay was better, the hours, shorter, and he didn’t have to give 2 for 1 sales. But no matter how prosperous my father became, he never forgot his roots, either. He always kept a cash register up front, with his nurse, like a good retailer.
After a short time, Israel Yaakov did what other successful men did – he moved to the suburbs. He joined a Reformed Temple, and he also worked on Shabbos – the difference was, he didn’t feel guilty about it like his father Daveed.
The Zalman in my name came from my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather. He is remembered for his lousy jokes, and eating too much. As you can see, I inherited his personality
Which bring us to me. I went to Gallus High School on Long Island. My Jewish education consisted solely of memorizing the phonetic words to my bar mitzvah haf torah. What I remember most was the pain of being a Jew, how my toochus hurt from sitting through three incredibly long services every year- Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Passover. When I wouldn’t sit still, Israel Yaakov gave me a k-nock on the back of my head. When I got older, and too big to k-nock, my father threatened to stop feeding me, and not pay for college, so I would have to dig ditches for the rest of my miserable life. I sat still.
When I grew up and could support myself, I stopped going to temple. If you asked me my religion, I answered like Woody Allen – I was Jewish, but with an explanation
That is the story of my name, Zalman Velvel ben Israel Yaakov. It represents four generations, from Rabbi Velvel, F.F.B., Frumme from Birth, to me, B.A.B.J. – Born American, Barely Jewish. I used my Hebrew name, once, at my bar mitzvah, and then never again.
Though my name is not a typical name, the results are typical of what is happening to secular American Jews.
Now, my story took a sharp, and interesting turn three years ago. I met Yitzhok Yaakov ben Lema, Rabbi Minkowicz, the Hasidic messenger from Heights of Crown. Rabbi Minkowicz began calling me by Hebrew name, even when not in temple. He made me realize, that even with the material success my family achieved in America, I had a spiritual longing that was not being fulfilled. It was the call of Velvel, telling me, "Zalman, come home! Shabbos is starting and your dinner is getting cold!"
So with the Rabbi leading, I began my chuvah, my return, to my Jewish roots. I began reading the Bible, our Torah. The women in my family lit candles on Friday night. My family started spending shabbos together. I stopped working Saturdays. I grew a beard. I wore a Yamika outside temple.
And then came the most difficult adjustment – I stopped eating spare ribs, shrimp, and lobster. Now my father complains I’m too Jewish. He can’t enjoy eating out with me anymore.
I promised right up front I was going to keep this short, and boring, and so far, I’ve kept my word, haven’t I?
I now want to close with an amazing revelation I had recently, while shopping in Publix Supermarket. I was in the produce department, squeezing melons, when a gentile friend who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, came up and tapped me on the back. He said he almost didn’t recognize me, what with my yamika and beard. We engaged in some small talk, and then came the revelation.
He asked me, "Are you happier being more Jewish?"
I said yes, and he left shortly after that. But the question stayed with me, haunted me. "Am I happier being more Jewish?"
My first thought was, "What a silly question ! What does happiness have to do with being Jewish?" A Jew suffers. Your mother teaches you guilt, your father, fear, and then there’s the indigestion.
But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced it was a great question. I decided that the truest answer would come, not from me, but from the people closest to me. And I also decided I wasn’t going to beg the answer, but make the question more general.
I started with my wife. I said, "Honey, since I’ve become more Jewish, have I changed?"
She looked at me, and answered, "To tell you the truth, you have become a little better husband, maybe a touch more considerate." And then she added, and I quote, "But you still have a long way to go."
Then I went to my son and asked, "Since I’ve become more Jewish, have I changed?"
David studied me, and then answered, "Dad, to tell you the truth, I think you are a little better father now, a little more generous. Maybe, it’s only with your time, but that’s still something."
And then he added, and I quote, "But you still have a long way to go."
I finished my poll with Rabbi Minkowicz. "Rabbi, since I’ve become more Jewish, have I changed?"
The Rabbi stroked his beard, and then answered. "Zalman, you’re becoming a real mensch, a human being, but …"
No, he didn’t say it. He’s too nice to say it. What he did say was, "We shouldn’t stop studying together just yet."
So now I am forced to the conclusion that since I’ve become more Jewish, I’m on the ROAD to becoming a better person, but … I still have long way to go.
And I, Zalman Velvel ben Israel Yaakov, want to thank everyone here, from the bottom of my heart, for your support.
Thank you, and good night.
How did you feel about the story? Please send me your thoughts, feedback and comments. Also, would you like me to give this presentation to your audience? Please let me know as well … Thank you!
You may print this story for yourself, but you may not copy it without permission from the author.
Copyright 1997 & 2004 by Zalman Velvel Inc. All Rights Reserved.