Call Me Duhan (On Spiritual Names in Torah)

IMG_8868Torah says: God chooses the lead designers for the sanctuary. God says, I am calling them by name (Exodus 31:2).

Does God mean: “Hey, Moses, pick the men with these birth names”? Or, “I’m bestowing titles on these leaders”? Or, “I’m giving them new personal names that express their mission”?

Here are the facts; you decide.

The executive director, responsible for the overall vision, is named Betzalel Ben Uri, which means: in the image of God, a reflection of my light.

The deputy director in charge of implementation is named Oholiav Ben Achisamach, which means: father of the tent where I shelter my brothers.

In these names, I see an expression of these artists’ mission.

Is such a symbolic naming only a literary phenomenon? Or might we see it in real life? In a Jew’s Hebrew name perhaps, or in a religious name taken with monastic vows, or a name chosen while praying for a new direction?

I certainly see it in my Hebrew name, Leah Beruriah bat Baruch HaLevi v’Rivka
Leah Beruriah, daughter of my father Baruch the Levite and my mother Rivka

That’s five names rolled into one.

Two names sit at the outer edges of the list. Leah and Rivkah are Biblical names that reflect our ancestors’ shepherding culture. Leah means “wild mother cow” and Rivkah means “cattle team.” I love those names and certainly lived into them as a mother, organizing and directing my team. These “outer” names evoke my public roles as mother and family person.

Three names sit inside that frame. Beruriah means “spiritual clarity,” Baruch means “Blessed” and “HaLevi” means the one who accompanies. These “inner” names — spiritual clarity, emerging from the blessed accompanier — express my highest hopes for my intellectual life. As a teacher, I accompany others on their learning. Through teaching, I gain clarity. I hope students gain clarity as they learn with me!

Can an ordinary given name also be symbolic of a mission? Mine certainly is!

My name is Laura Duhan Kaplan.

Laura is a variation on Laurel, a beautiful flowering tree. Its flowers are little stars that pop open and hang in colourful bunches.

Duhan means “platform”; specifically the platform from which cohanim, priests, delivered the priestly blessing. In Yiddish, “to duchen” has become a verb meaning “to deliver the priestly blessing.” Kaplan is an Eastern European variation on Cohen, priest.

My ordinary everyday English name is: The flowering tree of priestly blessing delivered by the priests.

The priestly blessing (Numbers 6:22-27) says:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God shine the Divine presence towards you and be gracious towards you (or, with a modern Hebrew twist: and educate you).
May God lift God’s face towards you and grant you peace.

I confess: I am trying to live this mission. To facilitate God’s presence in eduction, by working as a theological educator. And to turn the peaceful face of God towards us, by focusing my work on interfaith study and dialogue.

Yes, my name is Laura Duhan Kaplan.

Many people casually shorten it to Laura Kaplan.

But Laura Kaplan is not my name!

It’s the name of a scholar who wrote a book on an underground abortion network — whose speaking invitations I sometimes received.

It’s the name of a delightful, stylish woman who volunteered at a Jewish Community Center — whose reminder phone calls I sometimes received.

It’s the name of a woman whose medical records got confused with mine — a confusion that prevented me from receiving needed medication.

Laura Duhan Kaplan — that one is my name!

You know the angsty teen experience of feeling like a misfit in your own family. My angst was especially intense — I lived so deeply in my philosophical thoughts! So, I wondered: where did I come from? who was my real family?

One day I attended an extended family gathering at the home of my late cousin Philip Duhan Segal. Fifty Duhans had gathered to remember Philip’s mother. Fifty intellectuals. Fifty artists. Fifty people thirsty for a deep understanding of every topic of conversation.

This, I knew, was my real family, and my right name.

A few old friends simply call me “Duhan.”

You can too. I don’t care if you mispronounce it. Just don’t leave it out! Because duchannen, delivering the message of the priestly blessing, seems to be my life work!

Image: Mountain Laurel, grown by Charles Kaplan

  1. Hi Reb Laura Duhan,
    I enjoy your writings… I’ve been on my own spiritual journey this past few years & last month met my birth sister in Melbourne for the first time and reconnected with a beloved friend or two. I could write pages of this experience but the best part is I felt real and authentic… Being me and having an open heart. In my daily life I cannot do that. Maybe it all has to do with the question “what is your true name?”
    So let me share a Haiku I wrote, it just appeared one night:

    A thousand strangers
    Each in a universe of love
    And sorrow. Life flows.

    Best regards to you & your family,
    (Barmitzvah mom)

    1. Shabbat shalom to you, your family, and your ever-growing talented sons. Blessings to you on connecting with these parts of yourself and finding such happy feelings there. Thank you for the beautiful haiku that simultaneously expresses separateness and togetherness.

  2. Your father gave me the ‘Priestly blessing’ meaning many years ago and the notion resonated with me from then, I was born on a street in Limerick, Ireland which was called, little Jerusalem and contained the Jewish community, many of whom landed in Ireland as immigrants on ships which were manned by unscrupulous officers who told the immigrants they had arrived in New York or Boston. Thus leaving space to pick up a second lot of immigrants from a starving Irish population. My family tradition tells us stories of my Aunts lighting fires for pious Jews who could not on the Sabbath. There was a pogrom in 1913, I believe. The Synagogue and Jewish businesses were attacked and many ‘Jewmen’ beaten.

    1. Thanks, Eric! For the possible links to our family history, for remembering my father, and for being outrageously creative you.

  3. What a blessing to know the blessing in your name! Shabbat Shalom! Adinah Patricia Hickman

    1. Thanks, Adina! Your name, based on “Eden” is a wonderful one! Shabbat Shalom

  4. may i call you duhan?! what a delightful and inspiring post. i will now wade into the waters of my own name and see what sea voyage awaits me…

    shabbat shalom,


    1. Thanks, Wendy! I look forward to your insights! And yes, you can call me Duhan!

  5. this is a vast improvement over what the urban dictionary says Duhan means

    1. Oh my gosh, that’s hysterical! Time to join urban dictionary and post an update. Shabbat Shalom to you and Deirdre.

  6. My yiddish name is Bluma! I hid from it for years…but not now. I refer to myself as a late ‘Bluma!’
    I got married somewhat late, had my children somewhat late, and am continuing to realize my full potential as a person somewhat late in life…certainly a ‘late Bluma!’ But better late than never!

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