One Saturday afternoon in my Jewish sleepaway camp in the Berkshires, the girls in my bunk and I gathered in a gazebo to hear a Jewish “name expert” tell us the history of our names. On Saturday afternoon, the camp liked to schedule something a little intellectual to make us think, but nothing too strenuous. It was the Sabbath, the day of rest, after all.
Earlier that day we woke up, dressed in summer skirts and dresses, and dutifully attended Shabbat morning services in the “Bet-Am,” the meetinghouse of the camp, a run-down concrete building with camp art projects taped to the walls. Then we ate a festive Shabbat lunch, some kind of chicken dish, which was an upgrade from the camp fare we typically ate, like fish sticks and grilled cheese, in the “heder ochel,” the cafeteria, which contained rows of picnic-style tables covered in white plastic tablecloths.
All of the buildings and spaces in the camp had Hebrew names so that we would learn the language of our people, outside of the daily lessons called “kitah,” the Hebrew word for class. Each Sunday morning the bunks were inspected for cleanliness by the head of our age division. One week my bunk won the coveted prize of cleanliness, “The Golden Ya-eh,” the golden dustpan award.
That summer the sun spotted my face with freckles and covered my back with a sunburn. My hair was starting to get frizzier and much to my mother’s dismay I clomped around in ungainly but fashionable Birkenstock sandals. At least they were good for my feet, my German grandmother, Jenny, said.
I turned 11 that summer and had the top bed of a rickety metal bunk bed that shook when I ascended and descended or when my bunkmate plopped into her bed to rest or write a letter home. Nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d stare up at the roof of the old bunk, where planks of wood met to form an inverted v-shape above our heads. A bunk so old that some of the moms of the girls in my bunk might have spent a summer in it. When there were thunderstorms, I’d stare at that wooden ceiling and hope that the lightning wouldn’t burn down the shabby wooden planks.
I was the only girl in my bunk that summer with a name that was neither “nothing,” meaning a name selected by immigrant forbearers wishing to assimilate, like Green, nor stereotypically Jewish to an American ear like the Eastern European-Jewish names Goldberg and Schwartz.
My dad, a Sephardic Jew, had burdened me with an Italian last name, Lagnado, that invited crinkled eyebrows and was routinely misspelled and mispronounced at my Ashkenazi school and synagogue. Teachers regularly asked if my father had converted. Growing up, the name didn’t ever really feel Jewish enough.
“Log-na-toe” was the common mispronunciation instead of the melodic “La-ni-ado.” Though I found the name beautiful, especially when paired with my first name to form a combination that was heavy on the vowels and European-sounding, it was not an easy name to carry as a girl. My dad was an immigrant from Egypt; he and his family had been refugees when they came to New York in the 1960s. Changing their name never occurred to them.
Despite the fact that it was my first time away from my family and from New York City for so long, I was having a good summer. Though I was shy, I had somehow landed a role in the camp play, a production of “The Lion King,” that someone had translated into Hebrew. I went kayaking on the lake, made art projects, and flirted with the baseball instructor, a guy in his late teens who wore white T-shirts daily and had a scruffy face.
I enjoyed writing letters to my parents, my grandparents, my little sister, and those friends back home in Queens who hadn’t taken the plunge and gone to sleepaway camp yet. They wrote to me too, telling me about summer city things they were doing — backyard barbecues, visits to museums, to botanical gardens and to the beach on Long Island. Sometimes they sent me packages with treats for me and my bunkmates, a glossy copy of Seventeen magazine for us to pore over during rest time, kosher candies and instant soup mix that we could mix with hot tap water; maybe there would be some cash for the camp commissary with which to buy Rolos.
I nervously waited for my turn as each girl from my bunk had the history of her name described by this visiting name authority. One girl’s family, the ancestors of a girl named Shulman, must have been scholars in the old country; the ancestors of the girls whose names were Nadler and Schneider must have been tailors; another’s name, Appelbaum, had something to do with apple trees.
“Hmm,” the expert mumbled in bewilderment when he asked me my name.
“It’s Sephardic,” I tried to explain. I got the crinkled eyebrows I was used to, as well as a mispronunciation, even though I had just said my name out loud. My name seemed to be undecipherable to this Jewish name expert, confirming my fears about my place in the community. I sunk into the gazebo’s wooden bench, hoping that the name guy would just skip over me. And after a few excruciating moments, he did. He declared that he simply didn’t know the origin of my name, and moved onto the next girl.
This year I got married and changed my last name (but not my byline) to Miller, my husband’s assimilationist family name. Eleven- year-old me would have been so jealous.
But I kept Lagnado as my middle name.
Caroline Lagnado covers the visual arts for The Jewish Week.