In Search of my True Name

I was born in June of 1948, a baby-boomer.

I was the first girl born in my family and extended family for more than eighteen years. Because I was expected to be a boy, I was named after my cousin Bobby Friedlander, who was killed in World War II. But I was a girl. As a result, they added an “e” on to the end of my name. B-O-B-B-Y-E.

I lucked out with my middle name. There is a law among the Ashkenazi Jews: “Do not name your children after someone who is still living.” My mother took the first initial of my Uncle Jack’s mother, Zelda, may she rest in peace. Mom used the ” Z” and came up with the name Zorina. (Vera Zorina was a famous ballet dancer.)

I was called Bobbye, but I knew that wasn’t my true name.

When my brothers each went through their Bar Mitzvah ritual at the age of thirteen, I became aware that they had Hebrew names.

What was mine? My parents said they didn’t remember. I was adamant that someone in the family would know. After reminding them to call Aunt Florie, or Aunt Ida, or Uncle Pick, they told me that my name was Kleine Shtunkheit. Okay, I thought, not too catchy, but it is my Hebrew name. I announced to the world… this is my name! Ta Daa!

I proudly carried my name until I found out that Kleine Shtunkheit was Yiddish, not Hebrew, and it meant “little stinker.”  Ha ha.  Everyone thought was very funny. Not. I was serious about wanting a name.  A special name. A name that would fit me.

I moved to California during my favorite decade, the sixties. I introduced myself to the world as Zorina. Since I had already been calling myself that secretly for years it was great to know it could be my name for others. I learned things related to my exotic name: belly dancing, tarot card reading at the Renaissance Faire, busking on street corners, and being a special person. I loved my name Zorina. Yet I felt that there was another name waiting for me. My true name. Maybe a secret name.

This special name would resonate within every cell in my body and open a path the true purpose of my incarnation. This name would be a superpower, cape, and magic feather all in one. Everyone who heard it spoken would recognize me. Doors would be opened. I would be understood. It may have been magical thinking , but that is what I hoped for.

I began to learn to drum in the late eighties with Nigerian musician, Baba Olatunji. I was smitten with all things African and connected to Baba.

And, I thought it important to understand my own Jewish roots before adopting another culture. I began studying Hebrew and prepared for my Bat Mitzvah initiation. A year passed. I read from the Torah. I received my real Hebrew name, Tzipporah, Moses’ wife. I was delighted. I had roots. I began to study Hebrew and Judaism more intensely. I even considered studying for the rabbinate.

Two years later I found myself yearning again. This practice was not satisfying the craving that I felt for spirituality, ritual, and community. I found myself arguing with the form of liturgical prayer and wanted to rewrite the entire Sabbath service. I noticed that I didn’t like the limitations of the Old Testament in the modern era.  I was against some of the politics of Israel. I didn’t want to be one of the Chosen People.  Not a good idea for me to continue toward rabbinical study.

My  continuing passion for drumming inspired my curiosity in African rituals and ceremony. I wanted to show respect to the drum culture I was absorbing.  I wanted learn and understand  the meaning of the rhythmic patterns, chants and dances of the orishas— the deities (or energies) belonging to the Yoruba religion called Ifa. (Ifa was part of Baba’s lineage, as well as other teachers I had studied with.)

I went to a babalawo, an Ifa priest, for divination and for advice about learning Yoruba chants and rituals.  He threw the opele or sacred palm nuts to read my life lesson. He told me that I should  become initiated into Ifa.

I thought about it.  White girl, Jewish, already weird in my neighborhood.

But there were two things that attracted me.

One was the idea of having protection.

In the male dominated world of drumming, I was a target. It would be great to feel as though something spiritual would have my back. The second reason was this: as an Ifa initiate I would receive a spiritual name. Maybe this is the one.

Before I turned fifty, I was initiated into Ifa.  I received my elekes–spiritual beads. I wore only white clothing for a year. And I was given my spiritual name–Ifatola, follower of Ifa. I was interested in learning the chants and dances of the orishas, but for some reason the information wasn’t transmitted. I didn’t know if it was because I was white. I continued to attend ceremonies and rituals, and asked to learn, but nothing happened. Over time, the path of Ifa dried up for me.


The last story regarding my seeking a name occurred in my relationship with my drum teacher Baba. Baba Olatunji was an important mentor and spiritual inspiration. I knew that he had given names to some of his troupe members. I saw him name children. And so I asked him for a name.

In the Yoruba tradition that Baba comes from, a child is given many names. Some are pre-ordained names. Some of the names are from the family lineage.  Others speak about events that coincide with a child’s birth. A person can have up to ten or more names.

And there I was again, hoping that somehow a name from Baba would free me from the karma and suffering of my life.

He was concerned. Would I use this name publicly? No, I said. It would be private.

I think I was just wanting something from him that would empower me on this path.

I waited for more than six years for Baba to give me a name.  Once a year I would bring up the subject and then let go of it. It was a dance.

I spoke to Baba’s cousin Akiwowo and asked him, ”Had Baba forgotten that asked for a name?”  “No,” he said. “He is thinking about it, Give him time.”

One evening, I knocked on Akiwowo’s door. He answered something back in Yoruba. I thought he asked if I was at the door. I answered yes. But oddly enough, I said yes to my name.

Without my knowing it, Akiwowo and Baba had thinking about choosing one of two different names for me. That night, when I came to the door, Akiwowo spoke one of the names. When I answered “yes,” he believed that this was the right one for me.

My name suits me. It is an accurate representation of the power of my personality in both light and shadow. My name means “the spirit of the forest that lets things breathe.” Pretty damn cool.  And no, I am not telling you what it is. It is my secret name, whispered in the night. It is north star, a tuning fork. Because the Yoruba language is tonal, I had to learn how to sing my name. It took time. I had to find the notes on the scale and put the syllables of the name to the tones.

I know now that I will from time to time crave something ineffable– a name, a mala or sacred beads, or an event that connects me to me– and a sense of my purpose. It may take time to find this special information that quiets my craving, inspires me, reignites my passion. And when this moment happens I will remember again, as I hope you do for yourself, the magic of being.

And remember your true name.