What Kind of a Name is That? Part 1

I’ve been surprised at how much readers want to know about the author—the personal “story behind the story.” This much is true: I belonged to a synagogue youth group in which our president was interested in philosophy and universally acknowledged as gorgeous; I attended a high school where I was one of less than ten Jews; and I owe my still-solid foundation in biology to Miss Niles.

The rest is fiction.


My parents named me Adah. It was only four letters, but no one in Minneapolis could pronounce it or spell it. By the time I was sixteen, I’d grown to hate the inevitable question: “What kind of a name is that?”

I never told a stranger the plain truth, which was that my name was Jewish. In Minneapolis, I was a member of a small minority, and I knew it. My parents insisted that we were special in our difference. But they made me more different still. My father was a freethinking academic who refused to live in the Jewish suburb or to join a synagogue. I went to an inner-city high school, where fifty of my classmates were Native American and two hundred were black. But only ten were Jews.  Laura Silber, whose family belonged to Temple Zion, sat behind me in biology class. Laura was pretty, curvy, and confident, but she was Jewish, and that gave us one thing in common. When she got a C on a midwinter test in biology, she came to me. “My lab notes are hopeless,” she said. “You get straight A’s. Show me yours.”

I had never expected to do well in science, but biology fascinated me. Miss Rasmussen, my biology teacher, treated her subject with enthusiasm and respect. In her class, osmosis and cell division and the genetic code were mysteries that I understood.

When we finished, Laura ran her hands through her curly hair and said, “It’s easy for you. You’ve got the best lab partner in class.”

My lab partner was Anders Larssen, who earned his A’s as easily as I did. He was soft-spoken and friendly, and I lost my usual shyness around him. “Anders?”

“He’s smart. And nice-looking.”

Anders was tall and rawboned. He had fine blond hair, blue-gray eyes, and a thin skin that easily showed a blush. His hands were large, the skin pale, the fingers strong and capable. I had never thought of him as handsome. And he was as un-Jewish as anyone could be.

Laura would understand my dilemma. I blurted out, “How do you meet Jewish boys?”

She laughed. “Jewish boys? At Temple Zion, of course.” She considered. “Come to our youth group meeting.”

“My family doesn’t belong there.”

“It doesn’t matter. I can pick you up. Seven? This Saturday night?”


When we arrived I remembered my parents’ contempt for the Jews of the suburbs. “Country club Judaism,” my father would say. This is where the Jews are, I thought. Where the Jewish boys are. I walked into the house.

The furniture was too new and the carpet was too thick. A Chagall reproduction hung on the living room wall. Our hostess, a round-faced girl named Vicky Rosen, led us down the stairs to the rec room. Pine paneling covered the rec room walls and an enormous pool table stood in the middle of the floor.

The rec room was full of people I had never met. Girls sat on the sofa, giggling. Boys clustered around the pool table. I edged into a corner, watching. Everyone knew everyone else. No one asked me to join in. My parents are right, I thought. This house is ugly and these people are stupid. I wish I’d never come.

I heard Laura’s voice: “Adah, why are you hiding in the corner? I want you to meet someone.”

Next to Laura was the most beautiful Jewish boy I had ever seen. He was tall and fine-boned, wide-shouldered and narrow-hipped. He had black hair, melting dark eyes, and a dusky cast to his skin. I thought suddenly of the Song of Songs: “I am dark but comely, daughters of Jerusalem.”  Laura said, “This is Adam Cohen. Adam is our president. And our philosopher.”

Adam extended his hand. “Laura has told me all about you, Adah. I’m glad you could be here tonight.”

“How do you do,” I stammered, too self-conscious to shake his hand.

Laura said, “Adah’s a genius in biology.”

I shook my head. It was bad enough to be so smart. It was worse to be introduced as a genius. I asked Adam, “Do you study philosophy?”

He looked pleased. “I read a little.”

“What are you reading now?”

“Spinoza,” he said. “The Theologico-Political Treatise. You should look at it sometime.”

“I will,” I promised him.

After that I watched Adam. Wherever he sat people came to him. Some of it was youth group business. Vicky asked him about planning a party for Purim. Some of it was religious. I overheard a jocular question: “Adam, is marijuana kosher for Passover?” Some of it was personal. Adam listened, his face grave, his eyes sympathetic, as though he had never heard anything so important.

Momentarily alone, he slouched in his chair and closed his eyes. Laura perched next to him and bent to whisper something in his ear. His eyes flew open. As he smiled, I felt a hot stab of jealousy.

Vicky dimmed the lights, and everyone sat in a circle, cross-legged on the floor. “Come sit with me, Adah,” Adam said, smiling. My heart soared. I sat. Vicky lit the braided Havdalah candle, blessed it, and held it aloft. Adam took my right hand. I felt jubilant at his touch. Then I realized that I wasn’t chosen. Everyone had joined hands.

Someone began to sing softly in Hebrew. Disappointed, I whispered to Adam, “What does it mean?”

“Isaiah,” he whispered back. “’Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they shall not learn war any more.’”

Someone began another song, and my left hand was let go. Adam continued to hold my right hand. His touch was intimate, as though he were touching my face. “What is this song?” I asked him, leaning so close that my hair brushed his shoulder.

“The Song of Songs.” As the rest of the group sang, he translated, his breath warm against my ear, “Rise, my love, my beauty, and come away. Winter is over, and flowers appear on the earth. The time of song has come, the voice of the dove is heard. Come with me from Lebanon, from Mount Hermon. You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride.”

I gazed into his melting eyes and held his slender hand. I wanted to follow him wherever he went.