I’ve really always been Tova, even when I wasn’t. It just took the U.S. government 26 years to know what everyone else already did. Most people in my life, when I told them I was changing my name to Tova this year, gave me a puzzled look, and said, “but you are Tova.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I was born in a small town in Upstate New York. When I say Upstate, I don’t mean the Hudson Valley. I don’t mean Albany. I don’t even mean those Finger Lakes with funny names. I mean that catching a baseball game to us meant heading across the border to watch the Montreal Expos, and that most signs in town had French to benefit the Canadians who came down before our Air Force base closed and tanked the economy. Needless to say, though my parents remind me all the time, there wasn’t much of a Jewish community there.
My older brother and sister got vaguely Jewish names, names that could pass for standard American ones no one thought twice about. But when their third and final child was born, my parents decided to really up the Jewish ante.
“Tova,” they told visitors, back in the days when mothers spent a few days in the hospital post-partum. “Toba? Tofa?” they parroted back. They had never heard such a name, never been around such Jewishness, such otherness. As my parents tell it, when I would exasperatedly ask how I ended up with my name, they say they decided it would be “too hard for people.” Instead, they looked up the closest English equivalent. I guess in the 1980s androgynous names were in, as they landed on –Toby.
Toby is not a little girl. Toby is a cartoon mouse with overalls and a red baseball cap. Toby makes me shudder every time I say it, makes me irritated every time I have to reveal it to a new person. Toby is my cheeks flushing red hot the first day of Chemistry when the teacher calls it out and everyone laughs, assuming the teacher made a mistake, until they see my reaction. Toby is the prodding for weeks when they find out about my “little boy name.”
“But “Toby” is cute!” some say when they find out it’s my “real” name. Toby may be cute, but Toby is not me.
I really was Toby until I was 7. Everyone and everything said it. Then my family picked up and moved to Minnesota to a town with a marginally larger Jewish population, and I asked my parents if I could start going by Tova. I somehow always knew I was supposed to be Tova. I knew it was what my parents had meant to name me, and it was always my Jewish name. I remember nervously going up to my second grade teacher, feeling foolish, and asking if she would call me Tova instead.
Tova slowly crept in. I somehow became registered for school as Tova, got my first license and checking account as Tova, bank and DMV lackeys not noticing or not caring. But anything that went with a social security card or birth certificate remained Toby. I traveled internationally as Toby but domestically as Tova. I was Toby to my college but Tova to my grad school and high school. Toby for the SATs but Tova for the W-2. I was somehow both to the IRS. I was in limbo, in these two worlds.
I had always meant to change it legally, but the few times I looked into it, it seemed too daunting. The cost, the time, the legalese was overwhelming. But it always lingered, and when it did come up, I would feel helpless and embarrassed, feeling the need to hide plane tickets and diplomas. I hate—HATE—that my diploma says Toby, and I do not display it proudly.
When I moved to Philadelphia last year, I went to the DMV to get my Pennsylvania license. I handed them my Missouri license, which said Tova, and my supporting documents, which said Toby, and I crossed my fingers, feeling dread creep in as they reviewed my documents. In Missouri, I had tried this at several locations before I got someone who wasn’t paying attention sufficiently and gave me a “Tova” license. In Philly, I was told I could not be given a Tova license with a Toby passport and social security card. They could only give me a Toby license, which was not an option for me, both because of my shame and because my credit cards all said Tova. Someone was finally doing their job, and Toby – that little mouse – had caught up to me. I tried two more locations, but those Penn DOT workers are sharp-eyed. My time for Tova had come.
I asked my parents for the money – more than $900 between the fingerprints, newspaper publications (2), petition to the court, background checks from every state I’d ever lived in, and random “filing fees” that seemed redundant to me. They forked it over, clearly feeling guilty for the decision they made when they put pen to paper in 1988. That didn’t even include the cost of the new license, new social security card, and new passport, or the four days I had to take off from work over three months for various filings that could only happen in this room in City Hall or that room at Family Court. Also not included was my trip to get fingerprinted in a van parked outside INS in North Philly, where they assured me they were legitimate enterprise despite using a bucket for steps and spraying my hands (with what I imagine was windshield cleaner) over an open-air trash can filled with fast food wrappers. What it did include, however, was a consolidation of my identity that had been broken for 26 years. Each piece of red tape I cut felt like a tiny triumph towards something bigger than two letters.
Tova is a name I’m proud to say. Tova is good. Tova is sweet. Tova is happy. I hear Tova in greetings for the New Year, in prayers by those around me. I see a look of recognition from Jews – “you belong” – and a head tilt from non-Jews – “what a pretty name! What does it mean?” Toby didn’t belong in rural New York any more than Tova would, even though I know my parents thought they were trying to protect me.
With my dog on my birthday at the restaurant where I had my name change party
When I got the final paperwork in the mail (and paid $46.78 for someone to put a seal on it), I had a name-change party with close friends and family at a little Italian restaurant on the Schuylkill River. My brother-in-law handed out “Hello, my name is …” name tags to the guests. Each had one of my nicknames, one of my identities. Tova, Toby, Toto (to my niece and nephew), Tbaum. But I made sure that I was Tova. Toby? She’s that little mouse over there with the baseball cap.
Tova grew up in New York, Minnesota, and RI (and at OSRUI in Wisconsin) before spending her adulthood in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and St. Louis, and settling into Philadelphia (finally escaping the need to live in the rust belt) last year. She is a social worker housing homeless veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Philadelphia, she likes hiking in the Wissahickon Valley with her whippet mix, Lolly, exploring the local culinary offerings, and hanging out with her twin three-year-old niece and nephew, who she thinks hate her, but she hopes think she's the coolest.
To read more posts in the "In With the New" blog series, click here.