When my parents named me, they continued a pattern of naming that they had set early in their lives as parents by choosing my moniker from the list of 50 most popular names in the year … well, in nearly forever. I was called James. It was noted by my mother that I was named for a family friend who I remember vaguely as a very old man when I was a very young boy.
Presumably I was also baptized James, but I’ve never seen this in writing. I like to think that my grandmother (also serving as godmother) held sway and might have insisted on an even more saintly name – perhaps Bonaventure, in honor of the saint associated with my birthday. After all, my grandfather, known in life as Sam, was baptized Almedas and was known by this name into childhood. Predictably I was to be called Jim or Jimmy, unavoidable diminutives meant to last a lifetime.
My first nickname came from my father: Number 7 Son. It’s self-explanatory. Like so many intangible gifts, it is a treasure to me. Only he called me this and why it occurred to him, aside from the simple logic, I do not know. Next, I became LaTree, or Tree for short. This too is self-explanatory, if you know my last name (LaForest). It was assigned to me by my 7th grade math teacher as a joke, but it stuck and I would be known as Tree by my classmates throughout the rest of my schooling.
The first opportunity to name myself came with confirmation at age 14. When I was told that I needed to choose a confirmation name to tell Bishop Szoka when he laid hands to confirm me, I self-consciously choose John. This was the name of my brother (number 2 son?) who had passed away several years prior. It never felt like mine. Intended to honor, it only served to lengthen a period of mourning that had already gone on too long. God love him – there were better ways to remember his life.
Later on in my youth, my closest friend took to calling me by my last name, just LaForest. If LaTree singled me out in school it was as a friendly, messy-haired kid. LaForest was a reminder of who I really was. It felt manly to be called LaForest, even if we were still just boys ourselves. It felt serious and was part of a bond that I had with no one else. Such is the power of naming. Like Number 7 Son, it was more than just a name. It became an epithet for Friendship. Years later, during basic training, my last name was used routinely but in a very different way. It became hollow and institutional. We weren’t Stewart or Pasquale or Jose or James. We were Jones, Milachio, Garcia, and LaForest.
Growing up, I bristled at my parent’s frequent habit of calling me by my brothers’ names. But later I would be amused when a drill sergeant called me LaFrost or a store clerk transformed me into Al Farez. In my university years I was called Jim L., pronounced Jamell, by my coworkers at a party store where so many guys named Jim worked that the rest couldn’t keep us all straight. In my later twenties I decided to go with James in my work and social lives. This was a transition that met with surprising resistance. It evoked scorn and condescension from a few who thought it the height of pretentiousness. Maybe so. Still, it is my name.
When I converted to Judaism at 27, I had the opportunity to take a Hebrew name for myself. When asked what I had chosen, I paused for a moment and the rabbi proffered Yosef which I accepted without question. Joseph. It immediately filled me with conflict. I was to be Yosef ben Avraham. To be known as Joseph in ritual moments of Jewish life was a profound irony to me. Not only did it strike me as a ‘Catholic name’ I felt I was usurping it from my father, my brother, my nephew and untold generations of grandfathers named Joseph.
A few years on, I changed my Hebrew name and called myself Asher for those moments when an English name wouldn’t do. Asher I took out of literature, from a character written by Chaim Potok in books I had loved as a teenager. It was a work of fiction, and it felt a bit more like me.
In the course of conversations however, after Shabbat services in the social hall, Asher didn’t really seem to matter. I became increasingly aware of how my surname served to undermine the ‘process-of-becoming’ what I had already formally become when my rabbi named me Yosef and declared I was a Jew.
“Nice to meet you…LaForest – is that a Jewish name?”
“Well, no, not exactly, you see…”
Wanting so much just to ‘be’ I considered changing my legal name. I thought seriously of taking my mother’s maiden name, Kaplan, which is Jewish even if she was not. And I thought perhaps I would dispense with James and choose Samuel instead: Samuel Kaplan.
“Could I be Samuel Kaplan?” I wondered.
An aunt gently prodded against it,
“LaForest is such a good name. Be proud of it. I wish it was still my name.”
I did not change my name. For the next decade I settled into being just James. Many people say they have an identity crisis at middle age. Me, I’ve been having an identity crisis for 45 years. But, arriving at middle age I am now more than happy I am still LaForest. I am tickled when an older relative calls me Jimmy. Memories come flooding back with LaTree.
I think of all the names I have been given and how they shaped me in subtle ways. And I think of the names I have given myself. You only get so many chances to name yourself; a rare opportunity to frame your own identity. But as I start what I hope is the second half of my life, I can do little more than affirm that which my parents gave me, just as it has been toyed with, teased out, mispronounced, judged, and will one day be forgotten. For now I am just James. I am LaForest. I am Number 7 Son.