Naming Rights

by David Sanders

Look, it doesn’t always work out this way. If it does, it is interesting, dare I say provocative, when people’s last names are an uncanny reveal of a characteristic uniquely associated with them. It did not go unnoticed that the surname of the police officer who murdered George Floyd was Chauvin. I blogged about that a while back. While reference to chauvinism is not common parlance, I often watch myself or others hesitate when using the word trump in conversation. In addition to “beat” or “surpass” that word’s etymology derives it usage from the meaning “to fabricate or deceive” as in “fake news trumps the truth.”

Have you heard of the painter, Chuck Close? It is only when you back up and stand at a distance from the composition of his portraits that you can see the gestalt and a face emerges. How about the photographer, Gillian Wearing? Her genre is photographing herself in a variety of masks. Her exhibition at the Guggenheim was aptly titled: Gillian Wearing Wearing Masks.

Names have always intrigued the imagination. The filmmaker Alan Berliner (The Sweetest Sound) convened as many men as he could find who shared both his first and last name. Perhaps he should have filmed the dinner party he threw for them in Berlin but he did discover some interesting similarities even if his doppelgänger was a no show. Alan asked toward the end of his film: “Does my name make me who I am or do I determine the meaning of my name?” Did “Wearing” lead Gillian to use a conceit of wearing masks and did “Close” have Chuck paint up close so the image only comes into focus from afar?

According to Nominative Determinism (a new term for me) people gravitate towards areas of work that fit their name. Was Usain Bolt destined to be the fastest man in the world or the tree climbing world champion carry the moniker Scott Forrest?

Not much was made of surnames in the Kabbalah tradition as last names were not introduced into Jewish life until medieval times. First names though were seen as carrying with them a spiritual destiny.

A story about Art. There were two men named Art. They would never meet in this lifetime but their widows would find a connection because of their names. I have known Joanne Kleinstein for many years—she invited me back in 2004 to teach Kabbalah in her home. Her husband Art died two years ago. As a testament to the joy and love Art exuded, a memorial cap was produced with the words “Live Like Art.” Family and friends wear the cap to honor Art and as a reminder to live life fully. One day, a woman from Cincinnati was sitting outdoors at a café in Denver and noticed a man, a friend of Art’s, walking by with a “Live Like Art” cap. She asked what the phrase meant and Art’s friend told her about his friend who died. The woman relayed that she recently lost her husband who was named Art and that he also lived life to the fullest, with joy and love. Art’s friend, touched by her story, gave her the cap made in memory of Art Kleinstein.

The story could have ended there except for a “random” meeting of two daughters at a campsite in Moab, Utah. Scrolling through her new found friend’s I-phone photos, Art Kleinstein’s daughter noticed a woman who she did not recognize wearing a “Live Like Art” cap. Turns out the young woman she met was the other Art’s daughter and the woman in the photo, Art’s widowed wife who had been gifted the cap on her visit to Denver.  Through their daughters the widows connected, two women who would never have met were it not for their husband’s sharing the same name and both Living Like Art.


P.S.  See The Art of Life (a documentary about Michael Behrens) which provides another example of what it means to Live Like Art.

1 Comment

Melanie Gruenwald · September 8, 2022 at 12:49 pm

I love that the new musical director at our synagogue’s last name is Kantor and the new rabbi’s last name is Shulman…

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