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What's in a Name?

From God's naming of Adam to Tony's love of the name Maria in West Side Story, Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand explores the power of names we use for ourselves and for each other.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand explores the importance of names, drawing upon a wide range of sources, from God's bestowal of Adam's name in the book of Genesis to T S Elliot's poem about the ineffable naming of cats.

With the help of the Israeli poet Zelda, Shoshana finds that we are defined by more than just the name we use on a daily basis. Shoshana explains that each of her names "reflects an essential part of my identity, although none of them capture the entirety of my true self."

With readings from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, along with Leonard Bernstein's adaptation in West Side Story, Shoshana hears how names also have the power to divide us.

The process of naming is inextricably linked to power. Those in charge can strip us of our names. Shoshana references the dehumanising effect of names becoming numbers during the Holocaust. Listening to Les Misérables, Shoshana hears how the prisoner Jean Valjean battles to retain his own name when a police inspector refers to him only as 24601.

For Shoshana, perhaps the most powerful aspect of names is when a name is gifted to another. Giving a name, as Shoshana argues, "is part of the creative act itself... we express our deep connection to something larger than ourselves - perhaps even to the One who is beyond all names."

Presenter: Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
Producer: Tom Glasser
A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4.

30 minutes

Last on

Sun 13 May 2018 23:30

Music Played

  • Charles Fox, Norman Gimbel

    I Got a Name

    Performer: Jim Croce.
    • I Got a Name.
    • BMG.
  • T. S. Eliot

    The Naming of Cats

    Performer: T. S. Eliot.
    • Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
    • The Digital Gramophone.
  • Sergei Prokofiev

    Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, Act 1: No. 13, Dance of the Knights (Complete Ballet)

    Performer: André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra.
    • Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet.
    • EMI Records.
  • Leonard Bernstein


    Performer: Jim Bryant, Johnny Green & West Side Story Orchestra.
    • West Side Story (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).
    • Sony Music Entertainment.
  • Patrick Leonard

    You Want It Darker

    Performer: Leonard Cohen.
    • You Want It Darker.
    • Sony Music Entertainment.
  • Abbott and Costello

    Who’s on First

    Performer: Abbott and Costello.
    • Abbott & Costello - Best of the Radio Shows.
    • Abbott & Costello.
  • Claude‐Michel Schönberg

    Look Down

    Performer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe & Convicts.
    • Les Misérables (The Motion Picture Soundtrack).
    • Polydor.
  • Carole King

    You’ve Got a Friend

    Performer: Carole King.
    • Tapestry.
    • Sony Music Entertainment.


Title: Each of Us Has a Name           

Author: Zelda, Marcia Lee Falk (trans)

Publisher: Hebrew Union College


Title: The Naming of Cats    

Author: T. S. Eliot       

Publisher: Faber & Faber


Title: Romeo & Juliet

Author: William Shakespeare

Publisher: Penguin Classics


Title: Genesis 22:11, King James Version    

Publisher: HarperCollins


Title: Exodus 3:4, King James Version                     

Publisher: HarperCollins


Title: Genesis 46: 2, New Living Translation                       

Publisher: Tyndale House


Title: You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation    

Author: Deborah Tannen       

Publisher: HarperCollins