My first name “Hazak” means “strong” in Hebrew, but every fall growing up, I felt like the puniest, most powerless kid on the playground. Not only did my name brand me as an outsider, someone strange and foreign, I couldn’t live up to its ancient meaning. The Lower East Side of the early ‘90s where I was raised had long been a destination for generations of my Jewish ancestors coming through Ellis Island on the steerage deck of old freighters. But when I was young it was a derelict ghetto filled with frightening crackheads and hookers. I wasn’t strong enough to shield myself or my younger brother from this rough world. I didn’t have the power to sell my artist/social worker father’s paintings, whose vivid art, I thought, was better than any piece I’d seen in museums. I couldn’t stop the kindergarten classmate who abused me daily, not even strong enough to speak up and tell my parents or teachers of my secret suffering. On the playground and at home, I withdrew, became a shy, quiet bookworm of a boy taunted by the cries of my best friend who liked wrestling “Why did your parents call you that if you’re weak?”
I also took no solace in Shul. Recognizing my name in the chanting after reading the Torah made me feel even more out of place, like an archaic character who had wandered out of the desert into modern downtown Manhattan. Strangers always asked where I was from. No one believed me when I told them “the Lower East Side.” I was so branded as extremely Jewish, pigeonholed from a young age by what the world called me, that I instinctively rebelled against Synagogue and all religious trappings. Though my Zayde was a Rabbi, my father—his son-in-law—was an atheist and later a Buddhist. With Dad’s stubborn anti-religious stance fortifying me, I became the worst Hebrew School student, the most vocal about disavowing Judaism. I was stuck with my name and that was enough.
When I was accepted to an artsy high school where kids would do anything to grab the spotlight, “Hazak” became a badge of honor. I majored in visual arts at LaGuardia, desperate to fulfill my father’s failed dreams of becoming a famous artist. To a degree, my name now fit my purpose. It was bold: people either never forgot it or forgot it immediately yet remembered my face, my ill-fitting vintage clothes, the boy who was different. I decided “strong” had many meanings, translated them to risky and promiscuous.
By 19, I hid handles of Jim Beam behind my bed pillows. Drinking finally made me feel omnipotent, all powerful. When my family confronted me, I got wasted and haughtily informed them I was going to be a celebrity. The truth was, after the booze wore off, I was terrified and as always, felt weak, alone, not able to live up to the name I had grown to hate bearing the meaning of.
Then I met a girl on Myspace. I was 20, she was 14. It was one of the last in a string of inappropriate relationships. I was too focused on self-destruction to really love anyone else, let alone myself. Though we never consummated our illicit romance, she started calling me “Royal.” At first I thought it was a stupid, gaudy title, but she imbued it with her sweetness, her brash naivete and it became my escape, even after we ended our flirtation. My chance to undo all the hurtful, hateful, shame that Hazak had wreaked, a way to erase the years of self-doubt and constantly being pegged as a foreigner in my own city. Except Royal was an even bigger name to fill. My family saw it as treason.
“Is it because you hate being Jewish?” Mom cried.
“No, I love being Jewish, but being called ‘Hazak’ was like walking around wrapped in an Israeli flag,” I tried to console her.
“You got lucky,” Dad screamed at me. “We were going to call you Shtarky, in Yiddish, but we thought, no the kid will hate us with a name like that.”
Yet, I took to “Royal” naturally. I was used to sticking out and it felt good to own my moniker again, to shake hands and introduce myself proudly. I cut down on drinking and started getting published under my new byline. Small articles that didn’t pay my rent but made me feel for the first time in my life, able to provide for myself. I was more comfortable with a name that people pinned to a profession rather than a religion. Now that Hebrew wasn’t defining my entire identity, I could make space for it as part of who I was. I began to go to synagogue occasionally with Mom. I was able to appreciate the joy Judaism brought her and connect with my own Jewish roots. I didn’t read along in the prayer book, but liked the liberal Rabbi’s sermons filled with poetry and confessional personal anecdotes. That appreciation for my culture grew as I became close with my Babbi and Zayde, begging to hear stories of the shtetl or their own upbringing as first generation Jewish immigrants. Though I’d insisted everyone else in my life start calling me “Royal,” that name sounded wrong on their tongues. I loved the way they pronounced “Hazak” with a rasping “Ch” sound at the beginning. I started sprinkling Yiddish into my speech proudly claiming I had “desert blood.”
It’s been five years since I went from Hazak to Royal, enough for friends and family to know this is not a phase or a whim. Enough for me to embrace the traditions of my heritage while building a persona uniquely my own. Enough for me to love my old name as much as my new one, both bold, powerful statements about who I’ve become: a strong man. After all, my two names aren’t so different.
Royal Young recently completed his debut memoir “Fame Shark.” Follow him on Twitter.