Personal Column: What’s in a name?


Hagar Cohen

My headshot for a theater performance with my name written underneath

“When I say your name, please say ‘here’ or ‘present’,” the unfamiliar adult said in a quiet classroom. 

My worst nightmare, the biggest gamble of the day would fall upon me: Is my name going to be pronounced correctly? And if not, should I bother to correct them?

I have heard just about every single variation of my name you can think of. Most commonly “Hay-ger” or “Hey-gar” (people who know me, do not call me this). Still, I’ve never liked correcting people, especially strangers, because when am I ever going to see them again?

My family and I sit at the table eating dinner, talking about random things that are on our minds. At one point, I ask my parents a burning question I have had for a while. 

“How did you decide what to name me?” I asked them. 

Funnily enough, there’s no serious backstory other than my parents liked the name “Hagar.” When people asked, however, my parents would say it was a biblical name, so that’s the explanation I went with for a majority of my life.

Since I was 8 years old, I was always warned to never use my real name online and never give up any information about myself. Still, every weekend, I would take out my computer and visit my favorite websites. I’ve already forgotten their names, but they never knew mine. My email would be filled to the brim with messages to someone named “Mud Nature,” which is the nickname I used online. I reveled in it, it was like my second identity. To my family and friends, I was Hagar, a fun, creative and responsible kid. Yet to numerous games and websites, my name was “Mud Nature” and I was a teenager who had many things to take care of. “Mud” was a safety blanket I had worn for nearly 5 years, but by the time I was 13 years old, it was time to move on.

Me holding a birthday cake decorated with frosting and sprinkles, as well as an edible paper drawing of a childhood show and “Happy birthday Hagar!” printed on the paper (Hagar Cohen)

At the same time, pretending to be someone else when playing games with other kids was another favorite past-time of mine. From being a superhero who could manipulate the earth, to being my favorite characters from media such as “FNAF” and “Monster High,” every recess with my friend group was an adventure to be had. People would randomly join and randomly leave, but the one thing that remained constant was my confidence as other characters.

Me performing in a theater show as a character who is a boy (Hagar Cohen)

As I entered high school, feelings surrounding my identity suddenly came up to the surface as I was on a mission to figure out my true self after hiding for so long. My relationship with my name was a huge part of this journey, especially in regards to my gender. I knew I felt disconnected from full girlhood and I knew that being more neutral or masculine in regards to my pronouns felt amazing, but the societal expectations surrounding trans people’s names made me hesitant to identify as such. I tried and failed to have many nicknames as I was figuring out my gender, but ultimately, I realized that name does not equate to identity and trans-ness.

While I knew people who did decide to change their name while they were trans, I met several others who kept their birth names. I realized that my desire to have a different name also stemmed from the fact that I was tired of correcting people on the pronunciation of my name, and thoughts that if I had a more “American” name, life would be a lot easier. However, during the COVID-19 quarantine when I came to terms with my identity, I also realized that it’s okay for me to keep my Israeli name (which is feminine), while still being free to express my gender as I wished.

When I returned to school in-person during junior year, I stopped asking people to use nicknames for me. I found my confidence as Hagar, a junior at Carnegie who has a different name from the norm. For the first time, I was able to introduce myself by saying “Hi, my name is Hagar and I use they/them pronouns.” My pronouns eventually changed, but my name ultimately remained consistent.

Later that year, confident in my gender and with my name, I went to a sleepaway camp experience through BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) where I was surrounded by Jewish teens from all over the world who wanted to explore their identities and Judaism. There, I was able to come out as my true self with my true pronouns to people outside of my school environment for the first time ever, and it was amazing. For three weeks, I found a deeper connection to my religious identity and to my name, connecting the dots from my entire life. This was all thanks to one simple afternoon conversation.

Every day, we had a free hour where we could go wherever we wanted on the campgrounds. I found one of my counselors and one of my roommates sitting next to a rock near the cabins, so I joined them. We talked about many things, but one topic of conversation really stuck out to me. My counselor turned to me and asked me if I knew the origins of my name. I gave her my typical response, which prompted us to look up the actual story behind my name.

A timeline of the story of Hagar in the Torah, made with Canva (Hagar Cohen)

In the chapter of the Torah called “Genesis,” Hagar was the slave of Sarah, who was the wife of Abraham. Sarah could not have children, so she allowed Hagar to have children with Abraham instead. As Hagar became pregnant, she began to resent Sarah for how she treated her. Sarah’s mistreatment of her became worse, so she decided to leave. An angel found Hagar in the desert and told her that she will have a son, Ishmael. Hagar then returned home and Ishmael was born. 13 years later, Sarah was finally able to give birth to a son, who was named Isaac. Sarah did not want Ishmael and Isaac to both inherit the promises that God gave Abraham, so Hagar and Ishmael were banished. Hagar and Ishmael walked through the desert, with Hagar in distress. An angel found Hagar again, this time with Ishmael. Hagar opened her eyes and found a well of water, giving Ishmael some to drink. God remained by Ishmael’s side as he continued to grow. Ishmael and his descendants eventually became an Arab tribe. As for Hagar, it is believed by some Jewish experts that Hagar was actually the daughter of Pharaoh, by some Christian experts that her story represents the difference between law and grace, and by some Muslim experts that the Prophet Muhammad was one of the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael.

My dad helping me write my name on the wall of the school I attended in Israel (Hagar Cohen)

The fact that Hagar’s story ties into certain aspects of each of the three Abrahamic religions really struck me and allowed me to form a deeper understanding of myself. Even if my parents told me they named me “Hagar” because they liked the name, the name started to hold a strong significance for me once I found out the history behind it.

Another aspect of the camp is a special Shabbat service where teens can volunteer to read a Torah portion and do a Bat/Bar Mitzvah. Even though anyone was free to volunteer, it was geared towards people who did not have one at the typical age (12/13) or people who did not get to read a Torah portion as their 12/13 year old selves. The latter reason applied to me, and the journey that brought me there was inspired by the story behind my name and the discoveries I made while I was at the camp.

After several days of practicing, the special day arrived. I was called up to read my Torah portion, under my Hebrew name of Hagar. I was stressed beyond belief, but as soon as I started reading, all of my anxieties and fears went away. I was able to begin a new phase of my Jewish life as my true self, name and all.

Me reading my camp Bat Mitzvah Torah portion (Hagar Cohen)

My name is Hagar, and I go by any pronouns. I’m Israeli, I’m Jewish and I just so happen to also be nonbinary. People mainly know me as my name, but certain people also know me as my several nicknames I’ve adopted in the past. I wear a necklace with my name on it proudly, and I’m not afraid of hiding it anymore. Hagar’s many name phases did not phase her, but they made them into who he is today. 

“How do you pronounce your name?” the unfamiliar adult asked me as they were taking attendance.

“It’s pronounced ‘Huh-gar’.”