I’ve been ruminating. Dangerous. One of my least favorite moments of rabbinic life (and honestly, there aren’t that many), is when someone called me “Rabbi Ellie”. You see, I completed nine years of schooling to receive my rabbinic ordination and the sound of “Rabbi Ellie” sounds like nails on a chalkboard in my head. There is this uncomfortable trend I’ve both observed and heard about from many that male rabbis are referred to as “Rabbi LastName” while female rabbis are called “Rabbi FirstName” by default.
It is for this reason that when I started at my first synagogue post I was adamant that I was to be called Rabbi Steinman. The exception is for students under the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and remains that narrow. My congregants were more than happy to oblige. Not all of my colleagues felt the same way. Another rabbi and I were both recipients of an email that said, “Dear Rabbi FirstName and Rabbi Steinman.” Confusing.
I vividly recall a conversation with one of my uncles who puzzled at my problem with “Rabbi FirstName”. I stopped him in his tracks when I asked how he might respond if he was introduced as Dr. Louie (not his real name) instead of Dr. Steinman. I watched as the proverbial lightbulb lit up above his head. No further discussion. He got it.
What will I do when I again work in an environment when the custom is to refer to all of the clergy as Rabbi or Cantor FirstName? I do not yet know. I look forward to having that problem.
This whole issue begs the question that I would love some comments on, is this a gender issue or a societal change from formal to more informal? Do parents introduce their adult friends to their children as Mr. or Ms so-and-so? Does everyone go by first names? Thoughts?