Who Are You Calling Names? by Judy Gruen

I am delighted to share this platform today with my good friend, Judy Gruen. I think it’s a great reminder that each of us can choose to add kindness to the world with a simple act. 

Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. I had met Maurice and his wife, Mildred, back in the late 1980’s, when my husband, Jeff, and I had joined Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach.” We had been drawn there by the teachings of Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his wife, Susan, and their dynamic leadership that had begun to revitalize a once-thriving Jewish congregation.

Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. A strong baritone, Maurice usually seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.

Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering synagogue members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.

He also remembered the names of extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.

As I sat listening to the tributes, I nodded in recognition. Long ago, I told Maurice that my sister was about to undergo her seventh spinal surgery for complications of severe scoliosis. For years afterward, he’d regularly ask me, his brow furrowed with concern, “How’s your sister Sharon doing?”

One speaker said half-jokingly, “I thought Maurice only remembered the names of my parents and siblings. Now that I know he did that for everyone, I’m feeling a little less special.”

The little girl named Leah Emunah is now a young mother in her 20’s. She said, “Even though the synagogue was overflowing with children, Maurice knew all our names. We all understood that in a small congregation, we were each important. Only later did I realize that a big part of this feeling came from Maurice always addressing us by name.”

I decided to honor Maurice’s memory by making a point of greeting people by name. I first tried it at the grocery store. As the cashier rang up my purchases, she glanced at me and asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for today, ma’am?”

I expected the question — it was company protocol to ask. Even on occasions when I hadn’t found quite everything I had looked for, I’d still answer blandly, “Yes, thank you.”

That day, I decided not to answer by rote. I read her name tag and said, “Yes, thank you, Toni.”

She looked back at me for a just a second and visibly brightened. “Glad to hear it!” she answered with a smile.

With only one word, I was able to infuse a predictable and commonplace interaction with a small spark of personal connection. She was not just a cashier ringing up groceries during a long shift. She was a woman named Toni.

Since then, I try to always call sales clerks or service reps by name, both in person and even in online chat sessions. In person, I always am rewarded with a smile, a straightening of the shoulders, an appreciative look. I wish I had thought of doing this on my own, but I was prompted to do it because Maurice had set a gold standard in carrying out this mitzvah, a good deed commanded by God. I had known it was a mitzvah to greet people with a pleasant demeanor. What had I been waiting for?

You never know where a kind greeting can lead. My friend Barry not only chatted with the manager of a local mailbox store, calling her by name, he asked her out on a date. They were married within the year.

In today’s society, too many people feel invisible and lonely. Increasingly, even when we’d like to smile or nod or make small talk with another person in public, we can’t. Too often, they are in the addictive clutch of their phones, an impenetrable barrier. These small losses add up to a much larger fracturing of the social compact.

I discovered through my little experiment, and Maurice proved, that the simple, old-fashioned practice of greeting others with a kind expression and acknowledging their names when we can isn’t such a small thing after all.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”  (She Writes Press, 2017). (3 Guesses who the Rabbi in the title is.) Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Aish.com, Jewish Journal, and many other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling Names? by Judy Gruen”

  1. My father was known for his connectiveness to people -friends and strangers in particular. Besides sharing his joke of the day, he always spoke to wait-staff, clerks, bell boys, ect. -anyone who was providing him a service- by their name. In fact he made it a goal to do so. If a waiter forgot to say “my name is…”, Dad would always ask . When I was young, I only saw it from the point of the recipient : he appeared to get better service by doing so. Much later I attributed his great memory and alertness at an advanced age to his habit of remembering people’s names. Retrospectively, as I read your article, I recall the smiles on the people he addressed by name. I have always had trouble remembering names. After Dad died, I made an effort to carry on his legacy by reading name tags and speaking names out loud. I’m not proficient yet, but when I am successful, I do see the joy on the faces of those I address directly. Thank you for the reminder that I need to do so more often.

    1. What a lovely recollection of your father, Mrs.A. I too, have to work harder on capturing people’s names.

  2. I am not very good at names, especially at remembering them. But your post inclines me to try using names more when addressing people. Thank you.

  3. For some years now I have made a practice of behaving consciously cheerful and friendly to people I encounter in public—store clerks, bank tellers, etcetera—no matter my mood at the moment. If I know someone’s name I use it. Not only is it obvious that people appreciate it, but I find that it makes ME feel better. If I have been dwelling on problems of one sort or another, I find that a cheerful attitude or friendly greeting not only makes others brighten up, but almost always it’s passed right back to me, and then I feel better too. I’ve often noticed that surly, rude, unfriendly behavior can rapidly spread through a roomful of people in no time, like a virus. But fortunately, a smile and a good word, if offered sincerely, is equally infectious.

  4. Susan, thank you for the opportunity to post a guest column, and hearty thanks to all of you who wrote in appreciation, and for sharing your own confirming stories about the power of taking the time to call people by their names!

  5. Pamela McNeff Smith

    Years ago, I remember reading an article that said the sweetest sound on earth to each person is to hear another say their name, and that the reader should test that out by seeing what responses you would get by using a person’s name when you have it. From that time on, I have called countless store clerks, wait staff, airline flight attendants, 7-11 employees, mail delivery folks, and others, as well as bosses, coworkers, family and friends – by their names. What a radical change it makes in their countenance, posture, attitude, and delight. Maurice’s example is beyond precious, and bears witness to this. Thank you for sharing this memory and insight.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Pamela. I’m sure you have brightened many a day.

  6. And I have always noticed the way that you yourself, Mrs. Lapin, make a point to address your readers who leave comments by name, and have always appreciated your extra touch and effort towards making/nurturing a special connection. My mother always did the same thing, and from when we were young children growing up, she always stressed that we (i.e., forced us to) 🙂 make direct eye contact with whomever was speaking to us, and that we always asked them a question about them so the conversation would not revolve solely around us (churlish) young’uns. She was very well loved by people of all age groups, I think sometimes my sisters’ and my friends would come to our house just so they could talk to her! But the heart of it sounds like Mrs. Gruen’s friend Maurice, just a person very full of the love of the LORD and deeply desirous to pour that out upon everyone they could, so as to bring them closer to HIM and to each other. Thank you for this guest musing!!!

    1. Thank you, Celesta, for your kind words. I sometimes hesitate because I still feel a wee bit odd addressing people whom I don’t know by their first names, but that is how they sign their comments so I go for it. My husband and I do feel that we have a relationship with our readers/watchers, especially with people like you who comment frequently and give us a glimpse into your lives.

  7. I absolutely love how this intricately ties into what I have been doing a personal study on about Jewish names and then how God changed the names of many ….. so (in my own words) where it seemed as if their name had to change to match their “mission”….
    Studying this for several months has led me to Hebrew texts where I’ve had to do my best to translate and with out going into detail – I received such understanding about the importance of our names.
    So when I went into my inbox today and saw this post I had a “selah” moment to myself. I had just wrote in my journal how I wanted to improve on remembering people’s names and using them at every opportunity.
    My son’s names are Jacob and Joseph, we named them purposefully and I always wondered why I used to feel some kind of way when people would try to shorten their names or give them a nickname.
    Even though I do not have a Jewish name, and have often wished I did have one- this helped me see just how important ALL NAMES are in the grand scheme of things. Thank you for sharing this, it meant so much to me.

  8. Thanks for your reminder to make that special effort to make others feel special. Unfortunately, I can’t remember people’s names. It’s not a good trait but thankfully I can read name tags!

  9. Mountain Queen

    I’ve been doing the same for years and wish I could have met Maurice. It’s not only a good habit but it doesn’t cost anything to give a smile or pay attention. I live in a Big Bear City, CA and it’s common to smile and greet others but when I go down the hill and say “Hi” and smile people are surprised. Always appreciate your musings and Rabbi Lapin’s Thought Tools.

    1. I had the same experience when I’ve been somewhere “small-townish” and then come back to a big city. Glad you like the Musings, but just to emphasize, this was a guest Musing by Judy Gruen.

  10. I wonder if Maurice used memory techniques like the ones in “The Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas (the NBA star). I have that book and it gives a lot of ways to improve memorization of anything. It sounds as if Maurice had one of those memories that people appreciated.

    1. I have a feeling not, Sheldon. Knowing him, I think he did it his own way. He truly cared about each and every one of us and cultivated a God-given gift.

  11. Amazing, isn’t it, Judy?! I’ve been doing the same thing for years and it’s usually the start of a wonderful relationship that otherwise might not have happened without that personal opening 😉

    1. Judy doesn’t have access to our admin page to answer you, but she will read all these comments and I know she will appreciate yours, Kristin.

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