My secret life as a Mossad operative
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The husband nearly fell off his recliner a couple of weeks ago to show me something startling on his smartphone. It was a screenshot of a British passport, issued in 2005 for a woman born on Sept. 9, 1976. Her name jumped out in block letters: ANN RUDOREN.
A long-lost cousin, you wonder? Nope. We have no cousins with the last name Rudoren. Nobody does. There are, according to our very extensive (read: Google) research, no other people on earth with this seven-letter surname other than myself, my husband and our 14-year-old twins.
That’s because we made it up — and not until early 2006, by the way, after this here passport was issued — as part of our effort to build an egalitarian foundation for our family and avoid the patriarchal explanations to inevitable questions from our future children about why they had a different last name from me or my parents.
So what in the world was going on?
The passport had been flagged to us by Rabbi Melanie Levav, a friend who also created a new last name with her spouse (more on that later), and thus was intrigued when she spotted ours while watching the 2019 spy flick “The Operative” by Israeli writer and director Yuval Adler.
The film’s central character is a woman who goes undercover as an English tutor in Iran as part of a Mossad scheme to sell the regime faulty technologies. She ends up having a steamy affair with her key Iranian contact, the operation unravels, and she somehow manages to disappear from Mossad view by reclaiming her birth name (only removing the E from ANNE).
I had to track down Adler to ask: Was this woman named after — perhaps even based on — me?
Yes — and not really. Adler, who has a PhD in philosophy from Columbia, is best known for his 2013 film “Bethlehem,” a pre-“Fauda” tale about the complex relationship between an Israeli intelligence office and his teenage Palestinian informant that won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
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When we spoke, he explained that he had screened “Bethlehem” for some parents at the Tel Aviv preschool his kids attended, among them Karl Vick — then the Middle East correspondent for TIME Magazine — and Stacy Sullivan of . Karl and Stacy are friends of mine, and when they made Adler a list of influencers to share the film with, Jodi Rudoren — then Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times — was high on the list.
“OK, but I don’t know who she is,” Adler recalled thinking. “But that’s a cool name,” he thought to himself. “It was a name I never heard before.”
Of course it was — we’d made it up. And he held onto it for six years?
“Names are important, actually — in stupid scripts they have stupid names,” Adler explained. “It’s like a look for the character, it’s part of how you look, like your hair.”
So Adler said he’s always collecting names, “sticky notes in your brain.” When he reads a nonfiction book, he’ll scour the index for “cool names.” Sometimes he looks at IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, which lists everyone involved in every production, and will find “some gaffer” on a little-known 1950s film to name a character after.
The undercover name of the woman in “The Operative,” Rachel Currin, came from someone Adler studied art with back at Columbia — Rachel Feinstein, who is married to the painter John Currin.
“I like these associations,” Adler said. “Currin sounds — you can’t mistake this name for a Jew; I wanted that, so Currin is cool. Rudoren is this other name that doesn’t sound like anything.”
Maybe not to Adler. To us, the Fantastic 4 Rudorens — as our family text-group is titled — it sounds like equality and progress, like the ability to change the rules or shift the boundaries when they don’t work for you, like innovation and individuality, like home.
As I wrote when we first made the legal — and byline — change 16 years ago, none of the typical marital-name options felt comfortable to us.
Taking Gary’s last name — Ruderman — did not fit with my feminism. But keeping my original name — Wilgoren — also seemed fraught, as I knew my future kids’ doctors and teachers would nevertheless call me Mrs. Ruderman, and those (curious! evolved!) kids would ask why we had a different name, and the only answer would come back to patriarchy. Hyphenation seemed unrealistic — six syllables and way too much for the back of a sports jersey — so we combined: R-U-D from Gary’s side and O-R-E-N from mine. Pronounced roo-DOR-en, if you’re wondering.
We’re hardly alone in this adventure. Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Mayor of Los Angeles, is one famous example — he was Villar and she was Raigosa (they’re now divorced and he’s remarried but stuck with the combined name).
You might have seen the byline of one of our interns, Rudy Malcom, and thought it was a typo, missing the second “L,” but in fact, it’s another portmanteau — his parents, James Maloney and Debra Comer, kept their original names but gave Rudy and his twin brother the combo.
And then there are the Levavs: Melanie and her wife, Hope, and their two children, who we got to know because their sabbatical in Jerusalem overlapped with our time there. As they wrote in this 2001 journal exploring feminist rethinking of Jewish relationships, the former Melanie Kohler and Hope Berger felt strongly about presenting themselves to the community as “a new family unit” but worried hyphenation would “be too cumbersome.”
They decided to make up an entirely new name, and knew they wanted it to be Hebrew. They played with options based on translations of their original surnames, meaning, sound and gematria — the ancient practice of assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters.
“We thought of concepts that were important to us and we kept coming back to lev,” the Hebrew word for heart, they wrote. In gematria, “lev” has a value of 32 — which is also the number of letters in the traditional Jewish phrase consecrating marriage.
“Levav” adds a single Hebrew letter, worth two in gematria — “one for each of us,” they wrote — and can turn the noun “heart” into an active verb. They used a quote on their wedding invitations that starts with a form of the verb, “Levavtini:” You have captured my heart.
Our story is a little less poetic. We did talk about transliterating Ruderman and Wilgoren into Hebrew and then doing anagrams with those letters in search of a meaningful word we might then translate back into English. But mostly we just tried out different combinations of our syllables — and ran them through Google.
There were zero people named Rudoren, or at least none with any internet presence, back then. The only thing that came up called RUDOREN was a small island off the coast of Finland, which we fully plan to eventually claim as our ancestral homeland.
According to the ancestry website , ours is the world’s 8,968,613th most popular surname, held by “approximately four people” (and, the site does not add, one fictional Mossad operative). It is “most prevalent” in the United States (correct), and occurs in “highest density” in Israel (OK, it’s a bit out of date).
“The meaning of this surname is not listed,” the site says. Well, it’s kind of a lot to explain.
Your Turn: Jewish Pop Songs
The most popular stories on our website this week were part of a special collection created by our culture critic, Seth Rogovoy, and executive editor, Adam Langer. Riffing off Rolling Stone’s list of the 500-best popular songs ever Seth enlisted a range of writers and thinkers to compile our own list of the 150 Greatest Jewish Pop Songs, and 15 essays about them — and about the very concept of what makes a song Jewish. We’ve also put together an Apple playlist of some of the songs, and Seth will be in conversation with some of the writers in a Zoominar on Feb. 16 (register here).
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the list. Are there songs you love that we missed? Send the song and the story behind why you think it’s special. Or tell us why our rankings are wrong.
Share your thoughts by emailing [email protected]
Your Weekend Reads
Barry Wendell is a liberal, gay, 72-year-old former actor and teacher making a quixotic bid for a redrawn Congressional seat in West Virginia, home of our news director, Benyamin Cohen, who wrote a great profile. Also in this week’s issue: Reaction to Amnesty International’s report accusing Israel of apartheid; a Black Jewish mom on Whoopi Goldberg’s assertion the Holocaust had nothing to do with race, a poem from the father of Danny Pearl on the 20th anniversary of his murder, and much more.
Download the printable PDF here.