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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775


Galilee Diary #384, April 6, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


Did not Israel possess four mitzvot [while they were in Egypt]…: that they were sexually pure, that they did not gossip, that they did not change their names, and that they did not change their language!?

-Mechiltah D’rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Pascha, 5

The other day I was waiting for an appointment in the teacher's lounge of an elementary school and happened to overhear a teacher working on a project with two boys. They were: Nimrod (a pagan hero mentioned briefly in the Bible [Gen. 10:8-9], inflated by the midrash into the wicked king of Ur) and Jephthah (the military leader whose rash speech led him to sacrifice his own daughter – Judges 11). While it is not uncommon to encounter people whose parents gave them biblical names without paying attention to the image of the namesake in the Bible, it struck me as funny to find a couple of the people of the Bible who one would least want one's child to emulate, working together. In general, the fashions and dilemmas involving naming in Israel are an interesting reflection of larger cultural issues.

1. As the above experience demonstrates, on the one hand there is a desire to maintain continuity with the past by choosing names from our traditional sources. On the other hand, the name is often disconnected from the person who carried it in the Bible, and chosen for its sound or some other association. This process still has its limits – I have not yet met a Jezebel or a Haman.

2. In the early decades of the state, the attempt to create a New Jew led to vigorous efforts at Hebraization of names. Not only did many people voluntarily translate or transform their names, but there were certain government jobs that you couldn't get with an "exile" name. I once met a man who had wanted a career in the foreign service, but was denied a foreign posting because he refused to Hebraize his family name: "This was the name my father carried through the Holocaust – I'm not about to drop it for career advancement." The policy has in the meantime been changed. But just as our Hebrew school teachers insisted that we assume Hebrew names in class, so many new immigrants to Israel over the years have been "required" by well-meaning teachers to drop their Diaspora first names in favor of Hebrew ones. As Israel has become more open and individualistic, in recent years, it has become easier and more common for these immigrants to decide, after they get to know their surroundings a little better, to revert to their given name, as the expression of their identity. I know a number of Ethiopian teenagers, for example, who were given nice "regular" Hebrew names upon arrival, but who after a few years of acculturation decided they were proud of their Amharic names and preferred to use them.

3. In non-religious circles in Israel, Biblical names tend to be, as in the cases above, chosen outside the mainstream pantheon of heroes; and Biblical names in general are quite passé. Unisex and monosyllable are in. I once facilitated a meeting between classes from an urban and a suburban high school. When we did a round of introductions, all the city kids' names were Dmitri, Yevgeny, Marina, Svetlana, etc.; the suburban kids were: Mor, Lior, Or, Stav, etc. And had there been an Orthodox school present, we would have had Isaac, Israel, Aaron, Miriam, Shifra, and Eliezer. When I came to Israel in high school, I assumed I should be called by my given Hebrew name, Reuben. And so everyone who knows me from then calls me that. But when I came back as an adult and told people that was my name, they said, "don't you have a normal name? Reuben is so old fashioned." So I revealed that in America, outside of Hebrew school, I was Marc – and that is what I became here (which is impossible for me to pronounce with a Hebrew accent over the phone, so many people think I am Max or Mike).

These name stories are expressions of an eternal Jewish dilemma: to what extent are we free to create our own identity – and to what extent is it determined for us by forces beyond our control?

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