Two years ago, an Egyptian student in my history of the modern middle east class referred to Jewish culture as stolen culture, the Mizrahis eat Arab food and the Ashkenazis eat schnitzel so, he concluded, basically Israel was a country of stolen identities. I’m usually pretty peacenik/organic-granola-and-free-lovin but for some reason that statement gave me the impulse to grab him by the jugular and see what he’d look like as a bobble head. At the time I was going by another name. One that told everyone what side I spoke from during these verbal classroom scuffles.
In Israel I had unpacked the name that I had been given in whispers but never called. My mother’s Hebrew name, Hadassah. The story of Queen Esther had always been my favorite as a child, the lone woman savior, the secret identity slipped into my back pocket. I was not the only one. In cities like Jerusalem, where flocks of Americans crowded inside the pubs and Aroma cafes, there were countless Shoshannas and Saras. All of us dusting the mothballs from our Biblical names, weak from lack of exercise, as if shaking the filmy neglect from our winter coats. Maybe we were hoping that these names would help us find belonging among the ancient cities and Hebrew signage. Maybe we were just bored.
When Purim rolls around every year I start to ponder the ways that these names influence Jewish students, still wrestling with our identities. I begin dragging my eyes from face to face, wondering if their other name would introduce me to a new side of them, one that isn’t fully explained by the applications of their facebook profiles. I can’t write about the significance of Hebrew names for American Jews, or any Jews for that matter. I am no longer young enough to know everything. But I did meet this one dude at UC Davis with a wicked Hebrew name. My friend introduced us: “You’re both Jewish!”
Then he asked me for my Hebrew name and rattled off his own:
Mendel Shmool ben Chaim ben Tzivia.
When I asked him the story of his Hebrew name this is what he said.
S: My mom and grandparents call me “shmooly” as an affectionate nickname. It’s a name that I’ve been called since I was a baby. Mendel was my great grandfather. Shmool was on the other side, so it kinda connects me to past generations. Almost like there are two different sides of me,
Its two sides of who I am.
Me: What is the first memory that comes to mind where
someone used your Jewish name?
S: My mom calling me shmooly today.
She was saying good luck for a final I took today… I don’t really think about being Jewish on a day-to-day basis but when I am in a Jewish setting I feel more at home.
If anyone else feels the urge to share their Hebrew name and their experiences with it then totally, that’s why the Lord invented comments. But from my brief Purim pondering the conclusion I’ve reached is that even with different foods and costumes, our names seem to share synonymous stories.