“How do you connect things? Learn their names.” — Don DeLillo, The Names

The responsibility of a human being to live up to his name is tremendous, unconscious, and above all, a test of time and encounter (in Martin Buber‘s words – “meeting”). Israel seems to have a strange fascination with my name. I’m enjoying the reaction from just about everyone I meet here, and I’m fully aware of the sexual and cultural connotations which “Lolita” is impregnated with; however, I have never received such a consistent response of disbelief and interest. Living in shades of grey instead of deciding on black or white, a creature of moderation and balance, I naturally stray away from identifying with a political party, a right or left lean of association, and most certainly a clear explanation of what a name signifies. In English (America) it seems, a name is nothing more than a label on a birth certificate, a place in a line, a number, a logical way to organize your emails. In Israel, a name is something you shout out across a crowded – or sparsely populated room – to get someone’s attention, to barter at the shuk for a cheaper price on kumquats; it’s something you use to address another in a conversation, or maybe even to acknowledge and speak to a Thou – be it through prayer (HaShem, השם) or through everyday meeting and experience with People.

“Responsibility is thus, in the last analysis, readiness to respond in the dialogue with God, which takes place in the lived moment of existence.” — Martin Buber

The names people go by in Israel, in the Hebrew language, are all chock-full of meaning and their etymology is fascinating to me – “Lolita”. The names are either biblical, not fictional, providing metaphorical shoes one must attempt to walk in during their lifetime, since subconsciously a name will affect how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you, thus shaping your personality from the beginning of the conversation. If not biblical, they are simply a translation for something else, a definition of another object or place or simply an adjective. For example, I’m finding that some of my Israeli friends here really do mirror, in some small or large way, what their name signifies. 1) A confident, bright, social and extremely beautiful 17 year girl, who seems to sing whenever she speaks, is named Chen (חן – meaning grace/favor/charm); 2) Shoni (שוני – meaning difference/variation/disparity), is a 27 year old, politically active, left leaning, Jewish philosophy student, who seems to question, consider, and challenge – respectfully – many Israeli government policies; 3) Gal (גל – meaning a wave) is an enthusiastic, unique and extremely “on-the-go” gentleman of the road, providing insight, when things are serious, and, like other bodies of water, congenial with his relaxing and positive energy. The very word for “name” in Hebrew is “shem” (שם – meaning essence/title/reputation) implies that the word used to call something or someone is rarely just a word, but it is the very fundamental backbone of the זה (it – masculine form). For Jews, a name has so much meaning that God cannot even be named in colloquial speech as “God”. Outside of a ritual context, His official names cannot be said and He is instead referred to as “The Name” or “HaShem” (השם). Read more about the names of God in Judaism via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_God_in_Judaism

When Adam (אדם – meaning human/person) asked God for a companion, HaShem gave him a slew of animals as companions (before Eve/Hava הוה – meaning passion/trouble/present, came into the picture), and instructed the first man to give them all names according to their “essence” – a lion means king, a dog is loyal, etc.) How fatal can a name be for a person that does not fit the bill, so to speak? How does one identify themselves without a name and how do things grow, shape, evolve without this odd combination of letters molding like clay personality and character? And… most interestingly, why is it such a big deal with Judaism in particular? In an article called Fatal Discourse, published on Haaretz.com on March 2nd, 2012, Michael Handelzalts describes the fatal and legal consequences of incorrectly defining political and historical atrocities, specifically with regards to the title given to that WWII tragedy, which resulted in 1) the genocide of 6million Jews; and 2) the birth of a Jewish nation. Can other international examples of genocide be labeled as a “holocaust” and how does the name of these no less devastating and severe examples of killings affect their development and hopefully eventual end?

“Scheffer advises politicians and policy makers to beware when attaching names to mass atrocities-in-progress. He writes: “It is the responsibility of historians to establish the facts of distant events and of jurists to determine whether these were a genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, human rights abuses, political repression or other crimes against civil or political rights. Using the word ‘genocide’ loosely can be tragically ineffective or self-defeating. It can intimidate powerful nations from reacting quickly enough to prevent further atrocities.”

When a name carries so much weight, how can one ever pick a group to belong to, how can a parent pick a name for a child, whose character has only begun to take root, how is it possible for one word to determine so much of the future? Referring to the Shakespearean animosity between rivals Montague and Capulet, the nation of Israel responds to the call of Thou with Juliet’s famous rhetorical question:  “What’s in a name?”


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May 19, 2012 · 12:36 pm

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