Monday, June 25, 2007

Shem tov: who has a name?

Is Israel today a blending society composed of more or less anonymous or cloned individuals that decided to stay together or have no other choice? Some citizens can track back their presence in Eretz Israel to three-four generations and to the 16th century.

Yiddish is of course a typical Jewish tongue - though the first Yiddish grammar was published by a Franciscan. Say it was more a question of organization and know-how and curiously the Christians, without any evil intention, were just able to substantiate what was less systematic to do for the Jews in the diasporas.

Indeed, I meet here with Yiddish speakers who never lived in any Yiddishkayt "usual region" of the world and their speech is even more correct than some speakers that fled from place to place to arrive in the United States via Tel Aviv, Johannesburg or Antwerp. Three centuries of presence here, in Eretz, and total faithfulness to Judaism is then quite something for our collectivity.

It makes a certain difference with the children of olim / immigrants who, for instance, arrived in Israel from Romania as the border was never closed under Ceauscescu's communist regime. He was trading Jews, Israel was merchandising other deals and possibilities, but the route from Bucharest to Tel Aviv, eventually through Schoenau in Austria has been open for decades before the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Their children who settled here, quickly assimilated and helped develop a new Jewish and Israeli way of living and being. One thing was very interesting at that time: very often they retained their mother tongue for daily family contacts. They still live in some sort of tribes that grow now in the direction of new and diversified branches and mix with Oriental Jews. Others decided that, upon their arrival in the country, they would focus on speaking Hebrew, even inside the family.

This was made easier when one or more parents could not fully share a conversation in the native language of the majority. But it has also been a strong cultural trend that is not so obvious at the moment. Former Soviets, Ethiopians, Spanish-speaking immigrants would be slow to directly switch to Hebrew. Their children don't have that problem and adopted Hebrew as their colloquial.

Now, the point is that as time passed, various waves of newcomers did integrate culturally. It does not mean that they have a strong feeling of citizenship. There is at the present an unusual high percentage of Israelis that consider emigration or the possibility to spend most of their life outside of Israel. This is a sort of part-time season-linked breaking down of our existence.

True, pious (and some secular) Jews can work all the week in New York and be back in Eretz Israel for the Shabbat. Let’s plug this trend to a more general flexibility and the extraordinary development of transportation. When El Al apparently showed some defects of kosher food and services, the haredi community was on the verge to immediately set up a Jewish Orthodox airline company and palliate the absence of correct traditional “Israeli” service.

Israelis can be surprised of the Jewish conditions of living abroad. How many people come to Israel in order to be able to show off as Jews and would never dare wear a skullcap or even a hat that might look too Jewish in many countries. Some years ago,the French Chief Rabbinate and some other Chief Rabbis in Europe have often warned their communities about the dangers they might encounter if they show their Jewishness too openly. But, on the opposite, such a situation raises a series of questions for the Israelis who are daily trained to explain why, how and for which purpose they can dress as Jews and identify themselves openly as Jews. Fr. Marcel Dubois who died recently used to explain how small Israeli children were very astounded that Jews abroad did not look like our Jews because they behaved in a way that was simply unknown to them.

The interesting point in Israel is a sort of reversal of “power relationships” or “cultural primacy”. Christians would mostly avoid showing in the Israeli society, with some major and appealing exceptions: in a pious small Jerusalem autobus, it was intriguing to see a young and very modern woman going to work reading her prayers in Arabic and quietly making the sign of the Cross during the time of the Great Lent. Religious Jews – men or women – would not say a word as it was clear that she was Arab. But such attitudes are rare.

The Christian faithful would not show a Cross. The Eastern Orthodox believers are not supposed to show any cross because their Christian faith is considered as a very personal secret that should not be exhibited, in particular through the use of jewels. The Ethiopian Christian Orthodox believers often belong or still relate somehow to the very ancient Ethiopian Church tracking back to the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba for the TaNaKh and the wisdom.

The country was christened by deacon Philip (baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles 9:26-40). Many Ethiopians would have a Christian sign on their foreheads or arms and thus wear a kipah or a great prayer shawl in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The numerous Christian faithful that arrived from the former Soviet Union are not some odd fancy invented right out of the blue Moon. Some businessmen & Co show the floating amount of a huge part of present-day Israeli society whose recent cultural background oscillates from a good old atheistic post-communist absence of faith – this does not mean they are illiterate! - And a sort of systematic herds of narrow-minded flocks suddenly got baptized because it was up-to-minute, a then-general proletarian move towards religion.

At the same time, the same people discovered they were or would possibly be considered as Jews in the East and might have problems, in the Middle-East, to be integrated as Jews in the States of the Jews though they were speedily (or at times reluctantly) granted Israeli citizenship. This should be considered with much care and respect by all the parties involved in the existence of the concerned people and not just left aside as transitional creatures. The interesting point thus is the way the “marketing identity business trend” is endeavoring to develop on specific lines. Israel is founded on a name of strong identity and we cannot play the fools with any soul.

Informatics and high tech oblige us to make extensive use of numbers. Numbers do not exist in Hebrew. Arabic numeral is Indian in the Middle-East and “zero – nil” = Ar. “sefr” (to count) and Hebrew “efes” is linked to root “afes” that strangely means both “gone to an end, nil or “as in Greek aphes – let go, remit the sins” (Exodus Rabba 45). But numbers are used for Identity cards; in Israel, every citizen is able to speak out their ID number by heart. Though their number decreases every year, the concentration camps survivors and some Soviet GuLag former prisoners are “sealed” with numbers.

On the other hand, maybe because of the comprehensive use of computerized personal data numbers, the country is very flexible as concerns names. Some people would love to change their names till they feel comfy with sounds matching their looks. It may take some time but the Ministry of Interior is definitely adaptable if not complaisant. But Israel encompasses citizens from all over the world and with various naming traditions.

In Hebrew, “Shem = name, noun, title, denomination, mark”, in Aramaic “shmey” (e.g. in the Kaddish) and comes from root “sum/shum” = to arrange, name, mark, estimate, value”. In Semitic way of thinking, just as “chashav = to think, reflect and to count, calculate”, naming is connected with appreciation of life and a certain way of “calculating the value of our days”. “He who calculates his ways and weighs the consequences of his doings will be allowed to see the salvation of the Lord in the hereafter (Moed Katon 5a). “Do you weep on account/in the name of the Law though you did not attain much of her commandments?” (Berachot 5b).

Naming is a holy and sanctifying process in Judaism. This is mainly due to the fact that every single existing inmate, soul, flesh and bones has been shaped in a partnership between God and its parents. This abides the conscience of even very secular people, thus bordering, at times, on the verge of magical power of names and sounds. The Ashkenazi tradition does not allow naming a baby after a living close parent. “Brit milah” is the core moment when the name is given to a newborn. Judaism might often underscore the act of circumcision for males rather than their naming. The Gospel insists on naming on the eighth day according to the Jewish tradition for John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:63; 2:21). A name does specify the call to be a human being in this world in view to accomplish a special task and enter in the olam atid/the world-to-come in good shape. Jews usually consider themselves as “ben” or “bat” of their father’s name even if it is rather frequent in religious circles to mention the mother’s first name.

Names of the living are often introduced in the Amidah (18 Benedictions) before the final demand by recalling the first and last letter of a person’s name. Psalm 119 – the kilometers/miles-long alphabetic set of eight verses for each Hebrew letter - allows praying for the departed or the sick. Sets of names are inscribed in the memory of the Jewish history. “History” does not exist as such in the Hebrew tradition: “toledot = generations”, i.e. that names follow series of names that make sense over a long period. Jesus’ genealogy is thus interesting (and raises many questions) but starts from Adam in Matthew 1:17. It mentions the exile to Babylon; it track back from Jesus to Adam in Luke 3:23-38. Indeed, a name could be a nickname, be shortened or extended.

A name inserts a human being into a cultural and geographical environment that may not totally correspond to our linguistic trends at the present. “Shem = name” is connected to “sham = there, thither” and induces both mobility and divine identity with a special life path. This is why the “shinui hashem = changing of the name” was so frequent in Judaism. There might be specific life changes such as for Abram-Abraham and Sarai - Sarah , which implies YaH’s Presence in their midst.

Names became obligatory in the West in the 11th century. Jews had often a “good reputation = a git’n shem = Shemtov, very current in Greece (“Kalinomos”). It has been a real mental and psychological experience – often a burden – to change names throughout various Diasporas and countries. Thus, “Moishe Pisher” became “Moritz Wassermann” and eventually “Maurice Lafontaine”… Mockery was also a very sad custom: “Rosenkranz = crown of rose (for the departed)” or “Katz = apparently “cat” was a way of laughing at “K(ohen) Tze(dek) = the High Priest”. Thus, it is very attracting to see how newcomers accept or not to “get into Israeli modern names”: how “Svetlana (cf. Light, as Lucia) might become “Orit, Urit, Nurit”; or “Boris” which is traditionally changed into “Baruch”. Some Jewish names might be accepted out of a sudden because of the pleasure to feel at home in the country.

Christianity has always given a huge importance to names because they often relate to saints. The Oriental Christian tradition, basically since the fall of the communist system and the revival of the Churches, loves to give new names at various step of a life destiny.

The virtual world of the Internet makes a tremendous use of nicknames or pseudonyms. There is a strong connection between the screened and self-mirroring search of identity and the capacity to find who we are in real life. This can be a sharp spiritual journey.