My name is Elias. As tradition was, I was named after my grand-father Elias Negrin, who was born in the ancient Romaniote Jewish community of Ioannina, a town in NW Greece. Elias was a successful merchant, but in World War II had to abandon his business and take his family into hiding in Athens. Although he acquired a forged Greek ID, he was given in by an informant in downtown Athens, and arrested by the Nazis. He died in Auschwitz. The rest of the family survived hiding in Athens.
Elias is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliyahu (meaning: the Lord is my God). A prophet and miracle worker who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BC and is mentioned in 1 and 2 Kings. Eliyahu was also a ‘trouble maker’ when advocating for Ahab and the people to follow God and not Baal, and when he followed the commands of God in performing miracles and punishments. At the end of his life, he ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire, at the Jordan River. In the New Testament, he was thought to be Messiah, and appears with Moses during the Transfiguration of Jesus upon a mountain, an event commemorated by the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches. Eliyahu also appears in the Quran as a prophet and messenger of God. Today Elias is a common name for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
I grew up in Greece and still visit often. Being called Elias in Greece, makes one part of the mainstream. For example, when my daughter Noa was born in Athens, I had to register her with the municipality. The deputy mayor who would sign the papers read the name of the baby and said ‘Noa? This is not a Greek name! Is the girl a foreigner?’ Then, he read my name and said: ‘Ah! Of course, the father is Greek, so the girl is Greek!’ and he signed the birth certificate.
When I moved to Israel in the early 1980s my name did not raise any questions – or eyebrows – as my Hebrew was still poor, my accent heavy and the second question was usually ‘where are you from?’ However, growing older – and becoming a veteran Oleh Hadash with a pretty good Hebrew –a different experience was unveiled. As contemporary Israeli society seems to be getting more close-minded, less diverse and tolerant and more polarized, I started to notice that I am getting discriminated or getting second-class service over the phone when calling to inquire about telephone, water, electricity or insurance. I may find myself waiting after I give my name to the operator, or will never get a call back or will be answered in Arabic. It only became clear after four recent incidents:
In one of my trips abroad, at the airport x-ray check, I was asked to step aside and wait – together with a young well-dressed Arab traveler. Without any reason and without any explanation, the girl – she was roughly the age of my students - at the machine took my passport. She did not communicate it to anyone, nor did she show it to anyone. She just held it while she was attending to other passengers. In the meantime, we were standing there for no apparent reason. Then, she came up to me and gave back my passport, without an explanation or apology. I was quite annoyed – and quite humiliated - but chose not to make an issue and go on with my trip. Later, when I read in the newspapers about the abuse that the Arab population has to go through when traveling abroad, the incident at the airport fell in context.
In another incident, I called ‘100’ to report that loud music was annoying the neighborhood late at night. When I gave my name I was told that the police cannot interfere. Then I called again – from a different number – and gave the name ‘Eli’ – a common Israeli name. To my surprise, the operator assured me that the police car was on its way – and the music soon stopped.
The third incident was during a snowy winter in Jerusalem. After a heavy snowfall, a tree near our house collapsed blocking a major traffic axis in the neighborhood. I called ‘100’ to report it. When I gave my name I was told that the police is really busy and was asked to call back again later. Then, when as the previous time, I called from a different number and gave the name ‘Eli’, the operator assured me once again that the police car was on its way, and arrived shortly after.
Police and airport security are sensitive with non-Jewish sounding names. However, my name seems to also bring up stereotypes, racism, and inequality, in other most unexpected contexts.
About one year ago, at my daughter’s school at the German Colony a group of parents – myself included – initiated to remodel the schoolyard, which was neglected for years. In coordination with the school principal, parents and teachers, we run a number of workshops with the students to collect ideas and feedback on formulating a program of needs and later design proposals to improve the schoolyard. At the short break between two workshops, I went to the teachers’ room to get a glass of water. There, one of the teachers approached me. She looked at the name-tag on my shirt and asked me: ‘Are you the new cook?’ I looked at her with eyes wide open. ‘No, I am one of the parents running a workshop for the remodeling of the courtyard’, I replied. I am not sure if she heard the whole answer. She disappeared after she heard the word ‘parent’.
I could decide to change my name and get over the whole thing. I have thought of that. However, although it would improve my own situation, it would not really solve the bigger problem. The way I see it is that the problem will be solved only when mainstream Israeli society will accept and treat Jews, Christians or Muslims equally.
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