My Story: Redefined

Absorption Ministry made me not elegant Rochelle, but scowling Rachel.

stub cart 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
stub cart 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'You are stubborn," the clerk growls."I should have a choice," I say. He stands up, raises his voice to the level of public humiliation. My husband touches my shoulder as other clerks gather round. The atmosphere has turned sour. Just moments before we were served orange juice, "freshly squeezed," they said, "to celebrate your arrival in Israel." It's 1973, mid-August. The clerk pushes his chair back roughly, stands with my file pressed against his chest. His face reddens: "Nothing more I can do for you." "Well?" my husband asks me. "Do you still think it's the right thing to do?" I shake my head, not in response but in despair, then mumble: "Rachel, okay I'll take Rachel." All I am arguing for is to keep my name, Rochelle. No one really understands my passion for it, including my husband. I wasn't sure exactly what changes I believe would occur if I became Rachel, but I am sure I have grown into Rochelle, feel it really suits me now, don't want to give it up. I walk out of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption with my family, not the elegant Rochelle I had hoped to be, but a scowling Rachel. The clerk had even turned to the Bible to persuade me that sharing a name with Rachel, one of the four mothers of the Jewish nation, was a great honor for a new immigrant. I walk into the bright sun of Tel Aviv disillusioned. My husband grips my elbow. My young daughters each twist round a leg as I stomp out. I couldn't have predicted such a start. I know that names have a life of their own. Here I am beginning a new life with one I'm not ready to accept. The clerk had stirred things up. I'm not trying to force my feelings into a theory, but I want to offer myself to my new country with a name I want. I want a name that suggests wonder rather than work. I know how Rachel had endured her husband's life with her sister Leah, how she had demonstrated constant devotion to him over the years, waiting after each of Leah's birthings, waiting for her time. For me, Rachel meant quiet desperation. I don't want Rachel to replace Rochelle, like Leah replaced Rachel. When I hear the clerk say "Rochelle" with his Israeli accent, it sounded like a serenade. I was 33. Rochelle was no longer the big-girl name it had been when I was in grade school. I even told my third-grade teacher my name was Rose because I thought Rochelle too worldly, too gracious, for me. After all, I was chubby, with thick hair and eager eyes. And I talked too much. I didn't look like a Rochelle, nor did Rose fit me either, but it was shorter, that's all I aimed for. Rochelle sounds triumphant now, a name for an evolving woman. Looking at my identity card, I felt as though I've been given another woman's clothes. "Well! We're here," my husband shouts. Josef, our cousin, welcomes us with great emotion. The children quickly tell him how upset I am. Josef says his mother arrived from Poland as Krayndel, Polish for crown, and the immigration clerk quickly handed her Atara - Hebrew for crown - saying, "We don't want you to be Polish here, be Hebrew!!" "My mother," Josef continues sadly, "told me that moment was more painful than traveling third class by ship on stormy seas from Europe to Jaffa." "That's how our mom feels," chime in my daughters. I hug them to me. Days pass and I begin to study Hebrew. One student mentions that in the Bible Abram became Abraham. Sarai, Sarah. Abram and Sarai would not have a child, but Abraham and Sarah would indeed bear a child. Name change, in this case, altered a bad decree. A new immigrant from India in my Hebrew class tells me, when I relate my sad story, of the practice in her country of changing one's name when one passes on to a new stage of life. I nod each time someone adds more information about the naming process. In African culture, I hear, they believe one's name carries the life path the owner will take, that within one's name is their mission and goal. I feel as though the immigration clerk has redefined me. I'm willing to wear Rachel as a badge, carry it as a torch, light the way on our new journey. But, I'll do it as Rochelle. That was 35 years ago. Now it's 2008 - Israel is 60 years old, I am also in my 60s. I'm still referred to as Rachel, but this is a more forgiving place. Israel has matured as fits her age. The country and the people have grown into a more accepting, more understanding country than I saw in l973. Just yesterday a waitress said, after I'd placed my order in "good enough" Hebrew, "I love your accent, I wish I could talk like you do." I'm appreciated here, feel people are interested in me. Yet they still wonder why I came, wonder still more why I stay. I believe in Israel. That's what gives me a firm base here. I admit that problems are growing in complexity. The media make it clear we are dealing with huge conflicts of basic humanistic values and misunderstandings of fundamental democratic tenants. Our politicians convince us we have few statesmen in office - more are determined to add to their personal lives than improve the public good. Being Rachel rather than Rochelle wasn't as fateful as I feared. Yes, that clerk at the immigration desk redefined me, but the important thing is I found my place here. The writer, Canadian born, and her family moved to a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley in l973 and now live in a village on the Gilboa Mountains. She is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Startled Land.