Every Jewish name tells a Jewish story - opinion

Just as personal names have meaning, so do the names of cities and towns. And there are some very unfortunate names of places that have impacted Jewish life and history. 

THE HALL of Names at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
THE HALL of Names at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 20, 2020.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

The Hebrew term k’shmo kein hu means “a person is like their name.” Jewish literature is replete with this expression. A name is a reflection of a person, it is often the first thing we know about a person.

As an extension of that principle, in Judaism after a near-death experience, it is traditional to add a name and change a name. The name Haim, which means “life” is often added, as is the name Alter, a blessing for “long days.” It is a Jewish insurance policy for an improved future for the name bearer. 

In classical cultures and classical languages, like Hebrew, names have meaning – deep meaning. Not just biblical names. Even modern, seemingly made-up names have meaning and significance. Israelis are very creative when it comes to giving names and Hebrew is such a pliable language, it is a winning combination. 

Israeli names, both first names and last, or family, names have gone through several cycles. There was, for example, the Hebraization of Diaspora names. The Wolf family would often became Ze’evi. Goldberg would be changed to Zehavi. 

After the 1967 Six Day War, Israelis created names that were lovely and filled with hope. Tal, Elizur, Sharona were born. And names of cities and towns became first names – Sinai, Golan, Eilat are a few. The ’67 war was a watershed for hope in Israel and it was reflected in these new names.

That is not the case with English, where many names are made up or taken from a Proctor and Gamble bottle of skin lotion bottle and emerge as Lotiana. 

 A lobby is launched in the Knesset to support Diaspora Jews. (credit: ARYEH LABE ABRAHMS) A lobby is launched in the Knesset to support Diaspora Jews. (credit: ARYEH LABE ABRAHMS)

I met someone the other day named Dejiona. I explained that she was named after a French condiment. As preposterous as it may sound, she was so grateful for the information. Curious about her name she had searched Google, Facebook and Twitter and found nothing other than one person with a spelling variant.

JUST AS personal names have meaning, so do the names of cities and towns. And there are some very unfortunate names of places that have impacted Jewish life and history. 

A very small, village in Spain held a referendum of the 52 people living there to change the village name back to its original. The name of the town was originally Castrillo Mota de Judios which means “Camp Jew’s Hill.” But since 1627, the name of the village was Castrillo Matajudios – similar but definitely not the same. Castrillo Matajudios means “Camp Kill Jews.” 

The name of the village remained Camp Kill Jews until June 2015, when the regional government of Castilla y León officially accepted the name change back to the original name.

Recently, the little village was attacked by an awful bout of Jew hatred. Graffiti was sprayed on the Town Hall and on the Sephardi Memory Center, which is under construction. The graffiti read Juden Raus or “out with the Jews” and “Long Live the Catholic Monarchs” and “The Mayor sold out to the killer Jew.” Other graffiti evoked the name of Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. It was an ugly attack against Jews.

Names have meaning. Names tell a story. And despite the vandalism and the vitriol, it was important that, almost 400 years later, the town name had been changed. 

SOME PLACES have names that we assume to be wrapped up with Jewish ideas and themes, but that might really surprise and maybe even shock you.

The rabbinic dynasty of Gur originates in central Poland, in a town named Gora Calvaria. Gur from Gora. It sounds innocuous enough. But Gora Calvaria actually means “Calvary Hill”. It is the place the Christian Bible describes as the mound upon which the cross of Jesus was placed during the crucifixion.

Satmar hassidim get their name from a Romania village name Satu Mare. Again, the name Satu Mare even looks like Satmar. But it means – Saint Mary. 

World over, we didn’t always use both first names and family names, or surnames. In Jewish life, only a few segments of the population used family names – primarily, kohanim and levi’im. A kohen was, and still is, often identified by the surnames Cohen or Katz. Levites, by some form of Levy or Levi. Today, things are, quite obviously, different. We all have last names. 

Some people change their name because they do not like them. Others, because they have to. There was a time in Jewish history when Jews had to take on last names – some were given, some were purchased. Wealthy people often bought names signifying their status, like Koenig, which means king or noble. Others were given names like Goldwasser which means “yellow water” – a name many people later changed.

In Act II, scene 2, of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare has Juliet Capulet speak the now famous line “A rose by any other name will smell as sweet.” While the line is beautifully sentimental – Will Shakespeare was flat-out wrong. We call people, like places and things, their names for a reason. 

Micah, my name, means “who is like God.” Every name tells a story. What’s yours?

The writer is a columnist and a social and political commentator.