Once again, we can see this with reference to Jewish tradition. There is a well-known episode in Moses’ life when, realizing that his murder of an Egyptian overseer is known, he flees from Pharoah’s wrath. He flees to Midian, where he recognizes the irony of his fate. Having just discovered his strong bond to his people, he has been forced to flee into exile with the knowledge that he is unlikely ever to return. At a certain point he settles down in Midian and marries a local woman, Zipporah. What a tragedy for a person who has only recently discovered where he really belongs!


The depth of Moses’ lifelong feeling of exile is only revealed to the reader, however, when he fathers a son. The name that he gives his son is Gershom (literally, a stranger there). The text explains that this is because Moses was “a stranger in a strange land,” the assumption being that the “strange land” refers to Egypt. Most commentators skip over the story, seeing it as self-evident; but further thought should alert us to an intriguing idea.

What sort of a father calls his son Stranger? If this is indeed what Moses did, he must have wanted to pass on to him the feeling of cultural alienation that he had experienced throughout much of his life in the two different societies of Egypt and Midian. Any child growing up with such a name is going to have enormous problems fitting into the society in which he lives. At some point in his life, he is going to ask his parents - perhaps even angrily - why he has been saddled with a name that is both ridiculous and extremely difficult for him. Moses must have been aware of this when he chose the name for his child. No thinking parent saddles a child with a name that is going to make them a lifelong object of ridicule.

He must have planned the moment when, many years in the future, Gershom would question him. Moses would have ready an answer, which could only be one involving an explanation of Gershom’s (and Moses’) real cultural identity. Moses clearly wanted to pass on to his son the feeling of exile, the fact of not belonging. His stratagem of doing this with a name would have worked. Names given to a child reflect the cultural identities of the parents; when it is the parents’ wish that this identity be passed on to the child, his/her name becomes a weapon in the battle for cultural survival.

Moses was not the first to use this ploy. Earlier on, in Beraishit ch. 41, we read of a similar act by Joseph who gives his two children by an Egyptian wife names that reflect his bitterness, despite his prosperity in the alien land of Egypt. The fact is that names are a key to cultural identity and they are often chosen by Jewish parents to represent the cultural orientation that they hope their child will take.


Jewish children of would-be Hellenizers in Eretz Israel - and, of course, the Diaspora - gave their children Greek names in order to indicate the cultural direction they desired them to take. The perfect example of conflicting cultural directions within a family is found in the story of the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans. While the first generation - the one associated with the revolt - received names like Yehudah, Shimon, Yonatan and Eleazar, two generations later we find mixed names such as Yochanan Hyrcanus; a short while later again, we find that the Jewish name has been totally dropped and the children are now called by names such as Hyrcanus or Aristobulus. While it does not indicate that the parents of the latter did not want their children to be Jewish, it does mean that they wanted them to embrace Hellenistic culture together with their Judaism, and to see themselves as citizens of a wider cultural universe.

We can equally draw examples from recent times. As Jews became increasingly integrated into western host cultures in recent generations, it became very common to give the child two names: a Jewish (Hebrew) one for ritualistic purposes within the Jewish world and a non-Jewish name that would be used in outside society. Is it surprising that, in so many cases, the ‘outside’ name became the ‘real’ one with which the child would identify more strongly?

Over the last twenty years or so, an interesting counter-trend has developed in parts of the Jewish Diaspora: many parents have returned to giving their children ‘Jewish names’ for use in the outside world. They usually give them names in the form that is most familiar and recognizable in general society. We see this most clearly with regard to Biblical names: Saul rather than Sha’ul; Joseph rather than Yosef; Noah rather than No’ach. This return to Hebrew names in the vernacular form suggests, once again, a very specific message about cultural identity that the parents wish to convey to their child.


The Power of Names

The aim of this exercise is to think about the question of birth name, the factors that go into choosing a birth name and the role of that name in developing a child’s future identity.





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27 Nov 2006 / 6 Kislev 5767 0