Should I Hebracize My Name?

December 15, 2010 by Raffe Gold
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Many new citizens of Australia still retain a great deal of pride in their original culture; there are thriving Asian and European sub-sectors of Australian society. In Israel many new immigrants change their name as soon as they arrive.

Raffe Gold

As a soon to be Israeli citizen I will have the option as many before me have done of Hebracizing my name to remove the last remnants of the Galut, the exile, and completing the process of aliyah. Aliyah, quite literally ‘ascent’ in Hebrew, is the name given for Jews returning to the State of Israel and living in the world’s only Jewish State.  It has been done many times before me by many of those who seek a life in Israel. Ehud Brog, a young Israeli soldier with Lithuanian heritage, found that he preferred to Hebracize his name and so in 1959 he changed it to Barak or ‘lightening’ and is currently the Minister of Defense. The option of Hebracizing my name led me to question why people change their names when they land in a new country, does it help them integrate into their new society and is Israel any different?

The act of changing ones name has been around for generations. At times it is done willingly to escape past crimes or identification whilst other times a new identity is forced upon someone. A common act prior to arriving at Ellis Island, the port where ships full of eager new Americans would dock, was for the names of the immigrants to be changed by sea captains because officials, clerks, school teachers and Americans would be unable to spell or pronounce the difficult European surnames. Many names that have become commonplace in Western society are etymologically European.

Many faiths also have a separate name for religious purposes. My own secular name is Benjamin Raphael Gold but my Hebrew name, used when I am called up to recite various prayers in front of the congregation, is Shlomo Raphael Zeev Ben Avraham David. Despite Hebrew being one of the official languages of the State of Israel I will not force people to utter every syllable. Rather I wonder if I should simply drop the ‘Benjamin’ and simply be ‘Raffe Gold’. Both names have their merit. ‘Benjamin’ would be Hebracized to ‘Binyamin’ and it is the name that my parents blessed me with. However I am not, and have never really been, a Benjamin. For the last 24 years I have always been known as ‘Raffe’. Luckily ‘Raffe’ is already a Hebracized name and many Israelis would have no problem pronouncing it. A recent suggestion of Hebracizing my name has been to call myself ‘Rafi Paz’, Paz meaning ‘golden‘ and is often a substitute for the name Gold.  Whilst I will agonize over this decision it led me to research the role that names play in new societies. Over thousands of years of near-nomadic wanderings, forced out from country after country, the Jews have ample experience with integration and assimilation. In arriving in a new country many would adopt Spanish or Eastern European names and yet maintain their Hebrew names for religious purposes; maintaining this link to their ancestors regardless of where they live in the world. It is only in the last 62 years that Jews have been able to return to their homeland and express both their faith and culture by changing their names to one that reflects their Jewish ethnicity.

When I announced that I planned to write an article about Hebrew names on Twitter a friend who is planning on making aliyah said that she was thinking of changing her name to ‘Yael’. This led me to thinking about whether or not voluntarily changing your name helps you integrate into the new society? Sociologists state that there are four core measures of assimilating into a new society; socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language attainment and intermarriage. Changing ones name does not appear on this list. So why are many new immigrants under the impression that a name change will pave the way to integration and acceptance into their new country; quite simply it is more  an issue of comfort than necessity.

Israel is a fundamentally different country than other Western countries that take immigrants. Whilst the West may be seen as a safe-haven for the many refugees throughout the world it is not necessarily a homeland. The Jewish people have both a religious and ethnic connection to Israel that no other culture can replicate. For many in Somalia, Pakistan or Afghanistan Australia is simply a country where they are free from harm and persecution yet to the Jewish people Israel will always be their home regardless of where they happen to reside.

It may not be as helpful as learning Hebrew nor will it be as assimilating as military service but changing their name is one of the first steps that Olim take to prove, more to themselves, that they are, finally, home.

Raffe Gold is a political science graduate who will soon emigre to Israel. He can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/raffeg

Comments

4 Responses to “Should I Hebracize My Name?”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    There’s just something about being Jewish: Where do you find another country that youth claim their inheritance to do national service.
    I can also recall many returning to live on a Kibbitz which extends to non-Jewish as well.
    Jewish connections are always ready to give financial support in times of need.
    Claim your inheritance Ralf, including Hebracizing your name.
    Your ancestors would be proud of you.

  2. Mona Peli says:

    “The Jewish people have both a religious and ethnic connection to Israel that no other culture can replicate.” ? I do not quite understand this. The connection of the Aboriginal people to Australia is certainly longer in time, and has both a religious and ethnic dimension. The Irish both in Ireland and throughout the diaspora have a strong connection to Ireland. The Arab Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel have a connection share your connection to that land, their connection is religious and ethnic, and continuous over millenia. This is not to deny your feeling of connectedness to Israel, merely to remind you that you may have more in common with others around the world than you have realised. That “Israel is a fundamentally different country than other Western countries that take immigrants.” is clear, most other Western countries recognise that people born in the country have a right to reside in it and do not make refugees of people born in that country.

  3. Jennifer April Towndrow says:

    Could any one kindly tell me what my name, Jennifer April Towndrow would be in Hebrew ? I have been told the Chinese equivalent and would like to know what it would be in another ancient culture.
    Thanks
    jennytowndrow@gmail.com

  4. Richard Joachim says:

    Good on you Raffe,
    you have a beautiful Hebrew name, and long may you wear it. You are about the same age as our eldest grandchild, and tonight my wife and I will say the Traveller’s Prayer for you as you prepare to depart for your ancient homeland. Just thought … are there any Siddurs that include prayers for those about to make aliyah? We hebracized our name a long time ago, though our parents kept their English names, but they have long since passed on.

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