By Gabriel Weinstein
For hundreds of years, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of strolling through Jerusalem’s supposed golden streets and celebrating the Sigd festival in its hills. By the late 1970’s, Ethiopians decided that dreaming of Israel no longer sufficed, and embarked on foot to the Promised Land. Scores of Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of reaching Israel through Operation Moses in 1984 after trekking through deserts, skirting Ethiopian border authorities and toiling in unsanitary Sudanese refugee camps. But Ethiopians never dreamed that in Israel, their utopia, they would abandon their Amharic names.
Journalist Ruth Mason explores how Ethiopian immigrants traded their Amharic names, and ultimately a sense of identity, for new Israeli-sounding Hebrew names in her documentary These Are My Names. The film, which premiered last week at the Jewish Eye World Film Festival in Ashkelon, Israel, expresses the Ethiopian community’s frustration about changing names through interviews with Ethiopian immigrants who gave up their Amharic names. One such immigrant said, “We were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past. We were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’” A woman interviewed in the film was given the name Tziona by her teacher, because she resembled her teacher’s friend. In a Jerusalem Post article, Mason explains Ethiopians’ names have special significance because “They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”
The importance of names to Ethiopian Jews exemplifies a universal aspect of Jewish culture. Beginning in the biblical era, individuals changed their names to correspond with elevated social status or the completion of a notable accomplishment. The biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Joshua all received new names during their lives. The Book of Samuel makes a distinct connection between an individual’s given name and their personality, proclaiming “Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25).
Several biblical figures’ names, such as Jacob, reflected their character traits or events in their lives. Jacob was named Ya’akov, meaning to usurp, because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel (ekev) during birth, and would later steal his birthright. After a night of wrestling with God’s angel, Jacob became Yisrael, meaning struggle with God.
Ethiopian immigrants are not the first, nor will they be the last, group of Jews to change their names as an assimilation tactic. During the Hellenist era, Jews forged new aliases by combining Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names. Napoleon made European Jews adopt formal last names, giving rise to common popular surnames like Rosenberg and Silverstein. Jewish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries anglicized their first and last names to fit in. In 1938, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews in Germany and Austria would be called Sarah or Israel. During the mass aliyahs (migrations) to Palestine, many olim, such as the writer Dan Ben-Amotz, discarded their European names for modern Hebrew names.
What distinguishes the Ethiopian name change phenomenon from its predecessors is its context: It occurred in the Jewish state, while the others occurred in countries where Jews were a marginalized minority. Whereas Jews in previous eras eventually embraced their foreign aliases, These Are My Names depicts the Ethiopian community’s ambivalence over their name changes.
The assignment of new names to Ethiopians without their consultation or consent breaches the guarantee of citizens’ right to practice their respective linguistic, cultural and educational practices outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Jews perpetuated a cycle of forced identity change that for millennia was used to weaken Jewish identity.
If renaming Ethiopian Jews was intended to promote integration, it has hardly succeeded. In 2003-04, the percentage of employed, working age Ethiopian men in Israel dropped to 45, down from 54 a decade before. Most of the Ethiopian community work minimum wage jobs. In a survey of Ethiopians in eight Israeli cities, 45 percent of adults were illiterate. These Are My Names highlights just one of the major challenges the Ethiopian community confronts in its integration into Israeli society.