When people hear my name, they find it beautiful. They ask “Where does it come from?” and I tell them, “It’s Hebrew.” “Golden, like Goldilocks,” I translate, and now they think they know exactly who I am. Often, if, later, we become friends and they are happy and exclaim, “Oh my God, you’re Golden!” I mutter, “I know,” because they’ve forgotten that’s what my name, Zahava, means.
An Israeli looks up when I introduce myself. Perhaps Zahava reminds them of a Shabbat sunset in Jerusalem. “That’s an old name,” they smile, like I just presented to their lips—and their neshamas—the honor of singing the name of a grandmother, the zealous type, the kind who returned to Jerusalem before the rest. Like Golda Meir, maybe. Or perhaps my name means the grandmother even before, the one who did not follow her daughter to the Promised Land, the one who perished in Poland, who was never known again. Except, “That’s an old name,” and perhaps it was hers, and perhaps I am her.
I am not her. We inherit our names, in Judaism. We inherit the trauma of the Diaspora of our people, Pogroms and Inquisition and Holocaust. Our religious holidays commemorate the destructions of our people; we are resolute and intelligent, but fearful. And in that fear, I am now told: “You inherit Jerusalem.” My birthright, which God promised to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob. It is a land “flowing with milk and honey,” God said, and so they say to me. But my name is not a sunset in Jerusalem, nor does it honor the City of Gold.
In Israel, they sing a song, a song which at one point battled to be the national anthem: “Yerhsulayaim shel Zahav,” Jerusalem of Gold. In its tune lives the sorrowful remembrance of a 2,000 year exile, and a celebration of return. In the Diaspora, pulsating voices now adopt the same tune, renewed by a Vicarious Return. Even across an ocean, I hear the cry: Birthright.
No, I am not her. My name is Talmud; I am the books of law, because while the flaws of its authors concern me, they at least expected readers to challenge them. Demanded it, really. “Ask good questions, challenge authority,” my father—a rabbi—instructed me each day as he dropped me off at school. Ask good questions, challenge authority: these were the words of the medieval rabbis—the scholars and redactors of Talmud—and of every rabbi I respect ordained since. The Birthright promised to me has nothing at all to do with land.
I am not her, because my name is an archive of immigration, but not of Aliyah. My ancestors were told, “In America, the streets are filled with gold.” So they sailed to Ellis Island, and not to Jerusalem. They named their daughter Goldie, after the streets of gold, and not the streets of milk, or the streets of honey. “The Golden Medinah, that’s how they saw America,” my Dad explains when I ask him. “A nation with gold pouring from its streets, a good home.”
But the streets of the tenement did not pour gold. Poverty reminded my great-grandmother’s parents every day of their misfortune, and of her misnaming—“Goldie.” Her name contradicted itself—her identity a bridge between Hope and Failure. Then the Holocaust arrived. American Jews, dumbfounded, ‘safe’ in America, now wondered, and hoped. Their streets seemed quite more Golden than those back in Europe.
Her name is Goldie, and mine is the Hebrew. On my birth certificate exists the contradiction of my identity, for my name comes from both an admiration for the Golden Medinah (the United States) and for Jewish identity erroneously entangled with the State of Israel. My name is a battle between living with conscience, or living with fear; a Jew in the home or a Jew returned home; a Jewish Diaspora or a Jewish Homeland. And while the language of my name may, to you, suggest that I believe in God, or in religion, or love Israel with every ounce of my soul, my form of Golden derived from hopeful miners dragging chisels West, towards California, not East. I do not pray to the East anymore, towards Jerusalem. I do not pray.
In the house of my father, we used to sit, eyes rolling at him as he stood, King of the Seder, a rabbi dutifully retelling the Exodus and four hundred years of Israelite servitude, and—Baruch Hashem—the Ten Plagues that set us free! “They tried to kill us, but we survived, let’s eat!” my brothers joked, the same joke, every year; at Purim and Channuka and Shemini Atzeret and every other Jewish holiday wherein we weren’t repenting or starving ourselves for our sins. “The only happy holidays in Judaism are Israeli, anyway,” I argue over Shabbat dinner. My dad disagrees, and he refrains: “You sound like Larry David. Is Rosh Hashanah a sad holiday?” I can’t answer; it is for me.
In twelfth grade, I flew to Israel. We traveled for five weeks; following Eilat, we went to Poland; following Poland, we joined Gadna. In Gadna, we donned the Tzahal uniform, learned to shoot Israeli weapons, stood at attention to Israeli commanders, lived on an Israeli military base, and—for one week—joined the ranks of the Israeli Defense Force. But I am not her. My name does not verify my allegiance to Zionism; if anything it confuses it. I do not wish to be the golden sunset of Jerusalem, nor do I admire the “golden” streets of North America. Golden for whom? This question is true of both countries.
Of the British Mandate my teachers taught, “What a miracle! That the United Nations gave Israel to the Jews!” “You see,” they would explain, “there was never a Palestine. It’s a name, that’s all! Invented out of thin air, by the British! Never existed!” I tried to listen to the rabbis, I tried to ask. But every time my teachers answered, “The Occupation isn’t real. Palestinians don’t exist.” Again and again. Jews do not feel safe in either place though, that is the kicker. Our fear continues. People say we are not safe in Israel because we are not yet meant to be there, or because the region does not like us, or because the New York Times is biased, or because it is not our land.
Now my Jewish school teachers hear I’ve learned more. Now they know I disagree. I proclaim on Facebook, “I have evolved.” They comment, urging me: “Don’t accept the Palestinian Perspective,” like it’s a choice of belief. They think, “What a failure we have committed: a student, a Jew, fallen to propaganda!” But I am not her; the Jewish community raised me so well, I beat their system.
The emails I sent to Jewish leaders (most left unanswered), the letters to rabbis (no one hired me after), the unpublished drafts (“too radical”), scared those same institutions that—years ago—created me. In my prose, the same halakhah used to justify the Jewish narrative describing the inevitability of our Return—of trauma, oppression, erasure—in fact grounded my opposition. I asked: What is our right to oppress others as history has oppressed us?
Please do not blame me for not knowing for so long; many American Jews are not told, and so we do not know our complicity. Please do not blame me for not knowing for so long; I no longer care what God says. Please do not blame me for not knowing; I am trying to learn myself. I am trying to understand my name.
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