What’s in a Name? For Ethiopian Immigrants, a Lot (Update)

by Brian on October 18, 2010

in Reviews

Mequonent, Kenubish, Dawit, Workenesh. These are some of the names given to Ethiopian Jews before they arrived in Israel between 1984-1991. Their names after immigration authorities got involved? Asher, Ilana, David and Zahava.

The story of how Israel changed the names of thousands of Ethiopians – and the pain and alienation that such a seemingly simple action caused an entire immigrant community – is the subject of a short new documentary, “These are my Names.” The film premieres tonight at 6:00 PM at the Jewish Eye World Jewish Film Festival in Ashkelon.

Running a brisk 30 minutes, the film interviews a dozen or so Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel who describe the significance of their original names in Amharic, and how they feel that their being forced to adopt rough Hebrew equivalents is indicative of the way Israelis have viewed the Ethiopian aliyah in general.

Receiving a new name is certainly not unknown to immigrants swapping countries. Jews arriving at Ellis Island in New York, speaking little English, were frequently given last names that the overburdened clerks could pronounce. In the early days of the state, Israelis with Ashkenazi-sounding names wishing to enter public service were forced to Hebraicize their names. More recently, immigrants to Israel from the West often adopt Hebrew names voluntarily to express religious or Zionist solidarity.

But names in Amharic are far from arbitrary; each tells a fascinating story.

While some have Biblical connotations – Dawit is derived from King David – most names refer a particular event. The name “Sinke” in Amharic means “kernels of wheat.” “It represents ‘food for the journey,’” the original Sinke said, “which was fitting as my family always wanted to make aliyah.”

A man named “Tamasgen” shared how he received his name, which means “thank God.” His family was just starting dinner, he explained. “My grandfather was making the blessing over the food when my mother went into labor.” After he was born, his grandfather transferred the gratitude he was giving to God for their meal to his new grandson.

One of the names Asher Rachamim was called in Ethiopia was “Smacho.” When his mother was pregnant, his parents were fighting and there was real concern that they would divorce, he said in the film. It was again the grandfather who played a crucial role in the naming, urging Smacho’s parents to stay together. They did and the name Smacho comes from the expression “listen to them,” referring to the grandfather’s well-heeded advice.

An Ethiopian Israel teen had her name changed to “Ilana” arbitrarily by her kindergarten teacher. “The name means nothing to me,” she said, reflecting on her original name Kenubish – “they were jealous of her.” Kenubish explained in the film that she was the tenth child born to a “perfect family” of 5 boys and 5 girls, so much so that the neighbors were “jealous” of Kenubish’s mother.

Nevertheless, younger Ethiopian immigrants to Israel are torn: They know there is value in their original names but they also want to fit into Israeli society. As one woman related about her army experience, “I was spending too much time explaining what my name meant and not enough on what job I was doing.”

Indeed, receiving a Hebrew name might have been perfectly acceptable – if the immigrants had been given a choice. “But no one in Israel really thought about what we’d been through, our past and feelings, the emotional aspects of having made the long trip through Sudan,” said David Mihret, the director of the Steering Center for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System.

Tellingly, a sign at a protest rally shown in the film read, “I changed my name to be Israeli and what did you do to accept me?”

“We were a weak community,” explained fashion designer Zoe Gidamo, the first Ethiopian immigrant to graduate from Israel’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. “We thought that they do this to everyone, so it’s all right. But they don’t. They just do it to the Ethiopians.”

Today, there is a movement back to original names. Young Ethiopian Israelis are going to the Ministry of the Interior and requesting name changes back from Rachel to Yeuvmert, from Zehava to Workenesh.

“These are my Names,” which shouldn’t be confused with the similarly titled film by Eli Tal-El, “The Name My Mother Gave Me” (the latter of which documents a roots journey to Ethiopia by Israeli teens and only peripherally focuses on the significance of names), was written and directed by Ruth Mason and edited by Naomi Miller Altaraz. Music is provided by Lizenta, a Netanya-based choir of Ethiopian immigrant women.

“These are My Names” provides a fascinating glimpse into a painful and little known period of Israeli history. It is available from Ruth Diskin Films on DVD – contact ruth@ruthfilms.com. The documentary is in Hebrew with English subtitles.

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1 Rachel October 19, 2010 at 1:12 pm

This is a fascinating post. When I converted last year, I put a lot of thought into my Hebrew names – they were my choice and meant a great deal to me: Rachel being a long-held family name and specifically to honour my Nan, and Zivah – because Ziv is the old name for the month of Iyar in which I first entered my shul and my journey began. But to have names that meant much to you and your family replaced with seemingly arbitrary choices – I can’t imagine how that would make me feel.

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