Thursday, January 3, 2013

Where the Streets Have No Names

To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it.  Once named, the world in its turn reappears to 
the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming.
                                      -Paulo Freire

Jewish tradition places tremendous importance on the power of names and naming.  God creates the world by speaking it into existence, by naming it.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness, God called Night.  When God entrusts Adam with the task of naming the animals, it is an act of faith and empowerment.  To name something is, in a sense, to claim it as one's own.  Hence the rightful emphasis that Jewish feminism places on naming our female ancestors, who are too often unnamed in the Torah and the Talmud, and adding the names of the matriarchs to our prayers.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  All of this reminds us that names matter profoundly.  And because they are so important--because they are defining--names carry powerful political messages: Anti-abortion or pro-choice?  Constantinople or Istanbul? West Bank or Gaza?  Jerusalem: City of Peace. Al Quds.  Aeli Capitolina. Yerushalayim.

The first place we stayed on this trip, in Tel Aviv, was located on a street named Yonah Ha-Navi, "Jonah the Prophet."  My son, Jonah, understandably loved this, and his connection with Tel Aviv-Yaffo, which was the port from which the biblical Jonah departed for Nineveh.  He also connected with Kaufman Street, just a short walk along the beach from Yonah Ha-Navi.  In fact, almost everyone in my family has found a place to call their own here.  We are now around the block from a cafe named "Rosa".  My older daughter, Tanya, has a name that appears everywhere in hasidic circles, since it is also the title of the sacred text of the Chabad-Lubavitchers.  We've seen streets named Joshua (my nephew, as well as the successor of Moses) and Jonathan (my brother, and numerous Jewish heroes, starting with Saul's son and David's best friend).  As for me--well, the Dan hotel chain is one of biggest and best in Israel.

Indeed, one could learn almost all of Jewish history through the street names in Israeli cities.  What town doesn't have a Ben Gurion Street, honoring the first prime minister?  And Ben Yehudah, for the father of the modern Hebrew language.  There are all the ubiquitous famous Zionists: Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, Nordau, Jabotinsky, Pinsker.  The Talmudic Rabbis: Hillel, Akiba, Yochanan Ben Zakkai.  Dates: 29 November Street (date of the UN vote to establish the state of Israel).  Writers and artists: Bialik, Tcherikowsky, Agnon, Amichai. There are streets named for Jewish prophets and sages and kings and queens and even streets named for philo-Semitic Brits: Disraeli, Lloyd George, Balfour.

This historical geography is a wonderful thing about Israel.  After years of living in foreign lands whose  streets tell stories other than our own (and, indeed, often honored our persecutors) , it is amazing for the Jewish people to have a land where the street names teach our history and assert our rightful pride.

But with this privilege comes responsibility.  Surely we, who have known what it is like to be denied the power of naming, should know better than to deny this power to others.

Alas, I was saddened to read a recent article in the Israeli paper, Haaretz, which noted that we, Jewish Israelis, are using names to erase the history of our Palestinian neighbors.  

The article--posted here: that the municipality of Jerusalem recently approved 43 street names for Arab areas--all of which are devoid of any symbolism or historic significance.  Streets in East Jerusalem will be given names that translate to: granary, sickle, pitchfork, mirror, flood, ladder, bridge, unity, plaza, hotel, flowers, and Teachers' Housing. Residents were told that the city authorities would not agree to the names of any writers or religious or political figures out of the Islamic past. 

Jerusalem's Deputy Mayor, Joseph Alalo, of the Labor Party, offered a critical voice crying in the (nameless) wilderness.  He abstained from the vote, noting, "This is ugly behavior.  I'm embarrassed by the decision.  I couldn't accept that the names proposed were mostly of inanimate objects, as if the Palestinians don't have any cultural heroes, great scientists, or thinkers, and have no past."

We, the Jewish people, know what it is like to be denied a history.  We have held on to our past tenaciously, against all odds.  After two thousand years, we now have the privilege of honoring that past at every street corner.  

Surely we can do better than re-playing this history (or, rather denial of history) with ourselves in the oppressor's role.

Maybe some day, Jonah and I can stay at a Dan hotel on the corner of Yonah HaNavi and Mohammed the Prophet streets.

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