What’s In A Name?

Throughout centuries, Jews have assumed an extraordinary number of identities. The Jews of Kaifeng, Shinlung and Cochin; the Inca Jews, the Subbotnik, the Neofitis and the Lumba Jews; the Falash Mura, the Xueta, the Donmeh, and the Marrano Jews are just a few. Each of the communities I have mentioned here has a distinct culture and set of traditions. Yet all have a single, intriguing similarity.

They were all named by someone else.

In most cases, those who strove to “name” a community years ago did so by calling attention to their geographic location. The Jews of Shinlung and the Cochin are readily identifiable as haling from Asia, just as the Inca Jews are unmistakably tied to the Americas.

But others interestingly, seem to be geographically homeless, so to speak. The Subbotniks, long noted for their dedication to Shabbat rather than the prevailing Christian values of the 18th century Russian society, and the Neofitis, the Neophytes, or “new converts” of early Christian history in Italy when Jews were forced to convert, are painfully, not given a place of residence in their names. They are marked instead by what they aren’t, by what their neighbors strove to ensure was never forgotten.

But it is the Marranos, the Xueta, the Donmeh and the Falash Mura whose titles are hardest to understand. Like the Nefitis, their descriptions hale from a time of social upheaval, when Jews were forced to accept conversion but were never accepted themselves, when being a neophyte meant distrust and increased ostracism; when being the “foreigner”, the “falash” was a mark against one’s credibility and acceptance.

What is disturbing however, is how well these titles have stuck through the years. Through the decades, Jews have used this “third-party reference system” as much as anyone else. We have passed down our reference system unwittingly from one generation to another. I was first taught about the “Marranos” when I traveled around Spain as a teenager and later returned to the Mallorca area as a young woman.

I read voraciously about the Spanish Jews, their fate and their struggles to be respected as a community. I visited Jewish landmarks and searched out ancient enclaves. Despite having visited the Iberian Peninsula four times (including one short residence outside of Barcelona), I never heard anyone ever raise the pejorative nature of that name – not then, and surprisingly, not later, when I declared my undergraduate major in Spanish. The truth is none of my professors tried to enlighten me about the true cultural history of the Spanish Jews – but none made an effort to correct the use of the pejorative name, either.

It wasn’t until much later, while researching a story that I learned that I had unwittingly been referring to a proud, respectable and abused community of Jews as pigs.

Had I been more enlightened – had I taken the time to ask what the expression meant I suppose – I would have learned that the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula recognized a different identity, one that didn’t tie themselves to the horrific history and persecution of the Inquisition: Bnei Anusim. It still recognizes that past, but puts it into correct context: the children of the coerced (ones).

The Falash Mura’s title hales from the same distorted context. The Jews of Africa, particularly Ethiopia, were once a proud nation that literally ruled the land. They were no strangers to the local society, and they were not outsiders. But in time, those dynamics changed as well. As in so many other communities, forced conversion was meant to ameliorate an unsettling fact: that there were some who did not – would not willingly – believe the messiah had yet come.

But for the Falash Mura, just as for the Anusim, redemption went only half way. The converted Jews who would eventually take back their identity as Beta Israel – children of Israel – would first undergo years of rejection as unwanted “foreigners” and would be forced into decades of intolerable persecution and slaughter.

Their children – that is, the many descendants who were left in Ethiopia when the airlift to Israel was recently stopped – have taken back their identity as well, but in a way that recognizes and perhaps makes peace with history. They call themselves Zera Israel – the descendants of Israel. It’s an uncomfortable peace for a people who long to be reunited with their heritage, and is told it must instead make peace with its surroundings.

The Xueta – or Chueta – Jews of the Balearic Islands of Spain have, in a more unsettled way, also made peace with their name. Like those of the other many communities of Bnei Anusim in Spain, their ancestors were endowed with the pejorative as a way of ostracizing them. Their name, Xueta – pig in Catalán – was designed to carry the same stamp of discrimination as Marrano, but with far more damning consequences. Small, tightly knit communities, on an island no less, can feel the weight of persecution far greater.

The Xueta is the only community that has opted to keep its distinctive name. According to those individuals I have had the opportunity to interview, they still live with the fear of persecution. They still contemplate the consequences before asking for recognition of what was done to their ancestors. But they have accepted their heritage as Balearic Jews, and the ancient name that came with it.

For the rest of us, the Xueta’s choice is discomforting. It’s easier to try to change a name and hide the evidence of persecution. It is far harder to say the name once you know what it means. And maybe that’s the point: Saying a name should be done with forethought, with deliberation, inquisitiveness and respect but never as the consequence of history.

Names speak to the soul of a people. And, as has been evident in many of these cases, titles have an unsettling way of determining the worth of a people’s future. It’s the job of all of us, particularly as Jews, to question the name.


Image of woman and child in Gondar, Ethiopia courtesy of Rabbi Sybil Sheridan

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