Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On Names and Naming: How the Jews Sunk the Titanic

New Chiefs on The Land, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, 2006

Several years ago, I had an interesting discussion with my son Ryan about names. We were talking about the Canadian Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. He embraces his traditional last name but notes that his first two names are names from the residential school system. He only signs his paintings with his traditional name. Likewise, many people of African descent, leave their "slave" names, or at least, identify that the names have this origin. Dollar Brand, the South African musician, became Abdullah Ibrahim. Leroi Jones became Amiri Baraka.


Ryan was wondered about our Jewish last name. As I recall from Hebrew school, Jews of Eastern European origin only got last names sometime in the 19th century for census (thus tax) purposes by the non-Jewish government. Different names were given to different families according to status and money. Hence, Goldberg was worth more than Greenberg. Waxman was a occupational name. And Jews made lots of candles.

And there's that ancient joke:
—The Jews sunk the Titanic.
—No, they didn't. That was an iceberg. 
—Greenberg, Goldberg, Iceberg. They're all the same.

The traditional way for Jews to be named is "Someone Son of Someone." Thus, Ryan Ben (son of) Gary, or, with our Hebrew names, Ronen Ben Gershon. Nowdays, it's usual, at least in reform congregations to include the mother's name. So: Ronen Ben Gershon v'Bela. (The v means 'and.') 

Jewish last names, like many non-anglo names were also modified when Jews emigrated. 'Barwin' was "Borwein" or "Borweinis" in Lithuania where my grandfather was born. His family changed it to Barwin when they moved to South Africa. I still have Borwein relations. For example Jon Borwein. My maternal grandfather's last name was Zelikowitz, which became Zelikow when he emigrated to South Africa. Ryan remembered that Stuart Ross's family name was Razovsky which was Anglicized to Ross and then appeared on and in some of Stuart's books.

I have chosen to consider "Barwin" as an invented name, albeit one derived from my family's past. I consider that my grandfather changed it to reflect his new life of opportunity outside of the shettls of Europe. Perhaps I could see it as a concession to the dominant power and language of the time and place, however I'd prefer to consider it as part of a process of shaping a life and a person. (For more on the very interesting topic of Jewish emmigration to South Africa, check out Victor Barwin's — my grand-uncle or cousin, I'm not sure — book about it "Millionaires and Tatterdemalions" )

"Ryan" is obviously not a traditional Jewish name, though he was given it in memory of his great-grandmother whose name began with an "R" --Rita Barwin. It is traditional with Ashkenazi Jews to name children after dead relatives. It would be bad luck to name them after someone alive. (No Moshe Jr.'s for Jews.) My son Aaron Barwin is named after Aaron Barwin, my dad's dad. Once when we were at a funeral, Aaron (age 5) noticed that his great-grandfather's grave was nearby and ran and lay down with his arms crossed in front of the gravestone. It was very freaky for Beth and I to see him lying on a grave with his own name on it. 

I wrote a prose poem (which appeared in my book, I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil Press) last year. 



STREAMBED 
A cloudless day in the cemetery where we have gone for the funeral of an aunt. Our five-year-old, named after his late grandfather, wanders about the headstones, dragging his fingers along the streambeds of carved-out letters. He stumbles upon his own name inscribed above a small bed of grass. He lies down, crosses his arms, closes his eyes, and waits. In time, he becomes old. The wind carves his features smooth as river rock. Someone lifts him and places him on his grandfather’s headstone. We no longer remember the town where he was born. 


I don't know what Ryan will do about his name. Perhaps he will change his name. Perhaps he will modify or stylize it in order to claim it for his own. bpNichol. e.e. cummings. Geof Huth. mIEKAL aND. Or, like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, keep it as a sign of the complexity of his personal and cultural history. Maybe he'll be "the son formerly known as Ryan" and invent his own sign. (When Prince navigated away from "Prince," Bob Wiseman suggested that he would change his name to Prince, and then the name "Bob Wiseman" would be available for someone else to adopt. Basically, we could all move one name to the right. 

What would it be like with a different name? Would I think differently about myself if I were John King? My late friend Kerry Schooley was a very big man. He wrote under the very funny pen name of "Slim Volumes," as a poet. He also wrote as "John Swan" for detective fiction.

Certainly the exploration of culture, identity, and naming is a powerful and unfolding topic for discovery. 

A few years ago, when my son, Aaron, completely lost his temper, he would call me a "Bitch." This was convenient, since he is my son, and there exists a rather simple and pre-made retort, one with much precedent in popular culture, and available to me should I choose to invoke the fact that he is my male offspring.

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