Call Me Chaim

For many years I have spoken about the use of names that a person can use for their personal identity and that go along with their racial, cultural, or ethnic identity. These are not those names that were thrust upon our forbears when they entered this nation through Ellis Island or elsewhere. This is a topic that some people know and advocate for while others will not even think about until it’s mentioned by someone else.

My Hebrew name is Chaim Leib. Chaim means life.

It’s a beautiful name with much significance and for several years my Facebook has been Lewis Chaim.

Yesterday in the New York Times Sunday Review section there was an excellent article by Wajahat Ali. His article, For Muslim-Americans, Baby Aidan or Baby Muhammad?, clearly and succinctly states what I have been saying for years: different societies have put pressure on those, who are either minorities or have been colonized, to ‘Americanize’ or Anglicized their names under the umbrella of assimilation.

The original languages of America

The original languages of America

When my maternal grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Austro-Hungary around 1905, his name was Chaim. Immigration officials decided that he needed an “American” sounding name and it was changed to Louis. Society at that time demanded that those coming to America in the new wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, whether they were Italian, Russian, Irish, or Austro-Hungarian, had to assimilate. Not only were they stripped of their name of identity, but they were discouraged from using their own language.

The primary language of my maternal and, most likely paternal parents was Yiddish, which were discouraged from speaking. There are days where I wish that they spoke Yiddish to me so that I would now be able to speak my language. Many of my friends who were brought up elsewhere can speak it, this always brings a tinge of envy and longing.

Take for example names like Marcos( Of Mars. The Roman fertility god Mars for whom March was named. They are powerful personalities who aspire to lead and command others.They know how to shine), Jose (Spanish for “may G-D increase”, as in the Exodus spreading throughout a nation), Juan (from Hebrew it means ‘gift from God’), Jumaane (born on Tuesday in Swahili). Mario (from Latin meaning manly), Meena (both the Hindu goddess, Usha, and god, Kubera had daughters with this name), Jamaal (Arabic for handsome), Chung (wise person in Chinese), Mei (beautiful in Chinese), Ariela (lion of God in Hebrew), Devorah (Hebrew meaning a bee), Brogan (Irish saint, including Saint Patrick’s scribe), Yosef (Hebrew meaning God shall add another son), Yahuda (praise in Hebrew), Omesh (Om is the sound made to call upon God in Dharmic religions), Muhammed (from Arabic means praised).

Unfortunately there is still much profiling, stereotyping, and hate directed against those who do not have an “American” sounding name or represent a culture considered native to the United States. Ali points out, “The process of choosing a name for a tiny human being is a tremendous, anxiety-inducing responsibility that can lead to marital spats, desperate crowd sourcing and late-night prayers for divine inspiration. According to Ali, for Muslim parents, it carries a much heavier burden. “Why burden your kid with a profile-worthy name in addition to the problems he will likely inherit because of his skin color, ethnicity and religion?”

It is time that we who are of many backgrounds, nationalities, and religions to stand up to show our identity. This can be done through the naming of children, reverting to our names of identity, speaking the language of our forebears, and showing pride in the culture of our ancestors. To those who say that as Americans we should only speak English, they should keep in mind the fact that the only Native American on this land are Cherokee, Navaho, Yupok, Apache, and many more Indian tribes with their own languages and culture. We are all immigrants in a land rich in many cultures and languages. Let us NEVER forget WHO WE ARE: OUR IDENTITY. Just as important let us respect and understand the identity of ALL.

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