In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, the protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, struggles with his given name. As the son of Indian immigrants, why was he named after a 19th Century Russian novelist? (Read this wonderful, whimsical book to discover the answer.) Gogol’s discomfort with his name is multidimensional. It is about the aspirations of his Indian parents for themselves and for their American child. It is the struggle of every child of immigrants to reconcile their dual identities as American and as an “other” and the need to reconcile old country with new. It is about how others define you even as you struggle to define yourself. In short, Gogol is striving to create and assert his own identity. That, I think, is a very American quest.
Although the comparison between my upbringing and Gogol’s is far from precise, the novel resonated with me because of my own struggle with name, identity, and belonging. I was reminded of Lahiri’s novel because of a decision I recently made to assert, more publicly, my own hyphenated identity by using my Hebrew given name. It has been a direct response to the unrelenting attacks on immigrants, on Muslims, on people of color, and on Jews. It is a response to the denigration of so-called “identity” politics, as though the many complex identities of this nation of immigrants and American Indians has been the wrecking ball that caused the divisiveness we are living (it is not). That explains the timing, but not, in essence, the reasons for my name change.
So why? Well, it’s always been my name. My Mother Margalit, who was known as Margo, wanted her kid’s names to sound good in three languages, French, Hebrew, and English. She was born in Brussels, so therefore the French. I think it was important to her because when she and her family fled south to France as the Germans invaded Belgium, the French being, well, French, insisted on her name being Marguerite and she hated it. Her name, Margalit, is Hebrew, and translates as”pearl”.
When she got around to naming me (I have no idea if my Father had a say), she ended up with Matthew, Mathieu, and Matityahu. The latter being the original Hebrew. It means, “a gift from G-d”, though I’m pretty sure I was really “a gift from scotch.” And, ironically, just as my Mother hated Marguerite and later the English, Margaret, I’ve always hated my English name. Too many people wanted to know if I was named after the Gospel Matthew. I hated that question because it challenged my sense of identity just as the fictional Gogol Gunguli was challenged about the origin of his neither “American” nor Indian, name.
If I wasn’t named after a disciple of Jesus, who was I named after? Matityahu was the patriarch of the Maccabee clan that led the revolt against The Seleucid King Antiochus IV (present day Syria), from 168 to 165 BCE, (2, 165 years ago). On the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the year 3622 (by the Jewish calendar), the victorious Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews celebrate the victory with the eight day festival of Chanukah, which begins on that victorious day. It was not just a military victory over a far more powerful foe, but a victory over an enemy determined to force its dominate culture, Hellenism, on Jews. (Multiculturalism wasn’t a thing 2,000 year ago). Being named after the head of a revolt, THAT’S something I’m proud of.
So, every once in a while I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to go by the Hebrew, Matityahu, or the shorter, more easily pronounced Mati. It’s a pronounced with a soft “a” and Americans always pronounce it with a hard “a”, which makes me sound like a character from some creepy, cheery, homespun, and homogeneous TV show from the 1950’s like “The Andy Griffith Show”. If you don’t know the show, check it out. I think that’s the time period the “again” in “Make America Great Again” is aiming for (leaving out any mention of Jim Crow, throwing Homosexuals in jail, or acknowledging women dying from back alley abortions of course). Good times so I’m told.
I was determined to use my preferred name when I left New York City for a ten-year stint in the very un-Jewish National Park Service and the occasionally hostile environments for “others” in and around some national parks. (It was an uneven attempt because people kept pronouncing the shortened version, Mati, with that hard “a” that I’ve already discussed.)
If you’re a Jew from New York, try living in rural Tennessee, or western North Dakota. I assure you that the recent rise in antisemitism wouldn’t be such a great surprise. And if you think cultural insensitivity is relegated to Red States, come to my Gym in Yucca Valley, California. Even before entering the building, cheerful Christian rock assaults me. It is an unwelcome, culturally offensive, gauntlet I run multiple times a week, from building entrance to gym (where the music blasting is of a more secular nature). It is also a reminder from the building’s owner that my kind don’t belong, or, perhaps, suggesting we could belong if only we’d see the light (not gonna happen, especially with insipid Christian rock offending my musically trained ears).
Rather than hide from my origins, something much easier for an Ashkenazi Jew to do than a Hispanic, African-American, or Asian, I’ve reacted by doing the opposite. It’s not my style to hide. So the name is my statement. I thought, in addition, to wearing a yarmulke, but not being particularly religious, I felt it was a little disingenuous. Besides, what do I do when I order that cheese burger, take it off? Nonetheless, with the recent increase in hate crimes, I’m more determined than ever to be a visible Jew, 24/7. No one is going to tell me I don’t belong here. And if they do, let ’em do it to my face! But just in case, I’m getting my passport renewed, as my Mother would have demanded if she were alive, and that’s no joke.