Vayishlach: You name it


Something very strange happens at the juncture of last week’s parsha (Vayetze) and this week’s (Vayishlach). In the last verse of Veyetze (Genesis 32:3), Jacob saw angels and said, “This is the camp of God” – and he named the place Machanayim, which means “two camps.”

Five verses later, Jacob is nervous in approaching his brother Esau’s well-armed party, and he fears his family and their entourage will be wiped out. So what does he do? He divides his family into two camps. 

Huh? Isn’t that backwards?

During the only moment in the Torah when someone divides his camp into two, it just happens to take place at “Two Camps?” Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jacob to divide his camp into two; and only then to dub the place Machanayim?

After I asked most every rabbi I know and searched tens of thousands of Hebrew books online, I can confidently say this puzzling quirk of the text has gotten very little attention among scholars. I could find only two attempts to explain the unusual timing of the naming of Machanayim: one by the Mittleler Rebbe(who led Chabad in the early 19th century); and one by Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Stern, a 20th century American religious scholar.

The Mitteler Rebbe gave a Kabbalistic interpretation, explaining that one camp represented Tohu (chaos) and the other Tikkun (Repair). And Rabbi Stern suggested that each of the camps of angels in Vayetzeguarded one of the two camps in Jacob’s procession in Vayishlach.

Personally, I think the episode underscores the importance of naming things with care. There were periods in Jewish history when the name Ishmael was a popular name for boys – most famously the 2nd centuryTanna Rabbi Yishmael. Today, nobody in his right mind would name his son Ishmael – it would be like naming him Adolf. But in the contexts of various eras, names can have vastly different connotations: traditionally, Ishmael is said to have repented later in life, and is thus worthy of emulation as a hero to the people Israel. In  the opposite direction, notable Jews before the Holocaust included Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, and Adolph (later Harpo) Marx.

The Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells of Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi traveling on a lengthy journey, when they stop at an inn. Rabbi Meir had a custom of checking the name of each innkeeper before agreeing to stay there. The other rabbis weren’t so inclined. At one lodging place they met the owner whose name was Kidor. Rabbi Meir concluded the innkeeper could not be trusted, since the name reminded him of a verse in Deuteronomy (32:30) that spoke of a wicked generation.

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosi did trust Kidor, and turned over their moneybags to him, while Rabbi Meir hid his in a graveyard. The next day, Kidor denied he ever had their belongings, and Rabbi Meir was able to tell his colleagues the Aramaic equivalent of “I told you so.”

Rabbi Chaim Vital (the chief disciple of Kabbalist par excellence Rabbi Isaac Luria) wrote in the 17thcentury that the name a baby’s parents give him at his bris is written in Heaven, because names don’t just come about by accident. God arranges to put the baby’s name in the mouths of his mother and father.

Clearly, in our tradition names affect our behavior – if not mystically, then by shaping the way we think and therefore act.

So Jacob’s splitting his group into two camps in a place already called Machanayim teaches us to be very attentive when we name something. Jacob encountered two camps of angels and called the placeMachanayim, and that name later became a key resource for himself when he had to get out of severe danger. I can imagine him thinking, “What am I going to do to escape Esau’s wrath?” and then being inspired by the name of the place he was in – which he himself had invented.

For Jews, in perilous times like these, the names we give our children and institutions may seem like minor details. But words create their own realities. Marketers think carefully, creatively, and extensively to choose precisely the perfect word or phrase for their products. As we design our own contributions to the Jewish and wider worlds, shouldn’t we do the same?

David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Noa, Noam most popular names for Jewish babies in Israel


Noa for girls and Noam for boys were the most popular names for Jewish babies born in Israel in 2012.

Israel’s Central Bureau for Statistics released the list of names Monday.

Noa, of biblical origin, was followed in order by Shira, which means song; Tamar, a biblical name and date; Talia, which means a female lamb; and Maya. Rounding out the top 10 are Yael, Sarah, Adele or Edel, Ayala and Michal.

Noam, which means pleasantness, was followed by Uri or Ori, which means my light, and the biblical names Itai, Yosef and David. Rounding out the top 10 are Yehonatan, Daniel, Ariel, Moshe and Eitan.

Among Muslims, Miriam was the most popular name for girls and Mohammad for boys. For Christians, the winners were Maria for girls and George for boys.

Grandma Who?


Growing up, I called my grandmother Grandma.

We were Jewish, but also American. There was never any question but that my grandma would be Grandma. Even if she was born in the Old Country and, like all my friends and all their grandparents, spoke with a Yiddish accent. I used to think, in fact, that in order to be a grandparent you had to have been born in the Old Country and speak with a Yiddish accent.

When I became a mother, making my mother a grandmother, I wondered how she could even be a true grandmother, a real grandma, if she was born American and spoke English the way you are supposed to. Nevertheless, in due order she became Grandma to my daughter. And my grandmother moved up a notch. My daughter called her Bubbe.

Jewish as we may have been, that was the first time it entered my head that Grandma could be anything other than Grandma. Of course, my mother could just as easily have been Bubbe to my daughter, but somehow that never seemed an option.

This all seemed very simple compared to the thinking that went into the mental deliberations, considerations, contemplations, ponderings, trying on of this title and that, which arose when my daughter was pregnant. What did I want my grandchild to call me?

The baby’s paternal grandmother quickly claimed Nana. That was fine with me. I had no desire to be a nana. The paternal grandfather quickly became Grandpa, and my husband took Poppy. Leaving me in the undecided column.

Honestly, I wanted it to be something Jewish, warm, with ties to my past and my people. But Bubbe was still too far an old-fashioned stretch. I am way too much a modern American woman who spends time trying to stay young to want to be tagged with “Bubbe.”

An Israeli guy I know from the gym suggested Savtah, which, as I heard him tell it, is Hebrew for grandmother. I loved the thought of it. It worked on the Jewish side. But somehow having a little one tag after me calling me Savtah was not my idea of being a modern American woman.

Yet there was a trace of an idea there.

Recently, I came across Web sites offering gobs of newfangled names to keep a modern grandparent feeling modern, American and not the same-old-same-old, but something more interesting. I can see I am not the only one facing this question. In fact, if you Google “names for grandma” you’ll see this is far from a Jewish question.

Mothers on the DrSpock.com message board, responding to requests for other names for grandmothers, suggested some you might never have heard of, like “Memaw” or “Maw Maw.”

The site Name Nerds asks people to submit their most clever suggestions, and trumpets the fact that the most common names for grandparents, at least in the United States, are Bubbe, Nana, Grandma, Granny, Gran, Gram, Grammy, Papa, Grandpa, Granda, Granddad and Gramps. (Note that Bubbe is first!)

The whole point, as one blogger put it, is to get away from plain old Grandma.

Others in my extended family have their grandchildren call them “GiGi” or GayGay.” I found that a stretch.

Eventually, I settled on good old “Grandma.”

For me that seemed to fit, if only in the default mode, since I had always used it for my grandmother for all those years.

And then my grandson, once he learned to sort of talk, solved the problem all by himself.

We tell him I am “Grandma.” Only 2, he can say the “ma” part, but not the “grand.” So it comes out “E-ma.”

“E-ma.” Hebrew for mother.

“Hello, E-ma,” he says. “I love you, E-ma.”

I like it. A lot. Even after he learns to say “Grandma,” I may even keep it. Jewish. Loving. Something he came up with not knowing how far back in time, out of so many loving mouths, mothers have been called to their child’s side by that name.

And so a child has led me back to my beginnings. As children so often do.

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers,” and a columnist for The Digital Journalist. She can be reached at douglas-steinman.com.

Big list o’ Jewish Olympians



Dara Torres on the Today Show, August 7, 2008



NEW YORK (JTA)—The following is a list of known Jewish athletes competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing:

United States

Fencing, Women
Sada Jacobson, saber

Kayaking
Rami Zur, 500-meter individual

Swimming, Men
Jason Lezak, 100-meter freestyle, relays
Garrett Weber-Gale, 100 freestyle, relays
Ben Wildman-Tobriner, 50 freestyle, relays

Swimming, Women
Dara Torres, 50-meter freestyle

Track and Field, Women
Deena Kastor, marathon

Israel

Artistic Gymnastics, Men
Alex Shatilov, all-around

Canoeing, Men
Michael Koganov, K-1 500 and 1000 meters

Fencing, Men
Tomer Or, foil

Fencing, Women
Dalilah Hatuel, foil
Noam Mills, epee

Judo, Men
Ariel Ze’evi, 100 kg
Gal Yekutiel, 60 kg

Judo, Women
Alice Schlezinger, 63 kg

Rhythmic Gymnastics, Individual
Ira Risenzon
Neta Rivkin

Rhythmic Gymnastics, Team
Kayta Pizatzki
Racheli Vidgorcheck
Maria Savnakov
Alona Dvorinchenko
Veronica Witberg

Sailing, Men
Gidi Klinger and Udi Gal, 470
Shahar Tzuberi, windsurfing

Sailing, Women
Vered Buskila and Nika Kornitzky, 470
Nufar Eledman, laser radial
Ma’ayan Davidovich, windsurfing

Shooting
Doron Egozi, 50-meter rifle 3, 10-meter air rifle
Gil Simkovich, 50-meter rifle 3, 50-meter rifle prone
Guy Starik, 50-meter rifle prone

Swimming, Men
Itay Chama, 200-meter breaststroke
Gal Nevo, 200 and 400 individual medely
Guy Barnea, 100 breaststroke
Tom Be’eri, 100 and 200 breaststroke
Alon Mandel, 100 and 200 butterfly
Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or, 200 freestyle

Swimming, Women
Anya Gostamelsky, 50 and 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 100 butterfly
Synchronized Swimming
Anastasia Gloushkov and Ina Yoffe, duet

Taekwondo
Bat-El Getterer, 57 kg

Tennis, Men
Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, doubles

Tennis, Women
Shahar Peer, singles
Tzipora Obziler, doubles with Peer

Track and Field, Men
Alex Averbukh, pole vault
Niki Palli, long jump
Haile Satayin, marathon
Itai Magidi, 3000-meter steeplechase

Argentina

Hockey, Women
Gisele Kanevsky

Judo, Women
Daniela Krakower

Swimming, Men
Damian Blaum

Weightlifting, Women
Nora Koppel

Table Tennis
Pablo Tabachnik

Australia

Table Tennis
David Zalcberg

Canada

Baseball
Adam Stern

Wrestling
David Zilberman, 96 kg
Ari Taub, 120 kg plus

Chile

Tennis, Men
Nicolas Massu

Great Britain

Rowing
Josh West

New Zealand

Rowing
Nathan Cohen

Your Inner Joseph


Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

 

A Blessing for the Father


A few months ago I flew from Long Beach to Brooklyn. It was a long, sad and lonely trip. A few days earlier, my mother had turned 82 years old and was looking forward to a special birthday, when tragedy struck. A fire broke out in her home. Quickly, her life was taken by fire and smoke. No goodbyes or time to prepare for closure, just a cruel death.

My father survived the fire but lives daily with his memories. He now spends his time living a day or a week with different children and grandchildren. He recently came to California to join our family for the holidays. Even though the children and grandchildren were here something big was missing. Yes, our dear mother, the grandmother, was missed.

One way Jewish people deal with the grieving process is to name children after their dead parents, grandparents and teachers. Somehow, having a child carrying the name of a departed loved one brings a closure and tranquility.

In large families the happiest times are the holidays. That’s the time for family reunions, when adults visit with their children and grandchildren, and the mood is festive and merry. It’s a time for cousins to meet for the first time. Children find out that they are special and connected to a big family. It’s like a large tree with so many branches and leaves, each growing in their own direction, forgetting that they all come from the same root.

My American grandfather Shea had six sons. When he died, each son gave their newborn baby boys the name of their father, Shea. So at their gatherings there were five or six children called Shea Hecht. When their holy Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok died, they named their next newborn son Yosef Yitzchok. Now there were six Yosef Yitzchok Hechts. You can imagine how the third generation of boys felt when asked who they were. They had to explain that they were the sons of the sons, causing lots of confusion.

During the holiday this year, my father was sad, but he would not speak of the tragic loss. Then suddenly the phone rang: a grandchild had given birth to a baby girl. Now mom had a name.

On the following Sunday, my son called and said, “Mazel tov — congratulations, my wife gave birth to a baby boy.”

My father jumped and said, “Today is mother’s 82nd birthday, what a gift.”

Now, once again I am on the same flight to Brooklyn, but this time to celebrate the circumcision of my grandson, who was to be named Mordechai after his grandfather. My son Boruch is named after my grandfather Boruch and now his son is named after his grandfather.

It may be that our parents and grandparents don’t die; they just pass on, adopting new bodies, continuing the blessings of having wonderful families that continue their family heritage and lifestyle. Sometimes it certainly seems to be so.

I asked my father if he was happy with his life.

He answered, “A father doesn’t ask himself if he is happy. Instead, he asks himself if he is doing the right thing. When the answer is yes, then he is happy.”

Unfortunately, for so many fathers the opposite is true. If they are happy, they reason that whatever they are doing must be the right thing, regardless of the cost to the family.

My job as a father has been made simple by being blessed with a father who expects you to live like him.

There is a “Father’s Prayer” created by the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslow (1772-1810):

“Dear God, teach me to embody those ideals I would want my children to learn from me. Let me communicate with my children wisely — in ways that will draw their hearts to kindness, to decency and to true wisdom. Dear God, let me pass on to my children only the good; let them find in me the values and the behavior I hope to see in them.”

A happy Father’s Day to you all.


Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past-president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita.

What’s Portuguese for Cohen?


A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the "Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames," a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants.

Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese "New Christian" — or Marrano — ancestry.

According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had more than 16,000 names.

The first part of the book features a historical introduction. The second tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names’ origins.

For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name’s subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history.

According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal’s major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World.

Most non-Jewish Brazilians presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names — like Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all — often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians.

Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry.

"But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there," he said.

Time to Go


This week we start a new book of the Torah — Shemot or Exodus. The word shemot means names, because we start out by naming all the descendants of Jacob who came down to Egypt. But the word exodus means going out (just like the word exit). In this book we will learn about how the Israelites leave Egypt and spend 40 years in the desert before entering the Land of Israel.

Why must they spend 40 years wandering, you may ask? Why couldn’t God just take them straight to Israel? The answer is this: Sometimes you are not ready to go on to the next level. If you try to take a fifth grade math test when you’re in fourth grade, you may fail. In the same way, the Israelites had a great deal of growing up to do. They were used to being slaves. They needed to learn how to become responsible citizens before they could be allowed to possess their land.