Browse Topics

View all talks

The Names We Call Ourselves

Joseph DweckFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2015

Names fascinate me. I am known by many names, and in this talk I speak about how, as Jews, names carry particular weight, tracing us back generations upon generations to our ancestors before us. How does a person bear such a weight of history on his or her shoulders? And what should we, the Jewish people, call ourselves? What is the full, uncut, nature of our identity?

Rabbi Joseph Dweck is the Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the UK. He has studied in Jerusalem at Yeshiva Hazon Ovadia and also studied psychology and philosophy at Santa Monica College in California and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies. He received his Semikha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef under the auspices of the Sephardic Rabbinical College of Brooklyn, New York. Rabbi Dweck served as rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom, a Syrian Sephardi synagogue of over 700 members in Brooklyn, and as Headmaster of Barkai Yeshivah, a large Jewish day school, also in Brooklyn. He has an eclectic taste in music and has received training as a hazzan in the Oriental Sephardi tradition. Rabbi Dweck now resides in London with his wife, Margalit, and five children.

There are many names that I go by, that people call me. Joe, Joseph, Rav Yosef, Chacham, Rabbi Dweck. But there is one name that when I look in the mirror and I catch my own eyes looking back at me, which we don’t always do. We look in the mirror and we look at everything else but our eyes. But when we can look at our eyes, what’s the name that comes up? Most often it’s the name that I grew up with. It’s the name that my parents and my grandparents and siblings call me and it’s just Joey. But almost nobody calls me that any more. And I think about names, names fascinate me because they are the way that we express ourselves and the world, it’s the way people think of us, it’s the symbol for everything that we are in the minds of the people that we interact with. And I was thinking, if our people, if our nation as a collective body were to look in the mirror and catch our eyes, what would be the name that we most deeply identify with? And I don’t think that it’s “Jew”. I would suggest that it’s something else. I would suggest that the name is “Yisrael”, Israel. I’ll tell you why. You know you think about the name that we grew up with, the name that my earliest memories are attached to and the name “Yisrael” is that name for our people. But we have been called Jews for the last two thousand years. We’ve called ourselves that and it’s how we’ve been known in the world. But if we as a people were to look in the mirror and to find our eyes in that mirror and to connect to the deepest part of who we are, I imagine that it might very well be Yisrael that comes up. It was the name of a man, first Jacob and then Israel and then his children, B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel and then a nascent nation and then a kingdom and then an entire people. And if we think about it, we were a nation before we were a religion and that was our name, it was who we were. And when we lost that and we spread out into the entire world, and where have we not been? What country have we not visited? What language have we not spoken? When we spread out into the world, that name went dormant. And the name of one tribe out of twelve, the tribe of Judah, was what we took for ourselves because it was all that was left. And we forgot that we were a nation. We forgot that we were people, sovereign on a land among the other nations of this world. We forgot that when we say “goy” we don’t mean non-Jew, we simply mean another nation. And we took the relationship that we had with god and we encapsulated it and we put it together and we took it with us on our backs and we became a religion and we tribally named ourselves “Jews”, Yehudim, from the tribe of Judah. And we thought of ourselves only as people that adhered to religious ideas and religious laws and we edited ourselves down. But what happens to a people when for two thousand years we have thought of ourselves as a tribe and as a religion and forgotten that we are a nation on this earth. What happens to our identity? When we think about a name, isn’t it true that our name is shorthand for everything that we are? Isn’t it true that my real name is Yosef ben Yehoshua ben Ezra and so on and back and back and if I were really to say my name, if I were to tell my name to you. If I could say my whole name, it would take generations and I would string my identity back three thousand, four thousand years and hold that in my hand. But we don’t do that, we use our names as short hand. So Joe, Joey, Rav whatever it is, that’s shorthand. But in that one name, in that one name, what does it hold? And what does it stand for? I think about it a lot, you know my family, my wife Margalit, she’ll call me any number of those names until I actually turn around and the only one I turn around to is when she says “Rabbi” and I actually turn around. And I turn around to this… you know so there are issues but that’s for another talk. But, the idea of who I am, how far back does my name go? What is the nature of my identity? It’s something that we have difficulty with when we think about it, because how far back are we supposed to go? I mean which generation do I end the stream? Of being the son of, the son of, the son of, I mean how are we supposed to manage all of that? There’s got to be a point where I edit my life and where I say, alright. This section is what I’ll hold. This part is what I’ll be able to carry on my back and live. But do we really want to edit our lives, I mean is that really what we hope to do? What does it look like when after two thousand years of a name being dormant, is resurrected. Shouldn’t have called the new country when we came back home Israel, who thought to call it Israel? We were Jews for two millennia. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call it Judea? But we didn’t, we woke the name up. And we remembered that when we came back to a land, when we came back as a nation with a dream of reclaiming what it means to be a nation on this earth, the name came back to us, it floated in front of us and we wore it prominently and we called ourselves again Yisrael. And how much wider is it? How much broader is it? How much deeper is it? How much more does it encompass than simply Jew?

Now don’t get me wrong, Jew is meaningful, it is part of who we are. But if we think about it and we don’t edit, if we take the full uncut version of our identity we know that our name is Yisrael, we are a sovereign people, we are a nation first and foremost. And when we think about ourselves that way, and we look in the mirror and we see our eyes when we think about ourselves that way we have room to be able to accommodate and encompass everything that we are. But it is a lot and so we snip, and we edit and we shrink it down into something we can keep neatly in our pocket. But it’s much bigger and we all know it, and not only do we know it but the world knows it. How is somebody not to pay attention to the fact that a people that have been away for two thousand years come back to the place that they left, call themselves the name that they had all that time ago and stand prominently, living, thriving, moving. Would you not be nervous? Aren’t you nervous? Does it not make us nervous? The weight of it all. The magnitude of it all. I don’t know about you but you ask me, Moses could come back down and split the sea 100 more times and it would pale in comparison to the miracle of you and I being here. It would pale in comparison to the miracle that as we were burned by the fires of the world, in every one of our iterations, we are here and we are once again Yisrael. And so when we think about names and we think about what it means to have trouble accommodating a name or more severely to be anti-name and there is such a thing. We call it, “anti-shemi” it’s anti Semite, or anti name. It’s really what it is, it is a literal definition. Sure it means more than that and goes back to Shem, son of Noah, the Semites and so on. But at the end, at its face, it is anti “shem”, where names are too powerful. And the string of Yosef ben Ezra ben Yehoshua and back and back is too powerful for us to bare, and are we ready to hold it and to own it? And are we as a nation ready to look at the mirror and find our eyes? It takes time for the waters to settle when we do that, yes? I highly recommend it by the way. When you look at the mirror and it’s not the hair and it’s not the skin and it’s not anything else, it’s not the wrinkles, it’s the eyes. And the name comes forth and in the eyes you hear the names roll back and back and back into the generations and they stand before us. And so it’s been wonderful to be Jews for two millennia and it’s been difficult and challenging but at the end we are all expats. We left our country and our nation had dispersed and we took with us what we could. To remember who we were and we have absorbed everything we have experienced and all places we have been and every language and every perspective and every culture, it lives in the heart of our people, in a way that it doesn’t live anywhere else. Anyone of us could walk into the British Museum in almost any exhibit, in almost any room and recognise it as a footnote to our history. Now that’s weight. That is what we call in Hebrew “kavod”, which comes from the word “kaved”. It is gravitas, it is a weighty thing. It is who we are.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Share This