They betray the hopes, dreams, and projections of fathers and mothers,they follow trends, and foretell the future of their bearers.
For Jews many decisions are connected to the naming of a child: should the name underscore his religious affiliation, only be recognizable to other Jews, or neither? Will it be a name native to the family’s country of origin or to the child’s country of birth? Has the name been translated? Does it memorialize someone? Colleagues and friends of the Jewish Museum Berlin share their thoughts with this blog, on this and other questions.
Miriam / Mirjam
Soon there will be four women working along the hallway that my office is on, who all have the same first name that I have: Mirjam or, in some cases, Miriam. Even while the etymology is not completely unambiguous, the triumphant prophetess with the timbrel is namesake to each of us – that Miriam who roused the women to dance a dance of joy after the Israelites had fled from Egypt and divided the Red Sea (2. Moses 14, 20). With that, the sister of Moses and Aron took her rightful place among scripture’s female figures – women like both of the wives of the first man Adam, Lillith and Eve – who showed their rebellious traits: Miriam asserted the claim that God also spoke through her. She was consequently struck with a skin rash and had to wait for seven days outside of the encampment before she was allowed to live among the congregation of her desert-crossing brethren (4. Moses 12, 1-16).
Is it an accident that this combative woman lent her name to so many employees of the Jewish Museum Berlin?
Another colleague, who gave her daughter the same name in honor of her late grandmother, pointed me to the statistics on the most popular names in Germany. Since about 1967 Miriam or Mirjam has become a common name in the German-speaking world. However, it is not by any means a fashionable name, as you can see here. Two of my colleagues were born before statisticians in Germany developed interest in the name. One of them tells me that her parents had to convince the clerks at the civil registry office to approve of their choice of name. Miriam was already common in the USA at that time, she says. The parents of my other colleague found Miriam not only lovely – as we all agree – but also explicitly wished to give their daughter a Jewish name.
Nomen est omen – especially in the Jewish tradition. “In the name, the spiritual essence of man communicates itself to God,” writes Walter Benjamin in On Language as Such and on the Language of Man. His attempt to describe the significance of the name in constituting language ties into the prohibition on speaking the divine name aloud and transfers this ban onto the constitution of language itself. Does “the spiritual essence” – that my parents called into life by giving me my by then better-known name – share something with the essences of the other Miriams or Mirjams on our hall? If the field of statistics doesn’t have an answer on hand, the often more popular varieties of psychological theorizing do. In the ‘transaction analysis’ of Eric Berne, the concept of the script has a central significance. It can be understood as a kind of screenplay or unconscious program, shaping people’s behavioral patterns in decisive ways. Does the name Miriam or Mirjam contain a similar script and all that that implies, for Jews and non-Jews alike – whose “I” ranges between its defining boundaries? If it were so and all of us at the Jewish Museum Berlin gathered together, how would our timbrels and dances look today?
Mirjam Wenzel, Media