Names that bind generations
In the 1980s, when thousands of Ethiopians arrived in Israel through Operation Moses, officials often changed their Amharic names. They "knew nothing about how extremely significant Ethiopian names were to the people and their identity, and what it did to their sense of themselves," says Ruth Mason. Ethiopian names such as Yeuvmert (choice product ), Sinke (food for the journey ) and Mequonent (prince ) became Rachel, Tziona and Asher, she explains.
"A while ago I read a children's picture book about Ethiopian names and I learned that Ethiopian names are not like our names," the former journalists recalls. "First of all, everybody has about six or seven names, because all your loved ones give you names. Each name has a special meaning and a story behind it. I was fascinated.
The next time she visited an Ethiopian friend of hers, Mason says she asked him what his name Aleli meant. "It had never occurred to my friend to ask what his names meant," she says. When he asked his father, who was sitting in the room with them, the father's face "just completely lit up and he went into this whole long story going back three generations, and it taught me so much about what life was like in Jewish villages in Ethiopia," she recalls.
After that eye-opening experience, Mason decided to shoot a short documentary exploring the "crisis in Ethiopian-Israeli identity" caused by name-changes in the Ethiopian community.
The names of Ethiopian children names were changed to mainstream Israeli names already at the airport or later in absorption centers, schools, kindergartens, according to Mason. "The motivation was a good one - to help them integrate. But they didn't realize what they were doing. They also never asked permission of the parents and they didn't realize what an essential part of their identity these names were, because these names tie people to their parents and grandparents, to their village and to stories that happened before they were born. There are so many layers of meaning, and these were all lost."
One woman, for example, said her Amharic name Kenubish means "They were jealous of you," because she was her mother's tenth child and fifth daughter, which symbolized the perfect family. In Israel, she is known as Ilana, "but that's just some name they gave me in kindergarten. There's no meaning to it," she is heard saying in the movie. "These are my Names," which Mason co-produced with Naomi Miller Altara, will premier at the Jewish Eye International Jewish Film Festival in Ashkelon on Monday, October 18.