Word of the Day / Ivrut

During the formative years of pre-state and independent Israel, a fervent name-changing phenomenon swept the land, aimed at creating both a unified and purified Hebrew nation.

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Caption: Ariel Schneirmann and David Grun, also known as Ariel Sharon and David Ben-Gurion.

What’s in a name? Ever wondered why so many Israelis have bold surnames like Arieli (of a lion), Oz (strength) and Barak (lightning), or of the nature variety such as Galili, Golani and Ayalon, or righteous ones like Dayan (judge)? How did a nation of immigrants come to have such indigenous-sounding names?

Ivrut, that’s how. Describing the practice of replacing foreign names with Hebrew ones [Infinitive: l’avret –to Hebraicize], Hebraization began in earnest during the Second Aliyah (roughly 1904-1914), and peaked in the first few decades of Israeli statehood.

The process was not just semantic, but tectonic. Aliyah wasn’t just about building a new land, but constructing a New Jew. Labor Zionism – the mother of the State of Israel – was not only committed to Jewish self-determination, but a grander vision of national reinvention. The new nation would be salt-of-the-earth and muscular, self-reliant and free. It would be everything that the Jews of the Diaspora had failed to be.

For this to occur, the pollutants of life in exile – of foreign tongues and names and habits and mentalities – needed to be washed away.  It was this revolutionary spirit that released a tidal wave of name changing among the Zionist olim, especially those of Ashkenazi descent.  

Masses in the New Yishuv partook in this metamorphic process: David Grun become David Ben-Gurion (‘Son of a Lion’); Eliezer Perlman became Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (‘Son of Judah’); Tomislav Lampel became Tommy Lapid (Torch); Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir; and Ariel Schnierman became Ariel Sharon, after the coastal plain on which he was raised. The list goes on and on and on.

A number of formulas for assigning new surnames were used.Whether by direct translation, patronym or toponym, hundreds of thousands of names were put to death with simple strokes of ideologically devout pens. Goldbergs became Tzahavis, Abramovichs became Avrahamis, and Steinmans became Evens. No more defiling suffixes like -steins, -bergs and –vitchs, no more wearing the rags of the diaspora. In their place, the nascent nation was to wrap itself in the regal robes of Hebrew – to speak the divine tongue of the Twelve Tribes and the Kings of Israel, not of the persecutory ‘goys’.

Testifying to the zealousness of the Hebraist agenda, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion even ordered government officials, diplomats and army commanders to Hebraicize their names. Within one or two generations, and by choice or by coercion, the rotting layer of ‘galuti’ (diasporic) flesh was peeled off, and a thicker, sabra skin was engineered to grow forth.

And though Hebraization wasn’t total – some olim kept their names out of respect to their heritage and relatives lost in the Holocaust, and others, especially in the Soviet aliyah of the 1990’s, arrived way beyond the heyday of Hebraization – this national re-branding process did leave an indelible mark on the socio-cultural landscape of the Israeli people. Hebrew served not only as a common tongue for disparate immigrants, but as a potent tool for collective transformation. Gone were the days of the ghetto. An indigenous nation was to be reborn on its own land and in its own skin.

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