For this Israeli, its back to Schwartz

For more than four decades, many Israelis who were born around the time the state of Israel was founded have been carrying Hebrew-sounding names rather than their names of origin. I belong to this group. But I recently decided to return to my name of origin — Schwartz.

During the 1960s, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wanted to maximize people’s national identification with the newly founded state. As a drastic act, he insisted that official government representatives change their Jewish names to Hebrew-Israeli ones.

There is a language difference between “Jewish” names and Hebrew-Israeli names. The formal push to change was accompanied by a kind of hysterical momentum — a national herd effect — to “voluntarily” go Hebrew.

I became part of this trend, which is how, in my early 20s, I became Sagi.

Obviously this phenomenon is a complex one, with many implications for national as well as personal identity. It begs further study, appraisal and discussion, given that previous leaders were so successful in practically wiping out family traditions and roots in the name of boosting national identity.

A three-generation study of Holocaust survivors, conducted at the University of Haifa with which I was involved, leads me to conclude that this name-change craze was wrong and inappropriate.

It was not necessary. Our Holocaust study showed that the second generation acquired a great deal of security from their Jewish-named parents. Against all odds, there was no negative transmission of the Holocaust survivors’ traumatic experiences to their offspring.

Many Holocaust survivors in fact demonstrated further resilience to another trauma of sorts in the way they responded when their offspring gave up their original names. For the sake of their children’s happiness and integration into the new Israeli society, the first generation was accepting of the name change.

Looking back, if any change was necessary — and I doubt it was — we should at least have found a more balanced approach: combining a person’s old Jewish identity with the new Israeli one. People could have used hyphenated names – the old Jewish one with the new Israeli one. But that approach was not encouraged.

It took me many years to come to this conclusion, but I am now closing a circle and returning to our original family name. This allows me to acknowledge and thank my parents, who provided me with support, nurture and security. Carrying their name gives me pride.

Over Holocaust Remembrance Day I gave profound consideration to who we are, what our identity is, and what the identity of our offspring for the generations to come should be.

I urge all Israelis who adopted a Hebrew name to take note of my own journey and readopt their original Jewish name.

We owe it to our forefathers and foremothers. I trust that whoever follows my advice will have a better sense of self-fulfillment and personal integrity.

Avi Sagi-Schwartz is based at the Center for the Study of Child Development at University of Haifa.