Posted by: Steve Coplan | May 9, 2006

Namesakes

When I was about nine, I decided that I wanted to change my name. The official version I told my parents was that it wasn’t Jewish enough – a position which won initial support. My argument was that a name is so central to identity, that it wasn’t appropriate that I bore the name of the first Christian martyr (even if he was actually Jewish). The underlying reason was that Stephen just wasn’t cool or distinctive, and I didn’t want the same name as five other kids in my class. We went through a few names, with my first choice being Seth, which appealed to me since it was Biblical but relatively obscure given that older brothers Cain and Abel always grabbed the headlines. My mother agreed in principle to the idea but was opposed to that particular name since one of her social acquaintances had a lisp, and used to “Ready, seth, go” at kids races. Since I’ve never been able to argue with this kind of logic, I relented, lost interest and stayed Stephen (which became Steve because after a while you get a bit bored with constantly correcting the spelling).

 

So when it came time to name our son, I thought long and hard about it. I initially staked out a strong negotiating position with Sebastian, which is certainly not Biblical but has a certain Continental flair and I was fairly certain it would be distinctive. Plus, I always found Seb Coe something of an inspiring figure (although this was well before he became a Conservative Party MP). As it happens, it’s a pretty common name in our corner of brownstone Brooklyn. Besides, I wanted a name that started with a C for my grandfather whose original name was Kasriel, but was changed to Casey and Harry in the course of his peregrinations from Lithuania, British Columbia, the Somme, West Hollywood, Brixton, Bournemouth and eventually Bulawayo. Katriel (vs Kasriel in its Lithuanian pronunciation) is actually the name of the central character in what is one of Elie Wiesel’s better novels – ‘The Beggar of Jerusalem’. When we found out we were having a boy, I went through the list of C names, and we quickly settled on Caleb and Mitchell for Mary’s father Michael. Caleb appealed to Mary for its Irish flavor and to both of us for the Biblical character. Caleb was one of the twelve spies (one for each of the tribes of Israel) sent to scout out to the land of Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. Along with Joshua, Caleb contradicted the majority report that even though it was a land of milk and honey, the odds of conquest were slim because the cities were well-fortified and the Israelites were "like grasshoppers" before the giants who lived there. The Torah traditionally teaches that Caleb exemplified faith – but I've always thought that courage, integrity and clarity of purpose were more appropriate. This analysis of the Joshua's conquests suggests that astute strategic planning and the absence of a unified response to a coherent and motivated military force accounted for the Israelites success rather than divinely ordained fate.

It maybe our parental bias, but Caleb is already demonstrating some of the qualities of his namesake. He is certainly a child who knows his own mind and is willing to stand his ground (I said "NO!" – what don't you understand"). Plus, he's a physical guy who likes to take chances.

 

 

 

 

Only recently I discovered, however, the existence of Caleb's Tomb in a West Bank village. The tomb has become a focal point and symbol for the ideologically frenzied that believe that Israel is under attack from within. I hope that when Caleb is nine he doesn't ask us to change his name because it's too Jewish.

 

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