A name, however short or long, carries extreme weight- where a person comes from or who they want to be. This is evident throughout history, where removing or ignoring a person’s name has been used as an act of dehumanization, because to deny a person their name is to disregard their history, culture, and, ultimately, their personal identity. My full name is six syllables (seven including my middle name), and in those syllables there are echoes of many ghosts: an ancestral line, innumerable versions of myself, the past, the prophesized, the reality, and the future.
My first name was Miriam, after the biblical prophet and sister of Moses, who watched over and protected her brother as he drifted through the Nile with only a wicker basket to keep him away from the elements and creatures that so easily could have consumed him. Later, as he grows to a position of power under an assumed name and family, it is Miriam who reminds him of his roots and grounds him as he defies the royal family and leads the Jews out of their enslavement. Miriam is leadership, maturity, attentiveness, and empathy. A recent Jewish tradition is to include the aptly named Miriam’s cup, which is filled with water to represent the well that kept the Jews alive in the desert during their exodus. Miriam also has a connection to the hamsa, which is a popular symbol in many cultures, in the shape of the palm of a hand, sometimes with an eye at its center. In Judaism, the hamsa is sometimes referred to as “the hand of Miriam,” and is meant to be a source of good luck, health, safety, and protection from the evil eye. Miriam is security of both physical body and personal identity.
I was meant to be Naomi. My parents picked this name, but when I was born, decided that Miriam was more fitting. Naomi is also a biblical character, who is described only in positive terms as lovely and winsome, her name literally meaning “pleasantness.” Naomi marries a nobleman named Elimelech in Bethlehem, which is later ravaged by famine. In an attempt to avoid the famine and allow themselves and their two sons to survive, Elimelech decides to travel to Moab, which has such differing culture that Naomi is dazed and feels like an outsider. Her husband dies and her sons marry Moab women. They live there for about ten years until both of her sons die, too. Naomi hears that the famine has ended and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, insists on accompanying her home. Grief-stricken and heartbroken after the deaths of everyone she loved, she and Ruth return during a barley harvest, which takes place in the spring/early summer. She asks to be called Mara, meaning “bitterness,” and “death,” in an attempt to complete her transformation (Mara and Miriam share the meaning of “bitterness”). No one respects her wishes and she is continuously referred to as Naomi throughout the remaining text. She attempts to change her name as a mark of her grief and lapse of faith. In the end, it is her grief and her relationship to Ruth that bring her growth and, ultimately, autonomy. In this way, she grows back into her own name.
Like Naomi, I wanted to change my name to better suit who I have become. Though Miriam holds a great deal of history, I have never felt very close to the name. Often when I introduce myself as Miriam, I’m talking about someone else entirely. As a child, I wanted to be Mimi, but it wouldn’t stick to me. With friends I have been Mir and Miri. I’ve tried on many names, but none have fit right in my mouth or to my ears.
The thing is that I don’t want bitterness or ancient myth, I want a name that reflects the identity I have built on my own. I want a name that acknowledges my past and my faults, but separates them from my future and my intentions and my ultimate end. I want a name that represents my willingness and desire for change.
Naomi speaks to the transformative nature of being and to the value of a name.
Naomi speaks to the past and to displacement and to living on the fringes.
Naomi speaks to holding grief and continuing to live.
Naomi speaks to supportive relationships and interdependence.
Naomi speaks to kindness and care.
I continue to carry Miriam with me: I wear a necklace with a silver hamsa every day, and feel unprotected without it clasped around my neck. Miriam is what keeps me safe, but it’s with Naomi’s eyes that I look onto the world.