The power of a name is something Aitan Mizrahi understands. “When I was born, my name was a bit different,” he said.
The question “What’s in a name?” is what Jewish educator Tamar Zaken posed to a dozen people gathered in San Francisco last month at the first of her four seminars hosted by JIMENA, an organization promoting the recognition of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish heritage.
In answering that question, Mizrahi talked about his decision to change his first name from “Eton” to “Aitan” upon moving to Israel when he was 12 to study for his bar mitzvah. When he returned to California, he opted to stay with the Hebrew version of his name and claim a new identity. “It was kind of transformative,” he said.
That’s the kind of experience Zaken was talking about in the first session of “Contemporary Issues Through a Sephardi Lens,” a four-part seminar that will continue through April. The topic of women’s empowerment through Sephardi and Middle Eastern sources is the second topic on Feb. 22, followed by authenticity (March 22) and coexistence (April 12).
The series is based on Zaken’s approach of guiding her students through a close read of various Jewish texts to find meaning that can be translated into everyday life. “It’s very empowering,” said the Oakland resident. “It’s not like I have the knowledge and they don’t.”
The texts range from rabbinical exegeses to modern literature. For example, the first session included a midrash on Leviticus that read, in part, “The People of Israel were redeemed from the Land of Egypt for four reasons: They did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not gossip, they behaved modestly.”
Texts like that become jumping off points for discussions that can be as wide-ranging or as personal as people want. “My role in that kind of learning is less lecturing than asking interesting questions,” she said.
That’s one of the things that Saina Osipov, a self-described “Mountain Jew” from Azerbaijan, liked about the evening event. “I was expecting more of a lecture, rather than a discussion, but I was pleasantly surprised with the format,” Osipov noted.
Zaken refined her approach at Memizrach Shemesh, an Israeli organization that promotes social activism rooted in Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage, where Mizrahi texts are used as a starting point for community work and social activism. “You need to prepare yourself,” Zaken said. “There needs to be learning before you go out.”
That’s the approach she brought to the initial event, held at the Bindery bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and JIMENA, or Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.
Zaken presented a text from Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, Israel’s former Sephardi chief rabbi: “He who forsakes the Torah of the mothers, a person who changes his name, language and traditions, separates himself from the community.”
That opened up a discussion of “what names and name-changing do to our identity,” Zaken said.
She also took attendees through the journey of the name “Frecha.” Now slang in Israel for a low-class but sexy bimbo, originally it was a common name for women of Moroccan origin. “What does that mean, that your name becomes a derogatory thing?” she asked.
Maya Shemtov, a program coordinator at JIMENA, said the idea behind the series was to explore Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage in a slightly different way. Such events are “usually focused on food and music,” she said.
Not this one. At the Bindery, the atmosphere was intimate and interesting, so much so that a store employee stopped cleaning and started listening in on the conversation at one point. “In the middle of it she started nodding,” Zaken recalled.
For Zaken, that was a sign of how meaningful her approach can be, and the power of opening up — quite literally — books that people never knew about but are part of their heritage, Sephardi or not.
“These texts belong to all of the Jewish people,” she said.