Saturday, January 10, 2009

Being a Namesake

The movie, The Namesake, is about an Indian boy named Gogol who comes to appreciate and honor his name as he acclimates to American culture. Although he is born in New York, his parents are both from India and their way of life is, of course, Indian.

The beautiful thing about the movie, among many other subtle beauties including the script, performances, and colors, is that the name given to the Indian youth, Gogol, is not even Bengali. It is taken from the Russian author, the great Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol of whom Fyodor Dostoveyksi, another great Russian author, famously said, "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'."

Watching the movie, I wondered about namesakes. I remember going to Italy for the first time as a college student and viewing the famous Caravaggio painting, Judith Beheading Holfernes. I was immobilized by the realism, immense richness of color, and horror of the painting. I must have stood there for 30 minutes or more watching the beheading. It seemed so real. She was on a mission as revealed in the stillness of her face and the movement of her body, aided by her aged maid whose delight it was to witness such horror.

What a cold-hearted woman, I thought. Surely I am not so violent and ruthless. What had this man in such a defenseless position done to warrant such a death? Holofernes was a general of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia who invaded and conquered lands and people, except for the Hebrew people. Judith had something to do with this.

Judith is the Jewish heroine, of the Book of Judith, not included in the biblical canon, who incited the Hebrew army to victory over the Assyrians. She did so by bringing the head of Holofernes to the battles of Behtulia. Upon seeing the head of their general's bloody head, the enemy fled. The war ended; a male general may have never thought of such a thing. It is her inventiveness that interests. Judith is also the feminine version of Judah, which means praise.

My middle name is Deborah. My older sister told me of a story when I was a teenager where she heard my parents discussing the pronunciation of my middle name. My dad insisted it be pronounced as the ancient Hebrew heroine and my mom thought that the American pronunciation was just fine. When I asked my mother about it she said that my dad insisted so that she simply gave in to his desire.

My dad thought that the American way was too familiar and that I had a particular purpose. But who was Deborah? I looked her up. Deborah summoned Barak to war against an invading army. She wrote a victory song after the war which is recorded in the Book of Judges. She was multifaceted. Not only was she a leader in battle, but she was a judge, prophet, and poet.

Deborah's Song:

"...Hear, O kings! Give ear, O princes!
I, even I, will sing to the Lord;
I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel.
Lord, when You went out from Seir,
When You marched from the field of Edom,
The earth trembled and the heavens poured,
The clouds also poured water;
The mountains gushed before the Lord,
This Sinai, before the Lord God of Israel...
Speak, you who ride on white donkeys,
Who sit in judges' attire,
And who walk along the road.
Far from the noise of the archers,
among the watering places,
There they shall recount the righteous acts of the Lord,
The righteous acts for His villagers in Israel;
Then the people of the Lord shall go down to the gates.
Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, sing a song!
Arise, Barak, and lead your captives away,
O son of Abinoam!..."

Judith and Deborah are both my namesakes. I will continue to find ways to represent the boldness, wisdom, and bravery of these great heroines in the smallest of ways in my daily life through being in the world for others.

Who is your namesake? Don't have one? Find one. Make one up.

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