What's In A Name?
Updated: Dec 18, 2018
After the establishment of the State of Israel, municipal governments across the country created new Hebrew neighborhood names to replace existing foreign language names. However, most of these new titles were never accepted by the public. Let’s discuss some examples in Jerusalem.
A client once asked me, “I noticed on the map that Gonen is well located, so why have I never heard of this Jerusalem community?” I explained that he is familiar with Gonen but he, as well as everyone else, refers to the community by its original name of Katamon. Nestled between Talbieh to the northeast and the German Colony and the Greek Colony to the southeast, Katamon was established just before World War I, and its Greek name means “below the monastery,” alluding to the nearby San Simon monastery.
The Jerusalem municipality renamed the neighborhood Gonen, from the Hebrew meaning “to defend,” as it was the scene of numerous battles during Israel’s War of Independence. The new name never caught on.
To the immediate northeast of Katamon is the elegant neighborhood of Talbieh. Its name either stemmed from Khalif Ali abu-Taleb, whose relatives lived in the area, or is derived from the “El-Talbieh” prayer said by pilgrims on their trips to Mecca. In 1958, the community was renamed Komemiyut, taken from the Bible which symbolizes our aspirations for a strong, secure and independent Jewish state. Komemiyut never caught on, and everyone refers to the neighborhood by its original name Talbieh.
Baka is a lovely upscale community located in southern Jerusalem. Baka is Arabic for “valley,” which alludes to Emek Refaim, the famous street which runs along the western border of the neighborhood. Baka was renamed Geulim, meaning “redemption,” because the Jewish immigrants felt redeemed from the bonds of the Diaspora. However, the new Hebrew name was never embraced by its residents.
The history of Malcha, situated in the southwest corner of Jerusalem near the Biblical Zoo and home of the famous Malcha Mall, goes back over 3,500 years. Archeologists claim that this neighborhood was the site of Manahat, a Jewish village within the borders of the Tribe of Judah. Starting in the late 1800s, Muslims moved into this area and called it al-Maliha. During intense fighting in this area in 1948, the Muslim population fled to nearby Bethlehem and, after the war, the government settled displaced Jewish refugees from Middle Eastern countries, mainly Iraq, into the vacated buildings. One can understand why the Israeli government renamed this neighborhood Manahat. Nevertheless, this new-old name never stuck.
Why does the Israeli population prefer to retain non-Hebrew neighborhood names over the new, patriotic monikers? I discussed this question with several academics, and a variety of theories were proposed. One suggestion is that many Israelis speak Arabic and therefore Arabic names do not have negative connotations. Perhaps that’s why so much Arabic has seeped into the Israeli lexicon; words like “sababa” – cool or awesome – “yalla” – let’s go – and “achla” – that’s great – come to mind.
The second theory is that the Jewish nation is a people steeped in history, who attribute meaning and relevance to the past. Accordingly, these interesting foreign language names add rich hues to Jerusalem’s vibrant cultural mosaic.
A third, and most popular, proposal is that people are creatures of habit. Most of these Hebrew names were approved a decade after Israel came into existence, and many years after these neighborhoods were originally established. By that time, the original names were entrenched in society’s collective memory. For example, I spent many years living in Far Rockaway and attended the White Shul. The fact that Congregation Kneseth Israel moved out of their original white building numerous years beforehand didn’t matter. Everybody called it the White Shul forty years ago, and everybody still does so today.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.