You name it

Growing up with a family name like Chiesa wasn’t always easy. “Chiesa”, besides being hard to pronounce in every possible language (in Italian the sound is /Kiesa/, but I heard it mangled to the horrible English /Cheesa/, or the equally horrible French /Schiezà/), it also carries a not-so-neutral meaning: Church. It is easy to imagine the torture of a little girl during religion class, when the teacher would repeat over and over:  “the Church says this…” and “the Church forbids that...”. Students would turn around, giggling. Did I really say this? Did I really disapprove that? Ironically, over the years I grew so allergic to the Roman Catholic Church to the point of declaring myself an atheist for years, without even being one.

Today, thanks to the wonderful accessibility of sources provided by the World Wide Web, I have learned that there are 3505 people in Italy carrying this family name. It is actually number 445 on the list of the most popular family names. I share it with a corrupted politician (Mario Chiesa), a respectable filmmaker (Guido Chiesa) and a fence champion, who also carries my same given name. Italy, like I suppose other countries, boasts its share of terrible family names. Names like: “Diomaiuto” (God help me),  “Saltaformaggio” (Skip the cheese), “Bavosa” (Dribbling), “Puzzovivo” (Smell alive), “Contacessi” (Counting the toilets), “Tritavitello” (Chop the veal), “Ingannamorte” (Death cheater) are all real and documented, as well as the very depressing “Inutile” (Useless).

The thought of changing name, as a political statement, did cross my mind now and then, but I was always turned down by Italian complicated laws, which are very strict on this subject and only allow a change in case of particularly ridiculous, denigrating names. Italy being 97,67 % a Catholic state, I saw slim chances of being able to convince a legislator of the heavy legacy of a name like Chiesa (shouldn’t I be proud, right?).

To my great surprise, when I came to Israel I learned that anyone can easily change his/her name. Even without a particular reason. The only limitations being, you can only change it every seven years! In fact, the law clearly states that “An adult, any person older than 18, may request to change their first name and/or surname. Once you have changed your name it cannot be changed again for seven years. Please note: there is a $28 fee for this service.” How does Israeli bureaucracy keep up with such euphoric laxity, I still haven’t figured out.

Having lived here more than two years now, I can say that I did come across quite a few name-changers. These belong to different groups. There is the new age, sannyasim or Kabbalah type, who will change his name to mark a spiritual rebirth, to improve his good fortune (numerology is widely popular in Israel), or to get more clients in his business. Then there is the new country-new name group: people who have hebrewcized their name in the process of immigrating to Israel, favoring biblical names over their original ones. Famous examples include Golda Meir, who was born Goldie Mabovitch; Shimon Peres, who was Persky; Sharon, was Scheinermann. Rabin, was Rubitzov. Even David Ben-Gurion, the father of the country, changed his name from David Green. The list is long.

People have and will continue to change name in an attempt to escape prejudices. In Israel, children of Sephardi origins are being reported to change their names to sound more Ashkenazi. A person with an Ashkenazi-sounding name will be more likely to achieve good education. In our wonderful globalized world, Latino workers unwillingly get their names americanized by employers, while Asian immigrants are encouraged to drop their often complicated names, to adopt more simplified versions. Everybody is trying to fit in.

Examples of famous people who have changed their names worldwide are not scarce. The most famous name change of all time might be the one of boxer Cassius Clay, who  changed his name to Muhammad Ali upon conversion to Islam. Same happened to singer Cat Stevens, who changed his name to Yusuf Islam. If everybody knows that Bob Dylan was actually Robert Zimmerman, did you know (or care) that actress Jennifer Aniston was formerly known as Jennifer Anastassakis? And who is David Robert Hayward-Jones, if not David Bowie? Cary Grant’s real name was Archibald Alexander Leach, Audrey Hepburn’s was Edda Van Heemstra Hepburn-Rusten. How many people know Norma Jean Mortensen Baker was the real name of Marilyn Monroe? Elton John changed his name from Reginald Dwight. Changing name is often an act of self-reinvention.

Should we be surprised then to hear that also Iranian president Mahamoud Ahmadinejad changed his name? Well, his case is quite complicated. In 2008, in a moment of exultation, the president showed his identity card to the press, who have not passed by the golden opportunity to scrutinize it and to come out with the sensational news: Ahmadinejad’s former family name was Sabourjian, a registered Jewish name meaning “cloth weaver”. The name is allegedly reported on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran’s Ministry of the Interior.

Experts suggest Mr Ahmadinejad’s tendency for hate-filled attacks on Jews could be an overcompensation to hide his past.

Isn’t this all so fascinating.

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