A neighborhood by any other name: A sign of who’s in power

Ask anyone in Jerusalem for directions to Komemiyut and all you'll get are blank stares.

Tel Aviv has decided to consign some old neighborhood names to oblivion and replace them with new ones, according to the daily Ha’aretz. Among the first eight names to be changed is that of Sarona, a settlement established in the 19th century by Templers, Christian visionaries from Germany. Another is of Abu Kabir, which was named for an Egyptian village from which many of its original residents came. The city plans massive development in some of these neighborhoods, and perhaps the old names are not posh enough for their new inhabitants.

Changing names is a trick used worldwide to show who’s in power and whose collective memory will be preserved. About 15 years ago I stumbled around Tashkent, Uzbekistan, unable to find my way with a map that still showed the streets named for Soviet heroes. One of the first things the Uzbeks had done after the fall of the Soviet Union was to change the street names (and replace the statues of Lenin with statues of the 14th century conqueror Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane).

But name changes don’t always stick. Abu Kabir has already undergone one name change to Givat Herzl (Herzl’s hill), a name no one seems to use. And if Jerusalem is any indication, the new names in Tel Aviv will catch on slowly, if at all.

I live in Katamon, which Jerusalem’s naming committee decided decades ago to call Gonen, a name derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to defend.” The original Greek name, which refers to the monastery nearby, clearly did not fit the Israeli image the city fathers wanted for this neighborhood that was the scene of fierce fighting in the War of Independence and whose many Greek Orthodox inhabitants fled to escape the conflict. Most of the streets are named for units and corps that fought in that war.

But ask anyone you meet what this neighborhood is called, and the answer will be Katamon. The same is true for the next neighborhood to the east, Talbiya, which had wealthy Arab residents before 1948. The city would like it to be called Komemiyut, which means “sovereignty.” But no one, absolutely no one, calls it anything but Talbiya (pronounced Tal-BEE-yeh).

And the same goes for a neighborhood to the south of Katamon, named Bak’a (an Arab name that means “valley”). The city would like it to be called Ge’ulim, from the Hebrew word meaning “emancipation,” but everyone still calls it Bak’a.

Even the large directional signs the city has posted include the “old” names along with the “new,” because the new names by themselves would be meaningless.

Oddly, the city has not tried to get rid of the names of the two neighborhoods closest to mine, the German Colony and the Greek Colony, the first named for its 19th century Templer settlers and the second for its former Greek inhabitants (and where you can still learn Greek folk dances at the Greek community center).

So, at least in Jerusalem, a few attempts to eradicate the past and alter the collective memory have failed utterly.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.


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2 Responses to “A neighborhood by any other name: A sign of who’s in power”

  1. Who’s left in the neighborhood? « Esther Hecht's Blog Says:

    […] Yael Weiss Gadish, 36, a candidate for the community council that represents four upscale areas: “Old” Katamon, “The Colonies” (the Greek Colony and the German Colony), Talbiya and Yemin Moshe, and Rehavia […]

  2. Mark McGreevey Says:

    It’s ironic that here in San Francisco almost all tourists are somehow mystified by the name “Castro District” for the gay male neighborhood up Market Street. They are convinced there’s a connection to Fidel Castro. No use in telling them that there was a street called Castro in that district relating to an old Mexican property owner of early San Francisco; it’s a common last name.

    Meanwhile, the real name of the area is Eureka Valley, and the name shift was only in the 1960’s with the advent of male gays arriving and taking over an old Irish working class Victorian area. The families moved out and the name was changed.

    The other confusion is the rainbow flag. Most consider that it has always been the gay symbol, when a moment’s reflection would give you the answer: to be gay was clearly not something to announce in most societies at any time in history, for fear of persecution. The symbol had to be quickly found in 1978 after the double assassination at City Hall, the mayor and the supervisor. The mayor was a straight man, much given to dallying with female ladies of the night, but the supervisor from NYC who’d won after three tries to get control of the Castro (Eureka Valley) was a very outspoken gay, Harvey Milk. He became a martyr overnight and the gay males had to quickly find a symbol for their cause, especially around City Hall where the riots were planned.

    They were going through their own closets and junk stores when they found a donated box of rainbow neckerchiefs from the Freemasons, who run the Rainbow Girls, a sort of Girl Scout organization open to all.

    They immediately jumped on it and the rest is history.

    The other day I had on my tourbus a woman from Harrisburg, PA who was outraged about the gay male takeover of the rainbow symbol since she was involved in Rainbow Girls, still existing as part of the Freemasons. She said many girls would not be associated with the gay symbol so they refused to join!

    I told her that she was fighting a lost cause. Time to come up with a new symbol or slightly altered one, such as a change in the pattern of the stripes (diagonal?) or with an image implanted on top of it!

    No, she was angry and said that THEY must give in.

    O Lord. History books are there to tell us when to give up!!!

    To the victor belongs the spoils.

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