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.