Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a Name

Leah (Weary One)

If all the world
were made of fire
sliding, shifting
blindingly hot
I would take shelter
at the edges which
chose to let some
night
slip through

If all the world
were made of marble
cool, smooth
immovable
I would slip into a crevice
that curved gently
and pillow my head
on my arms

I wrote this poem somewhere in my teen years, earlier rather than later, maybe ninth grade? It was a response to the Modern Hebrew meaning of my name; although Leah is Biblical its ancient definition is unknown. Leah is not very popular either as a traditional Hebrew name (compare the other Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel) or as a Biblical character. She pales in comparison to her sister Rachel, the wife that Jacob truly wanted and loved and the tragic heroine who dies in childbirth. Rachel’s relationship with Leah is contentious: Leah envies (must envy?) Rachel’s ability to hold their husband’s love and Rachel envies Leah’s fertility, a gift from God that the Bible states (Genesis chapter 29, verse 31) He gave her because she was unloved by her husband. The rabbinic commentators soften this tension between the sisters by relating a number of stories: Rachel offers Leah the secret word that will help her trick Jacob into thinking she is Rachel when at their marriage bed, while Leah prays for a daughter (after six sons) so that Rachel will bear two of Jacob’s twelve promised sons and thereby be at least equal to the handmaiden wives, already mothers to two sons apiece. Rachel is reported a clear beauty; Leah’s eyes are “soft” or “weak: (“rakot” in Hebrew, described in Genesis chapter 29, verse 17). One commentator, Rashi, relates that Leah’s eyes were so because she cried bitterly at her fate to marry Esau, as people would say that the two daughters of Laban were to be matched to his sister’s two sons, elder to elder and younger to younger. By this explanation one might infer that her life as she lived it, married to Jacob who did not love her, could only have been preferable. Leah’s history hardly felt happy and as a child I was not strengthened by the association with such sorrow. Also, I am named after my father’s sister, the one just above him in family order and one of three Strigler sisters who perished in Poland during the Holocaust. She had straight silky blonde hair as a child, so different from mine, and aquiline features with high cheekbones. This personal family history was also heavy and a reminder of the aunt and other family members I was never able to meet, but I was happier to have my name represent that heritage because it was personal, a legacy that I found important. By chance my Sephardic grandmother, who I knew well as a child, was also named Leah in Hebrew and so we were able to say that my name was also in honor of her and followed Sephardic tradition as well.
I prefer strongly to have my name pronounced the Hebrew way. It is often a bad sign if I do not bother to correct someone on this point. Star Wars came out when I was nine and did me a great service as I could reference the movie in explaining how to pronounce my name. I often get called “Princess” as a result but that I can tolerate happily although I hardly think of myself as princess-like, in any way. But having my name evoke some levity is lovely, a relief from the wearying consideration of life and legacies.
©2010 Leah Strigler

2 comments:

Lucy said...

I love the poem. The biblical background is very complex and dense, but I get the sense that the figures are seen as elements that are not to be overlooked simply because they stand for a more difficult row to hoe, as it were...I think we get very caught up in our names as children, and then by the time we are older have made them more our own...

chayaruchama said...

Agreed, Lucy.

Some are easier than others; both Leah and I were named for those who carried a heavy enough legacy...

My name grew to be prophetic, where it had originally been meant as a curse; Leah fortunately, had an alternative relative, and years of good study of the Tanakh to help guide, thank goodness.

You, Lucy, ARE full of light.