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Jewish Journal

My Name Is Chaya Fageh

by Eileen Douglas

July 20, 2010 | 5:46 pm

Someone had done a study. I am fuzzy all these years later on the details. I read it in a psychology book I pulled down from a shelf one weekend when there was nothing much else to read at the beach. But the simple finding was, what you think of your first name is what you think of yourself. 

That means if you like your first name, you like yourself. And if you don’t like your first name, it apparently follows that you don’t like yourself. 

I found this scary. 

I have never really liked my first name. Oh, dear.

This was a not a conclusion about my self-regard I wanted to accept. Especially when you realize, when it comes to your first name, you don’t even get to choose it yourself. Someone else gives it to you. So, if the clue to whether you do or don’t like yourself is a name you didn’t even pick yourself, that seems eminently unfair.

Then I began to think more deeply. I came at it for a second pass. Eileen is the name I show the world. But being Jewish, as all of us who are Jewish and American know, we have our Hebrew names. A name the world knows not much about. A name you may never use, nor be called by. In a way, a hidden name.
Which means, perhaps, a hidden self.

My Hebrew name is Chaya.

I love my Hebrew name.

Chaya means life. What could be more central, more vital? That, to me, is a meaningful name. A meaningful concept with which to intertwine your identity, your sense of who you are in the world. Even if no one ever calls you by that name. I love the me who knows she is Chaya. Even if only for herself to know.

Many of us find ourselves in this boat. Ronald at work; Reuven for the Jewish name. Rosalyn to the world; Rifva for the Hebrew. But no one in our daily life much knows we are Reuven or Rifka.

And then I began to reflect more deeply still.

What does it mean that I don’t like my “real” name, Eileen, and that I do like my hidden name, Chaya. My secret self. I now understand that being Jewish and American, a minority in a world where one’s parents and grandparents might have hoped to keep safe a child they were naming only one year after the horror of the Holocaust had ended, I was given an American name, not only because “that’s the way things are done,” but to, in a way, protect me. To help me, in effect, pass.

And when I think about it, what I don’t like about the name Eileen is just that. In a way, I feel I am passing. I have never felt like an Eileen. I feel it has no connection to me. Eileen is an Irish name. I love the Irish, but I am not from County Cork.

So, in a way, I am me on two levels. Eileen is my phony, safe-so-you-can-pass name. That’s the public life I lead. And Chaya. Chaya is my real name, and the real me.

In fact, my full name is Chaya Fageh. Chaya for my grandfather’s mother. Fageh for my grandmother’s mother. My grandparents never called me Chaya or Chaya Fageh. They called me Mammala, little mother. For years, even as a little girl, as I spent hours at their nearby home, Friday night dinners, weekend sleepovers, listening with my grandfather to “The Lone Ranger,” playing jacks on the kitchen floor, I knew who they meant when they called “mammala.” They were calling me. Not until I was an older girl did I realize the name meant I was to them the incarnation of their long-gone mothers — now, in a way, as I carried their names, returned to them through me. Once I got the picture, I was so delighted. These big, grown-up people calling me, little me, “their mother.” With what love and warm affection did they call me to them as “mammala.” And now that they are gone, with what warmth and affection do I remember how beloved I felt in the bosom of that house, that family.

When I was growing up, most of the girls, and that included the Jewish girls, had names like Barbara, Linda, Susan and Carol. Eileen was so out there in left field. Not in the pack. I wanted a name like the rest of the crowd. (Not to mention all the ways people get it wrong. Back then and still today. Ellen. Elaine. Irene.) My mother tells me she named me Eileen because it was a co-worker’s name that she liked. When I tell this story, I always end by pointing out that this Eileen was Italian, and I say as my punch line, “That’s America to me.”

When my mother was born, her parents named her Sylvia. When she was able, she changed it to Shirley. Her sister was tagged with the name Fannie. When she was able, she changed it to Frances.

I have tried and never been able to imagine what American first name I would have given myself if I could have picked my own. Nothing ever seems to hit.

But with a sigh of relief I am glad to realize I am happy to be Chaya Fageh.

Even if it’s only me who knows.

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist turned independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for “ABC-TV’s Lifetime Magazine,” she is the author of “Rachel and the Upside Down Heart,” co-producer of the films “My Grandfather’s House” and “Luboml: My Heart Remembers,” and a columnist for The Digital Journalist. She can be reached at douglas-steinman.com.

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