My israeli family
History of my Israeli family
My Israeli grandmother Esther - I think it's at her Bat Mitzvah. And that might be her sister.
My grandmother Esther with her mother Margalit and Geula. Check date.
My grandfather Shmuel (with hat), great-grandfather (with fez) and Goula with her father. Need to check date.
RMIT Student library, Melbourne, 6 May 1999
I sit down at the microfiche machine, fish the film out of the envelope and place it under the lens.
A long line of Jewish names appears on the screen, arranged alphabetically: relatives, pilgrims, refugees to a rock-hard land that will test, temper and bruise them. A land that has carried them and their ancestors through hell, shaped them from afar, stamped them with hope, marked them as a target for 3000 years. Twenty-eight thousand lives, immortalised in tiny writing, on six pieces of blue film.
I'd come to this library via the Internet. Bored at work two weeks earlier, I'd been looking through Jewish web sites and had stumbled on a genealogical group called Avotaynu, which invited visitors to type in their family name. I'd entered the name my father had told me : A-T-T-I-A: a name belonging to both Arab and Jewish families of North African origin, and the name of my Israeli family before they moved to Israel. The search came up positive - it was listed on the Avotaynu records.
Encouraged, I tried my family's Israeli name, Netanel (servant of God in Hebrew) and, again, the search results were positive. Both names were listed under Database C, described as:
A list of 28,000 people, mainly Jews, who changed their names during the British Mandate period of Palestine between 1920 and 1948. Taken from the Palestine Gazette. Microfiche, US$15.
Excited, I took out my credit card and punched the numbers into the online order form.
* * *
I sit at the microfiche machine, a photocopier whirring away in the background. I move the glass slide and scan the column marked Old Surname, thinking about the statement my dad had casually made: "Yes, the family come here. They make new name because they want to be more like the Jew."
A, Ad, Ag. I try to remember the story - did they change the name before or after the 1948 war? I think David said it was afterwards, but I'm not sure. At - Attia. ThreeAttias . I scan across to the New Surname column. No Netanel. Pity.
I decide to try Netanel in the alphabetical list of New Surnames. I scroll down the list; so many names, so many stories. I recall what I'd read about the Zionists encouraging the Jewish immigrants of Palestine to Hebracize their names, to shake off the old cloaks, become born again as Jews of a new order: victimless, strong, secular. And tonight, on the screen, all this unfolds before me: Mindel Brandstatter from Austria becomes Rinah Mokadi from Haifa, emigration date 1937. Abraham Machhadi from Iraq becomes Abraham Levy. Ernst George Gross from Palestine emerges as Schlomo Ben David. That's me, I realise with a start - Ben David, "son of David", that's me, reborn, sticking my head into a strange, colourful world, a world creaking and whirling with the weight of centuries.
I reach N, Na, Ne - there it is, Netanel. One entry: one Aharon Netanel from Jaffa, whose previous name had been Aharon Shostakovsky before he changed it on February 1, 1923. Jaffa. I picture the dusty Arab city, the traffic speeding past its crumbling white buildings, the garbage dumps, the patchwork of old stone houses and empty lots. I hear the muezzin calls from mosques looking out to sea, the restaurant run by the grandson of the man who served my great-grandfather back in, yes, around 1923.
But Shostakovsky? From what my dad and aunt had told me, my baker great-grandfather had emigrated from Spain, not Russia. Still, Jewish names always travel with their mobile owners, wrap themselves around families like shawls and mark them as Jews wherever they end up.
I glance back at the microfiche. Next up, Rut, Shaul and Tova Netaneli from Holon have cast off their pre-1944 identities of Ruth, Pavel and Gerta Schneider. I'm confused. I give up and go home.
* * *
Five months pass before I stumble on the rudimentary family tree I'd sketched in a small notebook while still in Israel. Back then, I'd been trying to make sense of the dislocated genaelogical snippets I'd received from various members of my family.
I look up the tree. There he is, the father of my grandmother Esther. His name was Michael; he moved from Spain to Morocco to Palestine; he was tall and blue-eyed; he owned a bakery on the border of Jaffa and Tel Aviv; his wife was Oshra, whom he married in Morocco when she was only 12 years old. This was not Aharon.
I look across the tree. There are blank spaces for the names of my grandfather's parents. Under one space I have written: Money lender. Killed in Yafo (Jaffa) by Arab who couldn't pay $ back. Throat cut. Parents from Lyon. Daughter took off with $ after death. Two brothers (DN's dad & bro) left alone. Under the other space: DN's grandma. Killed also. Parents ????.
Now I wonder if it was Aharon Shostavovsky who, on a windy winter's day, wandered down to the British Records Office in his beard and flapping robe, and changed his name to Aharon Netanel; if it was he who, after adopting a new name and beginning a new life in the Holy Land, met his demise on the sharp end of a knife.