Growing up, one of my favorite TV shows was the popular sitcom Cheers, starring Ted Danson and Shelley Long. The show’s theme song had the refrain:
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
So why has this song suddenly resurfaced in my mind?
One mundane morning this week, I was filling out a form with an Israeli appliance technician. He asked me my name and I answered, “Yonit.” The technician responded, “Oh, like Yonit Levy.” Yonit Levy is a famous newscaster in Israel who is known by just about every Israeli. I smiled and said, “It is so nice to live in a country where people recognize my name!”
For the first thirty years of my life hardly anyone recognized my name. Just to clarify, my name is pronounced Yo-NEET. In America I was called “Yawn-it,” “Why-nit,” and my personal favorite, “Unique,” by well-meaning individuals trying to pronounce my very unfamiliar name. Ultimately I unofficially adopted the more American “Janet” to use in situations where I didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness of my own given name.
Going into gift shops as a kid, I never found key chains or mugs with my name on them. There were plenty of Jessicas and Emilys and Amandas. But never a “Yonit.” I was well aware that my name, and therefore my identity, was not completely in sync with my surroundings. And although thankfully I never ever experienced any discrimination in my life because of my name or faith, I knew deep down that I was not in the place where I truly belonged.
The Israeli technician could tell from my accent that Hebrew was not my first language and so he asked how I got my modern Israeli Hebrew name. I explained that I was named after my great-grandmother Taibel who was murdered in the Holocaust. Taibel is a Yiddish derivative of “Toba,” which means “dove.” My American parents, who were also staunch Zionists, wanted to modernize and Hebraize my name, so they chose “Yonit,” itself a derivative of the Hebrew “yona,” which means “dove.” So that’s how I got my name.
But the technician was not satisfied. “You were born in America and your parents were, too?” he asked. I confirmed that to be true.
“And your grandparents were from Europe?” he asked. I assured him that was true as well.
“But you look Israeli!” the man insisted. I explained to him that while some in my family are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, I got the dark hair and eye genes more in line with a Middle-Eastern look. “Anyway,” I said, “we all came from the same place.” “Yes,” he agreed. “I guess you are right.”
While it may have baffled Eliran, the Israeli-born technician with the Israeli “look” and the Israeli name, there is a broader perspective. I am part of the miracle of the ingathering of exiles that God promised more than forty times in the Bible thousands of years ago. I have come home, along with millions of other Jews from all over the world.
We are white, black, and brown.
We have blue eyes and brown.
We are red-haired, blonde, and brunette.
We come from India, Ethiopia, America, Europe, Russia, Australia, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the globe. “Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back,” we’re told in Deuteronomy 30:4. And He has gathered us and brought us back.
I am so grateful for the hospitality and love shown to me by my birth country. But I am also grateful that I have come home – to a place where everybody knows my name and they are so glad I came. Where we share a common past in which our troubles were all the same. And where our destiny will also be the same, as our scattered nation comes under one familiar name: Israel.